“Nice boots….”

I finished the final zip on my knee-high leather boots and stood up to an incredibly friendly smile greeting me in the middle of the regular post-Jummah shoe chaos. While being jostled and pushed, I smiled back and said thank you — vaguely distracted as women and children dove in between us to claim their shoes before rushing over to the community lobby for veggie samosas and hot chai.

With one eye on Ivy as she struggled to put on her shoes (on opposite feet, and emphatically by herself!), my new friend and I briefly spoke about where I got my boots and how they looked “steampunk.” Which, covered in rivets and a classic Victorian brass heel, is exactly the style I’m wearing these days.

Of course, the topic of my boots and the random recognition of my favourite neo-Victorian genre, made this the most exciting conversation I’d had at the mosque in a very long time. And was an instant spark of light after a previously long string of negative experiences.

Especially seeing as I was just about on my way out the door. Fully prepared to add this mosque to my growing list of places to which I’d never return.

pray

Ivy and Eryn just being kids in the mosque gym.

An hour earlier we were singing Eryn’s favourite “going to the mosque song” in the car and I was excited to be finally attending my first Jummah in almost six months. The last time we came to this location was for ‘Eid ul-Fitr, and my heart burst with joy and pride when the imam delivered an incredibly inclusive khutbah on mental heath. This mosque represented an island sanctuary in an ocean of disappointment and judgement.

And it was a harsh betrayal when I was asked to leave the main prayer hall.

As a family, we’ve attended weddings, countless Ramadan Taraweeh prayers and a funeral here. And while I might not be a “regular” attendee, the inclusive culture, absence of a barrier and enjoyable sermons are what keep me coming back. Which is HUGE to someone who finds herself unmosqued from Islam.

As per my regular routine, I entered the prayer hall with the girls and sat down in a small enclave reserved for women (and men on the other side of shaded glass) who prefer to pray shielded from the main congregation.

The larger, more open space was already quite full and I wanted to get my bearings, find my Mother-in-law and settle the girls before strategically planning where we would sit without disturbing others.

I hadn’t even dropped my purse when a woman approached me saying that I had to leave.

There was a mother’s room available for my comfort, and I was encouraged to pray there. I looked at her and stated matter-of-factually that my children are not disruptive.

Sister, every mother says that. Please think of the rest of us,” was the response.

I turned slightly away from her because I felt attacked. But I also raised my voice because I wanted people to hear me exclaim: “This is exactly why I left ISNA.”

The woman’s eyes widened slightly and she apologetically and passive aggressively continued to encourage me to exit the prayer hall — but only if I felt comfortable doing so.

Since it was clear she was not hearing my protests, I decided to simply check out the mother’s room. Seeing that this mosque is gorgeously decorated with imported Turkish tiles and incredibly bright and shining chandeliers, how bad could it be? Perhaps I could even see the imam from the mother’s room!

What a disappointment.

The mother’s room looked like a shack. The prayer line faced a collection of unused announcement boards and plywood stacked against the wall. The floor was a huge mess in need of a powerful vacuum and a brother was at the front, fiddling with wires protruding from an electrical box on the wall — hooking up the announcement system in preparation for the khutbah. No windows, no air. Just a glorified closet.

So I went back to the main prayer room. Only to be told to leave again the second I pulled out Ivy’s sippy cup. In a room where I’ve previously eaten dates, wedding cake and Cheerios, I was told that no food or drink were allowed in the musallah.

I packed up my kids and left.

I stood in the shoe area for a few minutes — breathing and planning my next move. Certain that if the Hubby had the kids, no one would be telling him to go to the mother’s room. My desire to partake in the Jummah prayer had completely disappeared and I wanted to escape.

Perhaps sensing that she was driving me from the mosque, the woman followed me and encouraged me to stay. When I told her that I would probably pray in the gym — since that was the only acceptable place for us, her relief was palatable. She exhaled, and a brief panicked look disappeared from her eyes.

But I didn’t pray in the gym.

Without my familial support network, and the solemn, almost stern atmosphere that accompanies the Jummah ceremony, my children felt they had the license to run around — and be kids in a gym.

Honestly, I do not fault them one bit.

So I missed the khutbah because I was chasing my girls.  I missed praying in a straight prayer line because every mother in that line was holding a squirming, crying child. I missed feeling like I was a part of something greater than myself — because all I could concentrate on was making sure Ivy wasn’t throwing away my $3.00 subway tokens.

I understand the need to afford congregants who don’t have children the piece of mind to worship without a random toddler putting slobber-ridden hands all over their pants. But there HAS to be a better way to include women, mothers, and caregivers who want to come to the mosque with children. An arrangement must be possible where neither group is forcibly removed, hidden or made to feel unwanted.

When a mother is asked to pray in an alternate space, it’s probable that you are separating her from her support network. From her husband, family or the larger community who can all take responsibility in the child rearing of our future ummah — and who can all help facilitate well-behaved children.

An imam who is separated from the mothers has NO IDEA that children are crying (as the imam said at one point, “I can say this today because I don’t think we have many children here…” Sorry, I counted at least 10 in the gym).

You cannot fulfill the sunnah of shortening the prayer when a baby cries if you cannot see the baby. And a person who feels they are spiritually and religiously required to at least see the imam to validate their prayer cannot do so, when the mother’s room is in a closet.

I understand that mosques have rules and regulations for a reason. Perhaps asking the mothers to pray separately was the result of a long communal battle — and this was the best option for this particular mosque. Who am I, an irregular attendee, to question their regulations? No one wants to worship with unruly children. But what I cannot wrap my head around is that instead of banishing a small minority, why not help facilitate a community-oriented and socially aware and responsible mosque experience?

For me, praying away from my family and without direct access to the imam sends a horrible message to my girls. They are learning that I hate the mosque experience. They know how to push my buttons and while they are indeed angelic when sitting with the main congregation, a walled-off room or a basketball net in the absence of a visible authority like the imam, will guarantee their misbehavior. And because we are always separated from the main congregation, they think the mosque experience means playtime. I cannot raise my girls to respect the mosque if we are consistently taught that mothers are second-class citizens.

When Jummah was all over and I bent over to zip up my boots, I was seconds away from never returning. I am thankful that God gave me a brief glimpse of light.

My new found friend asked why she hadn’t seen me before and I mention that we have attended the mosque frequently over the years — just not regularly. And then I confessed that this time, I had a pretty crappy experience.

The sister looked at me kindly and said that she saw the entire exchange and twice told me not to judge the mosque on the actions of one person. That many wonderful women attend the mosque and one strong-willed, busy-body should not drive me away.

I’ll probably go back. And if I’m asked to leave again, I will probably ask everyone in the main prayer hall if they would like me to stay or to go before deciding where we will pray as a family. It would be interesting to see what kind of communal discussion would emerge.

None of you will believe until you love for your brother what you love for yourself.

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