Though there are women’s only mosques internationally, the Muslim Women’s Mosque of America appears to be the first of its kind in the States. As such, it is being lauded as a step forward in “empowering” American Muslim women by offering them a safe space to learn and find spiritual fulfillment.
The space, which is currently housed in a former synagogue in downtown LA, recently held its first jummah prayer service complete with a woman giving the adhan and leading the prayer.
No men are allowed.
How exactly is it moving us forward or empowering us to create a mosque for a single gender? The ideal mosque experience, to me, is one where everyone in a community feels welcome – men, women and everyone in between. A place where you are free to find spiritual fulfillment regardless of your sect or school of thought and can pray however you feel most comfortable – alone, in a group, in the company of mixed or single gender. That ideal is achieved through expanding our existing mosque spaces or creating ones to be more inclusive, not removing segments of a community and dividing families to attend separate mosques for jummah.
While I see the value in women gathering to bond in spiritual sisterhood, that’s what women-only halaqas already do. Maybe this is just a halaqa group with a fancy name – after all, they consider this to be a “complement” (not a “replacement”) mosque. (So then why all the excitement?) Nevertheless, the idea of creating a new mosque exclusively for women does nothing to address the actual patriarchal traditions that exist in many mosque communities. It simply divides and emulates the sexism we’re complaining about.
Founders Hasna Maznavi and Sana Muttalib speak of how they never quite felt welcome as women in their mosque growing up. Their experiences are what drove them to the decision that women needed their own women’s only mosque space. I understand the frustration, and I admire their gumption, but I’d love to see mosques that are “women-friendly” as opposed to “women-only.”
We already have communities split into ethnically-based mosques. Imagine if instead of the experience as women, we were speaking of the white-convert mosque experience (which is very plausible) and that two white converts to Islam who never felt welcome in their largely South Asian mosque decided to create a white-only mosque. Would we be applauding such an initiative? Would mainstream news outlets revere it as a step forward?
Unless you’re a South Asian or Arab straight uncle ji, chances are you’ve had some pretty terrible mosque experiences. Chances are your experiences have left you spiritually unfulfilled and you may even be amongst the unmosqued.
This is why we are seeing initiatives across the US and abroad to create mosques and spaces that are more welcoming and inclusive not reinforcing exclusivity. For example, the “gay-friendly mosque” in Paris came about to provide a space that is more inclusive and provides a sense of safety for gay, lesbian and transgender Muslims. MakeSpace in DC seems to have developed to create a space that is more inclusive of youth and young professional Muslims by providing services relevant to their needs. Neither of these initiatives claim to exclude anyone or prohibit anyone from attending their services.
To be sure, most mosques in America have a “woman problem” – we are all familiar of the experience of going to a mosque and being sent to the side entrance, backdoor, or basement. Many mosques don’t have space or adequate facilities for women to attend. Of those that do, gender segregation is enforced during prayer times and often extended beyond. This means women are separated from family members and have limited access to imams for spiritual guidance. Though mosques in America can often serve as community centers, rarely are women on mosque boards, brought in as speakers at events, and almost never do they lead prayer (there have been few exceptions). Even mosques where women do play an active role, these patriarchal traditions are continued by the women themselves and propagated by women to be in the best interest of women.
A gender exclusive mosque does not fix these problems. At best, it is a band-aid solution to a systemic problem.
“This is a place where Muslim women can come and experience inspiration and then return with that to their communities,” Maznavi states. “We would love to not have to exist.”
Well, then… don’t. Be bolder. Empower the American Muslim collective by promoting full gender inclusivity, instead.