“No, sister, you can’t go in that way! There’s a back door around the corner.” I can’t tell you how many times those words were said to me over the years as I tried to enter through the front door of many a mosque around the United States. There seems to be this unwritten, yet nationally recognized and practiced, tradition of leaving the worst space for the separate women’s prayer hall. From collecting funds to replace the soiled carpet and repaint the chipped walls, to silently walking in the front entrance and ignoring the disapproving glares as they make their way to the balcony rather than submit to the back prayer room turned childcare, through the years I’ve seen women protest against this dismissive treatment in a variety of ways.
The most ardent protests seem to have created quite the backlash. In the midst of Black History month and with the Greensboro Four sit-in heavy on people’s hearts and minds, Fatima Thompson and a few others decided to organize and participate in a “pray-in” last week at the Islamic Center of Washington in D.C. Police were summoned and threatened to arrest the women when they refused to leave the main prayer hall and continued their protest against being corralled in what they referred to as the “penalty box” of a prayer space reserved for women.
When I listened to a Fox News reporter describe the incident, I remembered the one and only time I had the opportunity to pray at the Islamic Center of Washington. I recalled the small area off to the side and gated off by a solid seven foot partition, which made it impossible to see and sometimes difficult to hear the prayer leader. I chuckled at the fairly accurate description of events and instead of the usual sinking feeling that weighs on my stomach when Fox News tries to cover something Muslim related, I found myself inspired and relieved at this expose of what should be our communal prayer space as Muslim Americans.
In speaking with Ms. Thompson, I learned of her intent and the motivation behind the events that took place.
“The Greensboro Four broke established, non-constitutional, yet explicit rules to break down the barrier of the implicit idea that blacks weren’t as privileged as whites…. and this is what we are doing with women’s rights in the mosque,” Thompson explained. “It’s implicit in the space available to women that they aren’t deserving of the same privileges as men in the mosque. It’s in the mindset.”
Many books and articles delve into this topic and scholars will tell you almost across the board that the mosque is a space for one and all. Women, men, and children alike should be encouraged to come and enjoy the spiritual fruits of a shared religious space. Over the years, this message has become lost, especially in the communities I’ve visited overseas.
I’ve almost been kicked out of not one, but two, mosques in the Middle East for trying to slip my afternoon prayers in before it was too late. After failing to locate a women’s area, I quietly and unobtrusively made my way to the farthest back corner of the prayer hall where my presence was met by many an angry expression and caustic word. A cousin of mine was exasperated with me when he heard my story and told me quite clearly that a mosque is really no place for a woman.
Though my experience is limited, I think it is safe to say that this is a pattern seen in many Arab countries and I could possibly extend this generalization to a few more regions where Muslims comprise the majority of the population.
When did this separation become the norm, or to take it a step further, so broadly enforced? The mosques built at the time of the Prophet (sws) didn’t have a separate room for women. Are we perhaps creating a biddah (innovation)? Aoothubillah! (God Forbid!) Dare I highlight the age old example of the communal prayer space during the Hajj? Clearly, the roots of this practice of separation can not be traced to Islamic jurisprudence. In fact, the mosques at the time of the Prophet more accurately reflected the inspired places of religious learning and prayer that we aim to create in our American experience today.
Our mosques here in America double as our places of education and triple as our places of community gathering. They serve a larger purpose than to just be a spot to drop a couple rakats in the middle of the day. They play a role in defining each American Muslim’s identity.
”Women need to be communicated with when designing mosques.” argues Thompson. “Women are clearly cut off from being part of that community when they are corralled into areas that cut them off from congregational prayer.”
When speaking to the multitude of women who complain about the accommodations and treatment they receive in the mosque, one common thread runs through their criticisms. They want a decent, clean, quiet space to reflect on their Lord, a space that does not pose a barrier to education or ideas, just as the male worshipers enjoy. Yes, some prefer a separate space altogether and we’re not discounting those among us who do, but regardless of whether the women’s prayer room is separate or not, the second-class nature of the back door, the dingy basement room, or the cluttered storage hall will not do any longer.
Ms. Thompson puts it best, “We aren’t here to go through the side door; we’re here to go through the front door.”
Sarrah is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin- Madison where she earned her bachelors in Human Development & Family Studies. During her time at UW, she was active as the Vice President of her MSA, and supplemented her studies being very active with the interfaith community on campus. AbuLughod has worked with low-income and at-risk populations for the past 1.5 years with the Washington Scholarship Fund in DC. She is also part of the leadership of the D.C. Green Muslims, a group intent on highlighting the importance of being environmentally conscious and eco-friendly from an Islamic perspective. Sarrah also serves her community by being an active community outreach volunteer for the Domestic Violence Resource Project and serves as a board member with the Muslim Public Service Network.