“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.

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The Ramadan Reflections over at Muslimah Media Watch are wrapping up for another year. For my second reflection I wrote about an experience that truly illustrates some of my personal frustrations about motherhood and spirituality — so I’m cross-posting it here to be included in our ongoing series. 

Enjoy!


Help I’m alive…

The Grand Mosque in Kuwait.

The outdoor courtyard at the Grand Mosque in Kuwait.

We’re late. My favourite popular imam has already begun leading the second rakat for Qiyam ul-layl, the night prayers. We dash from the car and run across the street, our feet soon gliding upon smooth marble floors at the largest mosque in Kuwait.

My sister-in-law leads the way. One hand holds a chair for our pregnant cousin and the other clutches her black abaya as she power-walks ahead. A corner is turned and the scent of cardamom laced coffee brings a smile to my face. Hundreds of people are milling about. Some grab free water and dates, others coordinate with friends – everyone is searching for a place to pray. There’s a crush of people trying to enter the women’s section in the outdoor courtyard, but a female police officer is closing the gates, saying it’s full. Squeezing in, my sister-in-law grabs my arm and drags me inside.

We join the line and I open my Qur’an app, quick to find the right section so I can follow along. My eyes fall into their own rhythm – absorbing the English meaning before jumping back to the Arabic. Up, down and up again. Left to right, then right to left. The languages and words begin to meld together in cadence with the reciter. I lose myself in calligraphic script and try desperately to write the meaning onto my heart.

Suddenly a woman grabs my arm. I’m disoriented. She’s insistent. It’s clearly something terribly urgent. “Ta’ali!! Ta’ali huna!” “Come! Come here!” She grabs my arm harder and tries to pull me out of the prayer line. She’s saying more but I can’t understand her.

My mind races. Is she upset that I’m reading from my smart phone? Does she want me to fill the gaps in the line behind? I frown, angry that she’s disrupting my prayer and quickly pull my arm out of her grasp. Then she lightly brushes my shoulder. (more…)

I’m not sure if this will become a regular feature on the blog or not — it just seems that the past few weekends we keep doing so much fun STUFF.

Since we were out and about looking for a place to have some winter fun (which failed miserably since the local ice rink is “closed for maintenance”) we had the lucky fortune of praying maghrib at a mosque on Saturday. Actually, we’re pretty privileged in that we have a choice of mosques in which to pray.

I opted to not pray at the mosque where a very kind, but masha’Allah, busy sister talks through half the prayer telling other sisters that they’re a) praying incorrectly or b) wearing incorrect clothing. Instead we went to ISNA:

But Mama, I want to be where the REAL action is!

ISNA has a lovely prayer area (though, their “mother’s section” is less desirable) — but all Eryn wanted to do was join Baba and check out the minbar.

That's RIGHT Eryn, transcend barriers and go pray at the front!

After prayer we headed to the ISNA bookstore — which is a massive bazaar area filled with DVDs, hijabs, Muslim kitch, abayas, car decals, tasbeeh, kufis… oh, and books. I much prefer the SoundVision bookstore where I can find obscure titles and a wider variety of children’s stories.

But really, you can’t go wrong at a place that sells fezzes.

It's a Fez. I wear a Fez now. Fezzes are cool.

Masha’Allah, I’ve been nominated for a Brass Crescent Award for Best Female Blogger.

Also, my most popular post, Only Women Bleed: menstruation and prayer in Islam was nominated under the Best Post or Series category.

I’m so very excited and if you agree with these humbling and mind-blowing nominations, then please go out and vote for me!

The Brass Crescent Awards is an annual awards ceremony to honour the best writers and thinkers of the emerging Muslim blogosphere. Nominations are taken from blog readers, who then vote for the winners.

Thank you to everyone who sent in a nomination. I can’t thank you and all of my wonderful readers enough for your support over the past 18 months. Half of what makes wood turtle a brilliant place is all of the thought-provoking conversations we have — and I’ve learned so much and am amazed at how much I’ve grown as a Muslim, mom and person from engaging with all of you.

There are some truly awesome nominees this year. You must absolutely check out (and if you’re inspired, vote for):

Thank you again everyone!

An old friend of mine, Fathima Cader, recently shared her experiences praying Jumm’ah in high school for NOW magazine.

In a Facebook discussion she says:

One thing I didn’t note in this article, because it was out of its scope, was that the initial complaints came from groups who alleged that the TDSB was paving the way for a Muslim takeover. The controversy has since shifted, with the entrance of the Muslim Canadian Congress, to a debate about sexism — a debate moreover that that explicitly denies the intelligence and wherewithal of Muslim women, particularly observant ones. That the MCC’s critiques so often merge with and emerge from blatant racism is an issue worth interrogating.

I’m reproducing her excellent article here. Enjoy!


My school prayer: How my Friday ritual made me a Muslim feminist
By Fathima Cader

During the Ramadan of my final year at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute – across the street from Valley Park Middle School, the scene of much media scrutiny last week – things suddenly changed.

Unlike Valley Park, Marc Garneau 10 years ago did not have on-site prayer spaces. Instead, come Friday, students who had the school’s permission would go the nearby mosque, about a 20-minute walk away.

Some of those students, as many have noted, didn’t always make it back to school – dictionary behaviour from teenagers on Friday afternoons.

According to Islamic custom, congregational Friday prayers are compulsory for men and recommended for women. That norm became informal community and school policy. A lack of interest from parents and teachers’ belief that women don’t have to pray meant few female students sought permission and none received it. Only male students went to Friday prayers.

One month in my final year, things were different. After requests from parents and students, the school agreed to let students pray on site during Ramadan, the month Muslims traditionally observe with intensified spiritual activity.

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Caption from the TorStar: "At Valley Park Middle School, Muslim students participate in the Friday prayer service. Menstruating girls, at the very back, do not take part."

At what point does religious inclusion become too much for a public school board to handle? Apparently it’s when the menstrual cycles of 12-year-old girls become the centre of public debate.

Every week for the past three years, Valley Park Middle School in Toronto has held official Jumm’ah prayers in the cafeteria. For many Muslims, the Friday service, complete with sermon and congregational prayer, is obligatory. Others believe that it’s optional for women to attend, that it’s not compulsory for anyone, or that if men skip three Jumm’ah prayers in a row, it’s a sign they’ve lost their faith. Like many issues in the Muslim community, there’s a wide variety of opinion and practice – but many agree that Friday prayers is vital to the faith and identity of Muslims worldwide.

In schools throughout Ontario, Muslim students have organised themselves into unofficial, cohesive communities – fasting together during Ramadan, praying in groups at the library during their breaks, planning ‘Eid parties, skipping class to fix hijabs, gossiping in the bathroom and creating religious-fellowship student clubs.

The solution to provide full religious services for students was agreed upon by parents, stakeholders and the school administration to address the needs of the school’s large Muslim population – which apparently makes up over 80% of the total student population. (source)

Previously, large groups of students would sign themselves out, walk to a nearby mosque to attend Jumm’ah prayers, missing hours of instructional time by hanging out with their friends after services instead of returning to school. Some didn’t even bother going to the mosque – Friday prayers were used by some as an excuse to skip. When parents approached the school with worries and safety concerns that their children were missing classes, they all agreed to allow an imam to come into the school and hold prayers on school property. Keeping the kids supervised and minimising lost instructional time.

The program was a success, with about 400 students out of 1,200 (about 30% of the Muslim students) regularly attending prayers. Each week, community volunteers come into the school and help set up the cafeteria as a makeshift mosque. Clean sheets are laid down, tables create a barrier to maintain gender segregation, and an adult community leader acts as an imam to lead the students in a sermon and prayer. For 30-45 minutes, while other students finish their lunch period and start afternoon classes, Muslim students have the option of fulfilling a religious duty.

But last week the Toronto District School Board became embroiled in controversy, when a coalition including the Canadian Hindu Advocacy, Jewish Defense League (Canada) and the Muslim Canadian Congress announced their opposition to the school’s prayer service. Arguments against the program naturally hold firm to the idea that publicly funded schools should not facilitate religious services – not during official class hours, and certainly not by an outside religious leader who provides unsupervised and unmonitored sermons in Arabic. (*gasp*)

But what’s really got everyone’s hijab in a bunch is the menstruating children.

Oh, won’t someone please think of the menstruating children?

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The first time I crossed the line separating the men and women’s prayer sections I was elated and terrified of being caught. It was like walking down into a dark basement to pick up a jar of pickles from cold storage. Slow, tentative steps gauge just how safe it is in the dark — but the second you turn your back, you can feel unseen eyes pricking your neck and long, icy fingers chasing you, ready to grab you and pull you into the depths if you falter for just a moment while racing back up the stairs. Escaping that which lurks in the deep, you pant heavily, pickles in hand, adrenaline still pumping, thankful for having escaped.

I actually think I tiptoed in.

It was an experience of opposites: I felt exposed, yet giddy as a sweet tooth in a candy store — I wanted to linger, but my mind rushed me just in case someone saw my trespass. Being so close to the minbar was like I had entered a sacred, forbidden space. Forbidden for me.

God was closer here, than in my regular spot way in the back of the room. It was cleaner, brighter and for once I could really admire the beautiful pieces of Islamic art up close. Even the books were newer and the full carpet was softer and more lush than our thin, mismatched rugs — I wiggled my toes. Is that a crate of water bottles? Ooh, incense! So that’s what the whiteboard says. Hey, what are they doing with boxes of chocolate and cookies?

I heard a noise behind me and like a frightened rabbit, flew back to the woman’s section with my heart racing. That was my first real experience of mosque inequities. I was elated as if I had gotten away with something naughty, and yet, saddened by the obvious differences between the male and female spaces. It was as if the mosque was telling me, “men are welcome here, you, not so much.”  After that, I couldn’t help but acknowledge just how second class I felt at the mosque.

The second time was at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. When we went, part of the men’s section was cordoned off for tourists, presumably non-Muslim tourists — allowing space for people to pray undisturbed and for people to get just a little closer to the ornate wooden carvings, historical calligraphies, and gold embossed decor (things may be different now, anyone care to elaborate?). I went to pray at the back in women’s section and watched aghast, as men moved freely throughout the entire mosque while tour guides kept their groups in hushed pockets behind a velvet rope. I sat in my section, bored and yearning to get closer to the gorgeous architecture. The Hubby was taking a detail shot of the minbar when I said, “oh forget this,” and walked right into the men’s section to join him.

Both times nothing bad happened. No lighting bolts. No irate imam pushing me back into my corner. And yet it’s a given in many mosques, that men and women’s spaces are largely impenetrable (although, I’ve experienced more men wandering, lingering or arguing their way into the sister’s section more often than women moving into the men’s section. Often they’re chased out with a good chappal smack). It’s unfortunately that in some mosques the keys to Islamic education, direct access to (male) scholars, history, literature, and chocolate are one sided.

When entering the prayer space, it’s easy to fall into assumed roles and positions used during the prayer — be it women praying side-by-side with men, in a separate room, in the rows directly behind men, cordoned off by a barrier, or at the far end of a hall.  It’s like choosing “your seat” in the first class of the semester. But there is nothing barring women from entering “male space” when prayer is not in session. We have every right to be granted access to these spaces.

What I’d like to know, from both my male and female readers, is have you ever “crossed the line” and how did it make you feel?

obviously, Eryn is off to a good start