The ongoing, drawn-out, oft-repeated, groaning-oh-not-this-again dialogue regarding child-free public spaces is well, ongoing, oft-repeated and leaves me groaning as much as I do for debates on banning the niqaab.

Specific to these debates is the notion that when we exclude children, we invariably exclude their primary caregiver: mommy. So what do you do when excluding children means excluding women from religious worship?

This article by Shehnaz Toorawa found its way into my in-box this morning. I was actually surprised to find it, because Muslim women are always talking about it, but I’ve rarely ever seen anything done or written about helping create child-friendly mosques.

Imagine a masjid (mosque) where the imam pauses during salah (prayer) and the entire congregation waits so a toddler can finish his game. Imagine a masjid where an imam leads salah while he holds a child in his arms. Imagine a masjid where the cry of a baby changes the imam’s intention and shortens the prayer for the entire congregation.

You’d think that a communal religion would help foster child-centric spaces in the main place of worship. There ARE child friendly spaces, such as the basketball courts, classrooms, kitchens, and community centers that are common fixtures at the mosque. But, not in the musallah — the actual place of worship.

Islamic history is rife with examples of the Prophet playing with children, allowing kids to ride his back and hit him during prayer, as well as lessons of patience and love when it comes to dealing with children.

But often in the North American mosques I’ve seen (I have RARELY seen babies or children in Kuwaiti mosques. They’re usually with the nanny outside):

Do we witness these scenarios in our masjids today? We see a child grabbed and told to “sit down and be quiet!” because he was running between the rows. Or we hear “sister, can you please go outside” because her baby is crying. Or we read signs that say “No children in masjid area”.

This description by Shehnaz is mild to say the least. I’m slightly dreading going to the mosque this Ramadan for evening prayers, simply because I know I’ll be shuffled into the “mother’s room” — in our mosque a walled off area just to the left of the main prayer space (some mosques don’t even have a section for women, let alone an extra room for mothers). The view of the imam is blocked off by a wall, and we’re cut off from the women’s section by (seemingly) noise-proof glass. It gets hot, stuffy, and NOISY, as every crying 2-year-old and hyper 4-year-old are contained with their mothers (boring!) and a vast, open, carpeted space for them to run around lays before them… tempting them. So we usually get 3 or 4 children pounding on the glass, begging, tantruming to be let out so they can go play with their friends, or with their daddy who gets to sit up at the front (fun!).

Yeah, like I want to be praying with that all around me. It’s pandemonium. And not a pandemonium which celebrates children as God’s creation and blessing. From what I hear, this happens in Christian Orthodox services, where a child running in-between the incense burners is all a beautiful part of the service (well, with some complaints I’m sure). But at a mosque, the prayer space becomes more like detention for mothers who dare to bring noisy kids. And the more busy the mosque, the quicker mothers are escorted to the back, basement or are just scowled at.

Any age of child really is fair game for the detention room. Essentially anyone from 0-14 who feels the urge to run around. You MIGHT be able to get away with your infant-6 month old in the main prayer space, as long as you’re quiet, and leave your car seat or stroller, diaper bag, lunch, water, etc, in the car. But the second that baby peeps or learns to crawl, watch out. You might get banned.

But this is just for a minority of infants. Because some people LOVE a smiling baby, and only then is it OK to have them laying in front of you as you pray in congregation. But if your toddler is crying because he can’t distinguish you from all of the other hijabi and abaya wearing women, goodbye! You are the weakest link.

This really highlights the… I don’t even know what to call it. Disparity? Complete unfairness? Prejudice? Garbage that women have to deal with in (some) mosques. That we’re shunned until our babies are old enough to pray and only then can we rejoin the community of women? Until then we’re punished in the baby room, unable to concentrate on our prayers and are effectively removed from the community? Some would say yes. Some would say, “That’s why you should stay at home.”

Quite often you will hear announcements addressing both fathers and mothers to keep control of their children. That the musallah area is not a playground (yeah,… Ok. Explain that to a 3 year old. “Here’s a huge, wide open, carpeted auditorium. Let’s add all your friends, and the excitement of a fun family outing. NOW. Sit still. Shut up.”). I once heard an imam in Kingston say that if kids cannot be controlled, they should be left outside or at home. And I’ve heard an imam in Oakville berate the congregation for 15 minutes because the kids were so rambunctious outside in the basketball court, that property was damaged and the police were on their way. Talk about a captive audience. But if you can’t be inside or outside, you must therefore just stay at home.

Eryn and Baba reading the Qur’an together at home.

It might be all fine and well for mosques to publicly address both parents. But at bottom, really, it’s the mother who has to deal with it and be excluded. Why is that?

Where is the family section at the mosque? Why is there no real onus put upon (or offered to) men? As Shehnaz puts it:

After a long day at home with noisy kids and dirty dishes, where should these mothers go to learn, socialize, give their kids a chance to run around, and get a desperate change of scenery? If not in the masjid, they may end up in malls where their children are exposed to vulgar music, scanty attire and tempting advertisements.

Our masjids should be the community centres that give mothers and their kids a chance to build wholesome friendships, absorb weekly reminders, and discuss their needs, whether it’s for a Muslim babysitter or a healthy recipe.

The mosque could very well be a woman’s only place to socialize, take a break, rejuvenate her mind with adult conversation, oh, I dunno, connect with God and maybe learn something about her religion? As an aside, I disagree with Shehnaz on the vulgar music and scanty attire front. Kids will learn that at the mosque too. How they deal with it is really up to the parents.

Also, she offers simply 5 suggestions for women to get out of detention:

  • gently correct children
  • offer to help parents
  • hold reminder sessions of mosque rules
  • create child-friendly facilities
  • open a parent’s room (babysitting facilities)

Meh. Ok. I admire this woman. She holds an education degree, a degree in Islamic Law and homeschools. Brilliant. But I really feel like her suggestions fall short of the mark. I understand that she was writing for so maybe there was a space limit (the article also appears in their e-newsletter), and maybe just maybe she was trying to be apologetic for the mosques who ARE indeed doing something, and just didn’t want to criticize our imams too openly. Also, these are easily implemented — so mosques could make changes without reinventing the wheel. I get that.

But really, how much will her suggestions help women who already feel excluded? The women who no longer come to the mosque because they’ve been turned away, or they just don’t want to deal with the headache and the judgments. What about the women who are attending the mosque with their babies, and feel like crap because they’re stuck in the baby room. Or those who have just given up on the mosque as a place for spiritual connection and use the baby room as their private social hour (and oh, they do.. which can be just as annoying as a screaming toddler when you’re trying to hear a sermon).

It’s great to get the community involved. It takes a village to raise a child, right? So yes, if you see me struggling with Eryn, I’d love some help. Please help me. You want to remind parents of mosque rules? How about reminding EVERYONE? I love child-friendly facilities — it is a rare mosque that has nursing rooms or even change tables in the bathrooms. Many mosques have the sisters’ section on the second floor, with no elevator access — making it near impossible for people with disabilities, our aging population and women with strollers to attend services.

But opening a parent’s room will eventually just become another women-with-babies-in-detention section, or will greatly disadvantage the women who “volunteer” to do the babysitting. Also, doesn’t keeping the kids in babysitting when at the mosque exclude them from participating in spiritual life? They are valued and important parts of the Muslim community and our lives. There is no need to keep them locked in a room.

It’s therefore important that we get mothers (er… Women. Lots and lots of women, feminists, conservatives, widowers… Just women and supporters of women. Instead of the token “sisters’ representative” or the imam’s wife.) on administration boards, and that this issue is stressed to mosque congregations. Hell, women need to be involved in the planning and building design of new mosques.

Parents need to teach children that there is a time an place to run around. That when the sermon begins, and most certainly the prayer, they need to calm down and just take a 5 minute time out to relax. How they deal with this is up to the parents — but lets not keep women out of the prayer just because Khaled is having a meltdown. Couple this masjid adab (loosely, mosque behaviour) with fathers who step up and take care of their children while at the mosque and with well-informed and intentioned imams, who actually care that there is a crying baby, and who will speed up the prayer instead of ignoring the cries and then berating the parents.

Until mosque administrations stop solely associating childcare with women’s work, there will never be a family section and we will continue to be in detention.