The first time I crossed the line separating the men and women’s prayer sections I was elated and terrified of being caught. It was like walking down into a dark basement to pick up a jar of pickles from cold storage. Slow, tentative steps gauge just how safe it is in the dark — but the second you turn your back, you can feel unseen eyes pricking your neck and long, icy fingers chasing you, ready to grab you and pull you into the depths if you falter for just a moment while racing back up the stairs. Escaping that which lurks in the deep, you pant heavily, pickles in hand, adrenaline still pumping, thankful for having escaped.
I actually think I tiptoed in.
It was an experience of opposites: I felt exposed, yet giddy as a sweet tooth in a candy store — I wanted to linger, but my mind rushed me just in case someone saw my trespass. Being so close to the minbar was like I had entered a sacred, forbidden space. Forbidden for me.
God was closer here, than in my regular spot way in the back of the room. It was cleaner, brighter and for once I could really admire the beautiful pieces of Islamic art up close. Even the books were newer and the full carpet was softer and more lush than our thin, mismatched rugs — I wiggled my toes. Is that a crate of water bottles? Ooh, incense! So that’s what the whiteboard says. Hey, what are they doing with boxes of chocolate and cookies?
I heard a noise behind me and like a frightened rabbit, flew back to the woman’s section with my heart racing. That was my first real experience of mosque inequities. I was elated as if I had gotten away with something naughty, and yet, saddened by the obvious differences between the male and female spaces. It was as if the mosque was telling me, “men are welcome here, you, not so much.” After that, I couldn’t help but acknowledge just how second class I felt at the mosque.
The second time was at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. When we went, part of the men’s section was cordoned off for tourists, presumably non-Muslim tourists — allowing space for people to pray undisturbed and for people to get just a little closer to the ornate wooden carvings, historical calligraphies, and gold embossed decor (things may be different now, anyone care to elaborate?). I went to pray at the back in women’s section and watched aghast, as men moved freely throughout the entire mosque while tour guides kept their groups in hushed pockets behind a velvet rope. I sat in my section, bored and yearning to get closer to the gorgeous architecture. The Hubby was taking a detail shot of the minbar when I said, “oh forget this,” and walked right into the men’s section to join him.
Both times nothing bad happened. No lighting bolts. No irate imam pushing me back into my corner. And yet it’s a given in many mosques, that men and women’s spaces are largely impenetrable (although, I’ve experienced more men wandering, lingering or arguing their way into the sister’s section more often than women moving into the men’s section. Often they’re chased out with a good chappal smack). It’s unfortunately that in some mosques the keys to Islamic education, direct access to (male) scholars, history, literature, and chocolate are one sided.
When entering the prayer space, it’s easy to fall into assumed roles and positions used during the prayer — be it women praying side-by-side with men, in a separate room, in the rows directly behind men, cordoned off by a barrier, or at the far end of a hall. It’s like choosing “your seat” in the first class of the semester. But there is nothing barring women from entering “male space” when prayer is not in session. We have every right to be granted access to these spaces.
What I’d like to know, from both my male and female readers, is have you ever “crossed the line” and how did it make you feel?