Muslim women call for male allies to step up in UK mosques
Muslim men are not doing enough to accommodate Muslim women in prayer spaces. Mosques usually have segregated worship places. Sometimes women will pray behind men in the same space. More often, mosques will have two separate rooms, with the men in the main prayer hall and the women in an alternative space. Based on this setup, mosques are gendered spaces, and women’s use is conditional upon the availability of space. And in some cases, mosques make no room for women at all.
As per the latest statistics (compiled in 2017), there are approximately 1,795 mosques across the UK. Of these, 28% do not offer space for women. In most cases, when mosques do offer space, women are met with restricted access and substandard conditions. For decades, the onus has been on women to effect change – but there’s only so much they can do. It’s time for men to step up.
By and large, Muslim women have been presented with the impression that it’s better for them to pray at home. While this view isn’t universal, it certainly has an impact on how women feel about attending their local mosque. The belief comes from a hadith – a record of traditions by the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) – describing a preference for women to worship at home. Yet, many Muslim women feel that has been used as an excuse to justify the current status quo.
Tebussum Rashid, deputy CEO at Action for Race Equality, notes that she herself has fallen into this mindset:
There’s a lovely little mosque near where I work in King’s Cross and there’s absolutely no space for women. I think to myself, the building has probably been established as a mosque many years ago for men and now, there’s probably not enough space to expand for men, never mind, women. I know that’s not an excuse, but in my head, I justified it that way – just to keep myself calm.
Likewise, Nafisah Atcha, organic content executive at Embryo Digital, suggests how this view has become the default way of thinking:
I think that perception hinders women’s access to mosques. We forget that Allah has allowed women to pray from home because we have other duties. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should be disregarded from the mosque community altogether.
Other hadiths believe women should not be prevented from the mosque. Gender equality campaigner Julie Siddiqui says:
It’s incredible how ingrained this idea has become – that it’s better for women to pray at home. That is a mindset. That is a whole way of thinking that is telling people that somehow women’s prayer is less important.
During lockdown, it became overly apparent that Muslim men’s worship needs were being prioritised. A number of UK mosques were closed to women for coronavirus (Covid-19) health and safety reasons. Aasifa Usmani, programme manager for the Faith and Communities Team at Standing Together, notes how the pandemic left no option for women:
Women’s spaces in mosques closed down to allow a wider space for men. It just shows that consulting us is not really considered important.
For Muslim women, spaces prove impermanent and fluctuate without their input.
More than physical space
However, Usmani also noted that “spaces are not the be-all and end-all”. Even when spaces are created, poor conditions and an uninviting atmosphere discourage women from attending the mosque.
Siddiqui co-founded Open My Mosque, a campaign to highlight and speak out about inequalities in UK mosques. She describes how one visit to a mosque forced Muslim men to take notice:
One of the male trustees had literally walked through the women’s entrance and found all sorts of things wrong, There were light bulbs out, doors weren’t opening properly, you know, all these things. He was shocked and a bit embarrassed to be quite honest. Of course, he was a good guy, but actually physically walking the route opened his eyes, because as far as they were concerned, the women’s section had lovely carpets and lots of light. But there’s stuff that goes wrong, that they didn’t even realise, and actually would not be allowed to continue to happen in the men’s area
While the inadequate conditions have been known to Muslim women for decades, it’s not something that’s obvious to men.
For Rashid, women can themselves contribute towards the uncomfortable feelings she experiences. She recalls how she was told to put on an abaya (a loose-fitting full-length robe) even though she was already dressed modestly for prayer.
If women don’t have the same values – supporting, empowering and encouraging, then we’re not gonna have enough women wanting to go into the mosque. There’s an underside of judgement that other women are putting on each other about what is right and wrong. We need to focus on prayer rather than the micro-details like clothing, variations in praying and so forth.
A community issue
It’s not easy for Muslim women to stand publicly against injustice. On 5 September 2021, in response to two young women being thrown out of the Soho Islamic Centre, Siddiqui and the Open My Mosque team observed prayers outside the mosque. Despite the backlash, Siddiqui received hundreds of messages from British Muslim women who had experienced the same.
To sort of openly shout about this stuff is not always easy. And it’s not always comfortable. But you keep your intentions clear and you remember why you’re doing it. You hear the reactions from people that are very sincere that no one else sees apart from me.
There’s a stigma that if Muslim women speak up on these issues they’re contributing to Islamophobia. Siddiqui adds:
We all talk about Islamophobia and the bad stuff that’s happening against us, but when it comes to our own prejudice and our own inequality and our own injustice to each other. No one wants to talk about that stuff, because that’s different.
We have to try and push, knock at the door, literally, find our way in, but also raise these real experiences, tell the stories, do the videos, you know, take the photos, share them online. That’s how it’s done. Now, almost to a certain extent, a little bit of embarrassment works that I think works, frankly speaking, whether people like it or not, you know, that’s how these things change.
Although sermons are usually topical and issue-based, some Muslim women would love to hear about issues that are women-centric or concern other marginalised groups. Rashid says:
… it’d be great if there were more women-specific topics like family life or menopause. I’d love to be able to kind of ask questions or listen or get some comfort. And I know there are women out there that are learned and knowledgeable about these things, but they don’t have the spaces created for them. You know, it’d be great if there was a sermon for women, by women.
Whilst sermons are usually performed by men, introducing female speakers enables a sanctuary space for women.
Likewise, Usmani says:
But even when there are spaces, you feel that there is a lack of inclusivity like in the sermons, for example, when men talk no matter how well-meaning they are, they experience a very masculine experience. And sometimes it can become very, very monotonous.
Usmani also notes how some mosques fail to be a safe space for minorities:
The Muslim LGBTQI community could feel isolated and stigmatised and considered “sinful”. It is important that we validate and hear their concerns and not ostracise them. These communities have been grappling with their struggles and are often ostracised by their families and could often come across as open hostility by communities and families. Mosques should be a safe space for them to get emotional support and not to other them, Ramadhan and Eid could be very isolating for them.
Change from the top
Through a top-down approach, the community can work together to shift the current mindset. Rashid says:
At the governance level, there need to be more women.
These positions have to be more than hollow gestures, as Rashid says:
Those already in leadership must have the intention and commitment for more inclusivity, Trustees also need to have etiquette around some of the conversations, you know, not only from a religious point of view but from a human point of view, as well. What does accessibility actually mean? And it’s not just about the physical space – why are those spaces sidelined? Why do we have to go past the bins to get there? Why are women made to feel uncomfortable, because we have to pass the men and they might be staring at us? That’s their problem, not ours, all of that, and I want to change to behaviours and mindsets of men. And that can start at the leadership level, first and foremost. And then through that, through sermons, through behaviours, the ripple effect has to happen. There’s no point in having those spaces if the attitudes make us feel unwelcome.
Siddiqui agrees that more women must be at the table. However, transparency is required in the recruitment system. She said:
It’s become so common and I’ve seen it locally that, even when some of the women trustees have come forward but they happen to be related to the committee members, So how much of a challenge are these women going to give or how many of their ideas are going to be heard?
Mosques need to go beyond lip-service and recognise women’s demands.
Cambridge Central Mosque is one mosque with gender inclusivity at its heart. As one of the very few mosques which allow men and women to pray in the same prayer hall, Shahida Rahman tells us they’re breaking down barriers:
It’s open to everybody, you know, regardless of what school of thought that you follow, it’s for all communities. And we do get asked the question, ‘is it a Shia mosque or a Sunni mosque?’ It’s open to everyone. It’s a prayer space. And it’s also a community space as well.
The physical space in this particular mosque has been adapted to fit women’s needs. A mother and children room allows worshippers to join the prayers, separated by glass doors which prevent any noises from reaching the main prayer hall.
It’s evident that Muslim women have been spearheading this campaign for decades. Only through male allyship can we collectively raise the bar by recognising gender inequality as a community issue.
Featured image via R Haworth – Wikimedia, resized to 770×403 pixels under licence CC BY-SA 3.0
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