mosque


Pieces of tobacco sat bitterly on the tip of my tongue. I looked down at my shaking hand to see that the filter of my cigarette was broken and hanging by a sliver of paper – and it dawned on me that I must have taken a drag after I fell. That’s when I saw the new rough patches along the cuffs of my black leather jacket and the pieces of gravel sticking into my bleeding palms.

I fell. But was I pushed? Kicked? Hit? Yes, I was hit with enough force to throw me to the pavement. My hands shot out to brace myself against the impact – but the seconds before were a blank slate. I couldn’t remember. All I knew was that I was lying face down in a parking lot staring at a broken cigarette.

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There’s no compulsion in religion and God has sent a message to everyone – so there’s no reason to find faults in the beliefs of others. Think about what you’re saying and how your words will be understood. How they can offend or mislead. Take fasting for example. If you say that we only go out to eat when the sun goes down… people are going to think we’re a bunch of vampires.

I never laughed so hard at Friday prayers. The imam was jovial, frequently engaging the women in constructive dialogue during his upbeat pre-sermon talk – which was easy, since we were literally only a few feet away from the minbar. We were in an “open concept” mosque, where women and men shared the same prayer space. It was segregated, but arranged so we could all pray side-by-side. A runner divided the room in half, giving space for people to move in-between the rows without disrupting the sermon or prayer.

Eryn and I chose to pray close to the Hubby instead of joining our friends at the back of the room, where two wings off to each side of the main prayer space provide privacy for both men and women who want seclusion. I’ve prayed in the wings once before and liked how they were built with shaded glass at the front – giving people a clear view of the imam and the main hall. I didn’t feel separated from the congregation at all – especially when I used the microphone for people to ask questions.

Now that Eryn is old enough to pray, we both prefer to be at the front near the Hubby so we can worship together. As a family.

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There is a mosque on a popular downtown street corner. A nondescript red brick building with blueish trim on the windows. Upon closer inspection, you might see Islamic calligraphy in the form of “Allah,” “Bismillah,” or the mosque’s name etched into glass frosting — giving just a hint that this former bank property is now a place of worship for Muslims.

I am not a part of this community — in more ways than one.

I have never attended a Jummah, a lecture or an event here. I’ve never been to their fundraisers, BBQs, bake sales or open houses. I’ve never been to their sessions for converts, Arabic lessons, or Qur’anic recitation 101 for women. I don’t even know if they hold these types of events or services. I cannot, with any certainty, speak to the experience of women who see this mosque as central to their community and faith.

Yet I pray here all the time.

In convert years, I am older than this mosque — but we grew up together. For 10 years this mosque has been a resource for Muslims in the downtown core, travelers, and people like myself who just need a place to pray.

Whether because it’s conveniently located to my place of work, or because it’s right next to the Toronto bus terminal — I’m here with surprising frequency.

But I could never make it my home.

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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.

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The last time I attended Jummah prayers was Easter long weekend. It was a lovely, warm Friday afternoon and an excellent opportunity for us to go to the mosque together as a family. The three of us dressed up and joined the hundreds of people also taking advantage of the holiday to attend the prescribed congregational prayer.

The Islamic bookstore was crowded, volunteers sold hijabs and samosas in the hallways, and the mosque had invited the Red Cross to hold a blood donor clinic before and after the service. The call to prayer rang out over loud speakers and everyone rushed to their spaces. It was our first real Friday sermon in North America.

Obviously because of the overflow of people, women (and men) were being asked to pray in adjoining classrooms. One of the advantages of attending the larger mosques, is that many have established Islamic schools on the premises– which means extra space in large gymnasiums, classrooms and kitchens for unexpected crowds or large events. I sat on the floor with Eryn on my lap, in a bright and colourful grade school classroom and waited for the sermon to begin.

The imam introduced himself and addressed the youth. This khutbah is for you, he said. I want you all to put away your Facebooks, messengers and games and listen up. You are the future and this is an important message. At this point, he started yelling.

At first I thought the PA system was on too loud, and looked to around to see that I was sitting right beneath a speaker. But as the decibels increased, I realised that he was trying to sound excited and inspiring. Looking at all of the bored, blank faces around me, I wasn’t sure the imam was getting through to his intended audience.

Don’t be ashamed of yourselves!! Who is this Mo? Your name is Mohammed! Who is this Joe? Your name is Yusuf! Why are we Muslims ashamed of ourselves? You hold the legacy of the Prophets! BE PROUD! No doubt an important message — but he was unfortunately yelling so loudly and so angrily, that I actually felt threatened and had to leave the classroom. It wasn’t enjoyable or spiritually uplifting. Eryn and I ended up listening to the remainder of the sermon from the more peaceful hallway, and rejoined the group when it was time to pray.

While I really want to, I don’t often go to Friday prayers. And it’s not because my workplace isn’t accommodating. In fact, on Fridays, people can take extra lunch time to attend religious services, there’s a “quiet room” on the second floor for anyone what wants to engage in “silent prayer or meditation,” and staff can take two days off a year for extra-religious holidays. I am really quite lucky that my workplace is so accommodating. Lucky and privileged.

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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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