A friend just floated me this article on Reverts and their Muslim Communities, with the good intention of reminding us of the importance of mosque participation. The article describes how isolation from the Muslim community can eventually erode one’s participation, belief system, and eventual connection to Islam. Accordingly, “Islam is not a religion to be practiced in isolation—it demands community.” What’s keeping people from leaving the religion is the support of other Muslims, and so converts especially should strive to involve themselves in the mosque culture.

Mosques as well have a social responsibility to retain adherents. Mosques, as the article argues, can offer the positive environment needed to support new and returning Muslims, create fruitful communities, answer religious questions, and help foster one’s involvement and feelings of belonging and devotion to God. But only if the mosque community is focused on outreach and the retainment of members — through community potlucks, book clubs, play dates, iftaar dinners, convert-oriented lectures, outreach volunteers and Q&A sessions with the imam.

This article did not resonate at all with me.

I don’t go to the mosque. And even if I did, I wouldn’t be welcome. I’m a woman — normally there’s no space for me, and if there is space, it’s not very welcoming. I speak English — and while it is a language of privilege, I’m excluded when lectures are ONLY offered in Arabic, Urdu, or when the lecturer preaches only to men. My hijab isn’t traditional — this becomes a barrier for others who think I’m not an engaged or a properly practicing Muslim.

When I do go to the mosque, I either go to the uber-progressive centre — which rarely has events geared to my interest, or I pop into the mainstream, mini-barrier mosque — which keeps me segregated during the programs I’d like to be taking.

So like many others, I’ve left the mosque and have decided to create a community of Muslims for myself. I have my list of available scholars on Facebook and iPhone, learned colleagues who work with me to help offer programs to the community, a wide selection of brilliant online commenters and bloggers (I love you all), and a group of mothers who get together for playdates, lunches and halaqas.

There are brilliant mosques out there where women are active, engaged and who are driving the community. But the above article wasn’t written for them. It’s written for the droves of converts who have slowly become dissatisfied with the Muslim community, and for mosque administrations who are not well equipped at meeting the needs of a diverse congregation. A pot luck, lecture, or face time with the imam are not going to entice me, because each will be segregated, or will really be geared toward encouraging male converts into the community, because I’ll be stuck in a balcony trying to avoid receiving the disapproving look from fellow congregants who think it’s best for me to be at home.

No, what mosques need to do first is to change attitudes, create positive space for women, and then concentrate on outreach programs.

This is exactly what Aisha al-Adawiya of Women In Islam, Inc. suggests in the brilliant publication, Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers: Working Together to Reclaim Our Heritage. Written in 2005 as a call to action for mosque leaders to make the mosque the centre of the community by fostering equality for all, the study looks at the traditional role of women and men in Islam, and drives home the point that the majority of mosques fall very short of the equality and inclusion demanded by Islamic standards of social engagement.

The study bases its framework on the Masjid Study Project — a census by CAIR, ISNA, and ICNA of 416 randomly sampled mosques in the US. What it found was that: women felt excluded from education opportunities because they couldn’t hear or see the scholar, or were barred from participation altogether; the untapped resources of professionally trained, young professional Muslims go unused by many mosques who rely on an “Old Boys Club”; qualified women scholars are not invited to speak or become role models and mentors; women interested in converting are AFRAID to enter the mosque; when women do participate in the mosque, their roles are relegated to cooks and cleaning staff; women’s ideas and suggestions are ignored; mothers reported that they would attend more frequently if there were child-friendly spaces; and many feel that expectations of modest dress are not applied equally for men as they are for women.

Success of a community is not measured by how many people attend a pot luck — especially if only half are included. For me, success would be for every mosque to have a copy of this study made available to every member. To have this as required reading for every community leader before climbing the mimbar — and for community leaders to proactively implement the study’s suggestion:

Each masjid must gradually but in a determined fashion modify its architecture, governance, and programs to be inclusive of women and children. The leadership at each masjid must be proactive in initiating and supporting these changes.

Changes that include the Full. Participation. Of. Women.

This publication deserves to be read. Read it. Pass it along. Contact Women in Islam, Inc. and inquire about workshops for making your local masjid or Islamic center more women-friendly. This is how women, disaffected men, youth and children can start reclaiming the mosque.

Some points from the publication:

A Call to Action

  • There is a recognized need to revitalize the masjid as a center of the community. During the time of the Prophet, the masjid was a place where all were welcome, all participated, and all contributed regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity and status.
  • While some mosques are inclusive, the trend towards inclusion is not as widespread as the standard demanded by Islam. There are confirmed reports that mosques relegate women to small, dingy, secluded, airless and segregated quarters with their children. Some prevent women from entering and discriminate against women by denying them the rights of membership, voting, or holding office.
  • Now is the time for community leaders to seize the opportunity to create vibrant mosques and Islamic centers that honor the contributions of both women and men. Leaders must promote and demand a higher level of competence in the serving of all functions associated with running professional Islamic institutions, which must include the full participation of women.

The Current Situation for Women’s Access and Participation

  • The majority of those who regularly participate in mosques are men. The Masjid Study Project showed that on average, across most mosques, 75% of regular participants are male.
  • While 50% of mosques report that women have served at one time or another on their governing or executive boards, a sizeable proportion of mosques still prevent women from serving on their executive boards (31%). Nineteen percent said they allowed women to serve, but did not have any women actually serving on a board for the past five years.
  • The practice of women praying behind a curtain or in another room has increased. In 1994, 52% of mosques reported that women make prayers behind a partition or in another room, but that practice was adopted by 66% of mosques in 2000.

What You Can Do

  • A masjid that is open to women’s access and participation is a masjid that welcomes present and future generations of Muslims.
  • If your masjid already does not do so, make dignified accommodations for women to attend Friday services, and make available designated space for women in the main prayer hall.
  • Make sure that shared and separate spaces are clean, comfortable, and aesthetically pleasing. Encourage men, women, and children to participate in the upkeep of spaces.
  • Invite appropriate women scholars and community activists to give seminars at the masjid. Invite women to organize community programs, introduce speakers, offer opening and closing dua or prayer during educational programs, moderate panels, and direct question and answer sessions.
  • Ensure that women are represented on governing boards, and if your masjid is already doing so, collectively strive for greater equality and quality of representation.
  • Advocate for and be a leader in implementing women’s rights to vote in matters that affect the masjid and the community as a whole. Stand up for and implement women’s right to have official membership in the masjid. Your active support and commitment to this issue will set an example for other leaders, and help others take up the cause.
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