Women and the public space: Part 3

“If there’s no religious restriction on women barring them from visiting markets, then there should be even less challenges for women to visit and participate in mosques.” The logic of Georgetown chaplain Imam Yahya Hendi is flawless, but nonetheless, American mosques continue to fail to put his instruction into practice. To explore why the mosque, a public space that one would assume opens its doors to all, is often hostile and unwelcoming to its female visitors, my research partner and I administered an anonymous online survey.
Of the 100 respondents, 90 were Muslim, 10 non-Muslim and 80 female. The online survey revealed that one-third of the Muslim American population remains dissatisfied with American mosques living up to their identity as welcoming public spaces, and believes mosque leadership should do a better job of addressing this shortcoming. Eighty-five percent of the survey respondents had entered a mosque in the last 12 months, and a little over 30 percent admitted that they were “somewhat to very uncomfortable” when entering a mosque. Similarly, about 30 percent shared that that they “felt uncomfortable approaching a mosque’s leadership.”

If such a sizable portion of the Muslim American female population feels shut out from their primary place of worship away from home, the exclusion must take a toll on the family’s spirituality as a whole unit, and, by extension, the community’s spirituality, says Imam Hendi. Therefore, women need to have equal access to their mosques, enjoying the same level of participation, programs and leadership opportunities as the Muslim men.

Imam Hendi enumerated three contexts that lay out the precedent for mosques to eliminate both physical and spiritual barriers in the “public space”:

  1. Historically: No barrier or partition separated women from men during Prophet Muhummad’s time;
  2. Textually: Hadith by Bukhari related how Aisha Umm Salama (wife of the Prophet) attended the mosque, and female teachers lectured in mosques; and
  3. Currently: Mecca, the holiest city on Earth for Muslims, allows men and women to pray side by side in the Grand Mosque.

Despite the historical precedent, textual references, and current practice in Mecca, public space challenges prevail. Tangible and intangible barriers in American mosques continue to marginalize female participation.

The survey not only asked respondents to identify the problem, but also to offer possible solutions.

Are there models of Muslim community participation that mosques can incorporate?

Omair Javed, a third year medical student delineated one plan to do away with the barriers separating the women from the men in American mosques. His diagram includes a large common entrance to accommodate both men and women—since we enter planes, grocery stores, and hospitals together, we should be able to enter a house of worship alongside one another in a modest, respectful fashion. The illustration includes a separate entrance for women who prefer to walk into the mosque without being seen by men. A spacious, common prayer room allows women to stand parallel to their male counterparts, and face the mihrab, a niche where the Imam stands to lead the prayer, enjoying an unobstructed view of whoever is speaking; an adjustable partition (a screen or a heavy curtain) serves as the line of demarcation between the men and the women, offering privacy to each, but allowing both equal access to the speaker. The suggested format does not penalize the women who arrive early or on time for prayers, because they do not have to withdraw to the back of the hall, vacating their space for men who arrive after them. Instead, both sexes have private, designated and equal spaces. Finally, the children are diverted to a separate back room.

Mosques like the one in Rockville, Maryland, Voorhees, New Jersey or Sterling, Virginia practice Javed’s suggested model. Once women are awarded equal prayer space, many intangible challenges to guaranteeing that mosques are open, welcoming spaces remain. Architectural sketches provide the visual, but the people leading the prayer goers determine the mosque’s public space culture.

“The space, like other public spaces, ought to reflect hospitality, equality, and mutual respect,” explained Alexander Porcelli, a young Muslim professional in DC. He provided a model to include women in community building activities by revisiting his experience with the Episcopal Church; the church had designated “multi-purpose” rooms within the building where congregants, rather than religious leaders, lead in mixed gender discussions and organize activities for community building.

How have you engaged with a mosque’s leadership to ensure inclusion of women in the mosque? Any lessons learned?

The survey revealed that one-third of the respondents did not feel comfortable enough to approach mosque leaders and request a more inclusive atmosphere for female visitors. Some suggest creating a female council to compliment the male leadership boards found in nearly every mosque. Daanish Faruqi, editor for From Camp David to Cast Lead, warns that setting up a separate council for sisters’ affairs might reinforce gender inequity by implying that women are only qualified to administer affairs that pertain solely to women. Thus, he advocates for placing women in leadership positions that manage issues affecting the community as a whole.

Based on our analysis of the survey results, we put forth the following suggestions for making American mosques more welcoming spaces for Muslim women:

  • Option A (Implement Free Market Policy): In one American mosque women charge rental fees to men who require extra prayer space, and can rent the “women’s section” to accommodate the overflow problem. Consequently, the female prayer section is movable and accrues funds towards activities that cater to Muslim women.
  • Option B (Boycott Unfriendly Mosques): Over 25 percent of our female Muslim respondents state that they do not visit mosques that remain inhospitable and turn a blind eye to the “hostile” environment.
  • Option C (Invite Female Speakers for Mixed Audiences): As Imam Hendi suggested, “Revisit the lessons and hadith from the past that enumerated how Sahabiyyat both taught and led discussions in integrated mosques.

These are just a few possible solutions that either express dissatisfaction or creatively address the challenge of the mosque as a public space. And with time, we hope that Muslim American women will feel as welcome and respected in their houses of worship as they do in any public space.

Photo is of architect Zeynep Fadillioğlu in the Şakirin Mosque, which she designed. Visit Facebook for more regarding Imam Hendi’s background. We believe Imam Yahya Hendi would ROCK on the Colbert Report!
Mehrunisa Qayyum and Ramah Kudaimi are Contributing Writers to Altmuslimah. This is part three of a three part series.

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