Making our case with a “pray-in”

“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.

17 Comments

  • HijabMan says:

    We need more ‘pray-ins.”

  • katseye says:

    That we do. This piece is refeshing!

  • maryambintlh says:

    Salaam,

    Along with more ‘pray-ins’
    I agree-
    We need;
    to think outside of the cultural boxes
    by returning to the practices during the time of the Prophet (PBUH)
    as written so well in this article. (Thanks!)

    We can nurture that outside box stuff by other actions, such as;
    (not in any specific order)
    women boycotting masjids
    women praying in the streets outside of their respective masjids
    taking note of our Latino sisters by women taking to the streets, after jumma, outside of their respective masjids, with pots and pans in hand and raising some heavenly noise. (throw in a few protest signs too.)

    Do we need our own masjids to pray in? Nah, that’s what the boycott is all about. Oh yeah, ‘n boycott helping out at the masjids too. Cuz like the article writes….how masjids are utilized for other community activities along with the required prayers….let the men do the outreach, interfaith, media, charity, cooking, cleaning, Sunday school, dhars, new convert classes………

    After (30 some years) 0f many moons as a convert, one who has served on her masjid main committee, been nominated a few times more, served on sub-committees, I find that once when we were much smaller of a community, we served each other better with equality, fairness, and respect. It’s weird to think about that now. How backwards we’ve become. It is no wonder I prefer to do my own thang, feeling like my deen is safer at home then in my own masjid.

    Salaam……n’ Oi! & Hay, hijabman. love your stuff bro dude. I’m in need of long sleeved stuff, eh?

    Be good ya’all. Life is short.

    Wa Laikum As Salam

  • DH says:

    Lovely article…well said.  As my 18 yr-old son, “Mom, I refuse to enter any mosque unless you can enter alongside me.  I want to pray ‘Mecca-style’!” 

    I would settle for praying at the back of the main hall, but I’m dreaming of congregations with ‘family’ areas where people who desire to pray amongst their family can do so peacefully.  Or even prayer space with men on one side & women on the other…it is possible with the right intentions.

    If we’re all desirous of some quiet time with God…then surely people shouldn’t be craning their necks to glare at their neighbors or the people at the back of the room!

  • ghina says:

    Absolutely…I have contributed to Masjids where the initial design, when we were a much smaller community had equal male and female entrances.  Only to find later that the women were moved to the basement, down multiple flights of narrow broken concrete stairs.  This was where the kitchen was also and women were expected to take their own food, pots and pans, serving ware, strollers and children.

    I was apalled..but the issue does seem to happen as a result of overcrowding.  Planning for a dynamic partition of space is not sufficient if using partitions because to feel included is to be able to see hear and react to what is going on.  Being cut off physically doesn’t help.

  • living3d says:

    Great article, and long overdue.  Gotta say tho Maryam, I whole-heartedly agree with your sentiment, but think that the means to the revolution needs to be more peaceful than banging pots and pans and waving angry signs out in the street (in most situations).

    Also, I don’t know about the mosque where you are, but at mine women getting shoved to a corner in the very cold basement has resulted in very few women attending prayer to begin with.  Even if men could notice that they were there to begin with, boycotting the mosque would change very little.

    I actually the the opposite would be more effective – FLOOD the mosque.  Let the men see how many women really need to be accomadted.  Let them feel squished or get pushed into corners or outdoors.  Let them see the significance of the other half of the community that they never knew.

  • katseye says:

    I don’t think boycotting the friday prayer will make any difference. The majority of Muslims do not see it as a requirement for women. Currently, there is a movement telling women that if she’s outside of the home, she doesn’t have to pray. Why? Because a woman performing sajdah makes a man do bad things.

    It’s the mindset that we must conquer!

  • muqarnas says:

    Interesting suggestions everyone!  I agree that boycotting jummah won’t do much, and living3d’s suggestion of flooding the masjid might work (though I think men would just shrug that off too), but I think the best method is what was demonstrated on Little Mosque on the Prairie when the debates over the gender barrier ensued.  Women need to withhold sex from their husbands until they agree to take part in demanding gender justice. It’s safe to say these men will cave in very quickly 🙂 

    I also agree with maryam’s suggestions about boycotting all the cooking, cleaning, teaching, organizing, etc, that women traditionally do.  Men need to realize how much the community needs women, and what a big role they play, and therefore realize they must treat them with respect and equality.  There’s no quicker way to teach them than to take all that they take for granted away.

  • maryambintlh says:

    Or, how’s this?

    A National Day of Mourning…..

    The loss of the practices during the time of the Prophet (PBUH)

    Nationally women boycott a given date of jumma
    (or jummas if need be…)

  • FThompson says:

    Assalamu Aleikum
    Boycotting Friday prayers will not work – men would be quite happy for us to be absent. Now, if boycott also meant standing outside of the mosque – on the street maybe – with signs as in common protests… that may hurt a bit.
    The boycott at the home… now, that would work if we can all work in concert!
    However, I do believe that asserting our right to be on the main prayer floor is the best way to agitate for change. Those of you – like the one with the 18 year old son – who have male members of your household to support you can walk in and pray together and you can all speak together.
    Otherwise, it is a long and lonely path – and we can get the support of some community members since not ALL men agree with the idea of gender segregation and actually support our efforts to be allowed to pray in the main prayer hall.

  • OmarG says:

    I think each time we pass by a “womans’” area, we should point and yell “Bid’ah!” That would highlight the truth about the status of a woman’s area plus, it would also highlight the hypocrisy of the Da’wa Brigades who rail against bid’ah only when it furthers their influence and control over others, but not when it brings liberty to our sisters!

  • FThompson says:

    Assalamu Aleikum

    OmarG… this is actually another good idea.

    Won’t you begin doing that and then report back on the reaction you get?

    Thanks for sharing here.

    Fatima

  • OmarG says:

    @Fatima: the reaction I expect is puzzled looks followed by a private conversation that the Da’wa Brigade convinces a friend or two of mine to give me about how its not “constructive”. But, that’s fine; I’ve realized that we will only progress as communities once we act like insurgents; it worked for the Iraqis, it’ll work for us to. Change only happens from external pressure, not from working within or going with the status quo the way they want. Never.

  • FThompson says:

    Assalamu Aleikum

    @OmarG… this last protest we were walking to our cars and a fellow driving a taxi cab pulled up and told us he heard some news about the mosque…that some women were there disturbing the peace. We said “yes, that would be us”… he said he came to talk to us. (eyes rolling)…

    I escaped most of that lecture as the person in my car had enough of his sillyness…

    Omar… have you seen the fan page for STAND IN?…http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/pages/Washington-DC/STAND-IN/303158365675

    You can contact me from there.

    Fatima

  • katseye says:

    What about hanging a sign on both men’s and women’s entrances to the mosques:

    Stop Bid’ah

    or

    Gender Segregation Is NOT Part of the Sunnah of Our Prophet

  • FThompson says:

    We would have to print a LOT of these signs and be prepared to keep hanging them up … but then, we may be surprised.
    I posted the hadith about the order of the rows… and it stayed up…

  • Dakota says:

    Aslam a lacum

    It is complete Bidah and a changing of the practises of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to place barriers between women, children and men. It was never done, period. Not by the Prophet(PBUH), not by Hadrat Umar, not by Hadrat Abu Bakr, not by Hadrat Uthman when they were the Calipha.

    What we follow in the mosques are the random rules of people based on customs, cultures and an ignorance or their own religion.

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