Men and women pray side-by-side at Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia

It was a terrifying and thrilling experience the first time I crossed the line and tip-toed my way into the men’s section of the mosque. The area was brighter and cleaner — and books containing authentic religious knowledge gleamed in the sun. There was no broken stereo system, no screaming children, no dusty carpets and no barrier. I kept looking over my shoulder hoping that no one would notice me. Once I grabbed the book I wanted, I flew back to my section of the mosque — heart pounding, relieved that I wasn’t caught. I was completely paranoid, but left that space feeling like God was closer in the men’s section.

So I almost understand how the bloggers at 30mosques.com felt when they trespassed into the women’s section of the Little Rock, Arkansas mosque. Uncovering the mystique behind women’s hushed, gossiping voices in the back corners of mosques, entering into a space denied to men and exposing the exotic and colourful “religious garb” that hide women away from sight was just too delicious to ignore.

For three years now 30mosques has endeavored to visit 30 mosques in the 30 days of Ramadan — sharing the variety of culture, practice and people within Muslim America. It’s a brilliant project with some truly inspiring stories. Presumably, the visit to the Arkansas mosque was not motivated out of a desire to champion women’s rights within mosque culture. More likely, is that they listened to the many suggestions from fans and followers of the project to include some female voices.

To accomplish this, they felt they should enter a women-only space. After admitting to male biases and limited experiential scope, or “poorly deconstructing male privilege,” as one tweet so aptly described, the piece goes on to discuss how a woman surprised them by asking them to leave her safe space. Then, with some discussion over permissions for taking pictures, visibly upset women, and a final “go back to your own section” it’s claimed that this is only how far men will be able to get within the secret and hidden world of mosque culture. That other than a few pictures and limited discussions with the more “liberal ladies,” men are excluded from truly knowing what the women are up to behind the barrier. And it’s not even their right to be there in the first place.

Aww, *pouty face*

But the truth of the matter is that men are completely privileged in their freedom of movement within the mosque. So it’s no wonder that the comments section has exploded into an intense debate on gender politics affecting the Muslim American community and the complexities of mosque culture.

It’s unfortunate that the 30mosque writers decided to use the Arkansas mosque as their platform for hearing women’s voices. We’ll never know what kinds of social programs the mosque runs or if there are steps being made to encourage more women to participate in the main prayer room. The writers arbitrarily chose the mosque and determined the outcome of the story by jumping into the sister’s section and forcing the women to take a position.

This post represents SO much of what is wrong about mosque culture today.  What is the point of a “women’s section” at a mosque if men could just come in at any old time?!…  A man can stroll into a women’s section and take pictures, but a woman is shamed, and physically thrown out if it were to occur the other way …  this story is just about a guy who wanders into a wonderland of dupattas and gets scolded, and not really about what is like to be a woman praying in a “women’s side.”
- Asiah

I find it striking how separate spaces in mosques far from increasing the respect for women, actually seem to lead to decreased recognition, understanding, and concern for the other half of the community, out of sight, out of mind.
- ify

It’s interesting that amidst the Qur’an quoting and hadith hurling justifying the need for separate sections, the discussion also includes comments of women excluding other women through anti-child bigotry, mother blaming, father absenteeism and anti-breastfeeding.

No one wants to eat on the floor while a million kids are stepping in your food with their dirty feet. For years we have been unable to hear/listen to the Eid khutba because the “aunties” and their crazed children are shrieking and talking during the khutbah.
- Micheletariq75

I don’t want to watch a woman breast-feed while I’m eating my iftar, she can cover herself with a blanket, as she would do at the mall.
- Habeeba

A lot of effort has gone into constructing separate spaces within the mosque. As I’ve said many, many times before, gender segregation in the mosque encourages the disempowerment of women, denies women easy access to religious eduction and community participation and absolves them from holding power. And that’s precisely what this article and discussion boils down to: power and accommodation.

The female narrative, even among women, is rarely considered because it becomes packaged according to the perspective and power held by others. A woman requesting seclusion and a safe space in the mosque must be oppressed, while a woman demanding equal access to the front of the prayer lines has been tainted by western feminism.

It’s a delicate balance because there are some women who require a safe and comfortable space in the mosque — to take off their hijabs or breastfeed freely. Just like there are some men who really believe that seeing a woman within the mosque can result in a heteronormative transgression of chastity. One result of segregation and mosque culture is that women become the primary caregivers of children — which means that it’s okay if children run and scream in our tiny spaces, because at least the important half of the community gets the privilege of praying in silence.

It’s actually quite sad that these issues were given cursory mention in the article. Women are the ones being told to hide themselves away. Would it have been so difficult to imagine creating a secluded area for men? What about a safe space for everyone? Seclusion for men who need it, seclusion for women who need it and a shared space for everyone else. But instead, the women’s section was marketed as space for us to feel comfortable — so why is there surprise when we do claim it as our own?

When a brother wanders into our section, how do you expect us to act? Women are excluded from the men’s section — which conveniently happens to be the main section, the centre of the mosque. In many mosques, there is no equality between the sections. Most men have never felt the embarrassment of praying incorrectly and missing key steps to the prayer because they can’t see the imam.

When you have the privilege to lead prayer, talk directly to the scholars, look out the window and pray with peace of mind, it is completely disingenuous to complain that men can’t gain access to women’s safe space. The transformative mission of the mosque was to function as a centre of the community — to be a place for education, social services, entertainment, prayer and exist as an open space for all. Today, many aspects of mosque culture includes erasure and a lack of motivation to really see things through our eyes.

Cross-posted at Womanist Musings.

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