Women’s Mosque: progress or a step backwards for women’s equality?

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.

8 Comments

  • I agree with your summary and I too feel that we should be persuading our brothers to make masjids more inclusive and welcoming to muslimah Insha’Allah. I have been to masjids in many Middle East countries and am aware of some brothers disapprova,l even hostility, when I attend Jummah prayers.

    As well as trying to persuade anti-female element that they are wrong, we must beg Allah (subhana wa ta’ala) to soften the hearts of those brothers who stand against us muslimah attending their masjids.

    Aliyah Hassani

  • Asiah Kelley says:

    If you read what they have written in their website, the Women’s Mosque is a very strategically named halaqa group. I agree with you there. But they seem to have a chosen the name to aspire to a greater cause. Their end goal is fully inclusive co-ed mosques throughout the United States. Their website FAQ implores would-be supporters to “support our cause by spreading awareness for our efforts on social media and by advocating for women leaders and more women-friendly spaces at your local mosque. ”

    I have friends who have been attacked at masajid for advocating for women-friendly spaces. I myself have been verbally abused and abused for trying to get women’s accommodations. The Women’s Mosque seems to me to be a safe space where I can worship without having to worry about attacks, physical, or spiritual.

    Seeing the discussion it has generated in the community, and the fire it has lit under some mosque organizers, I am so pleased. And I know that we do very much NEED this in America. I’m convinced it will get us where we want to be, ie fully co-ed and women safe masajid.

    • Nadia says:

      I’m sorry to hear about what you had to go through. Pretty much the only time I support complete gender segregation is when there are cases of abuse. Ex: many women’s shelters for domestic violence victims prohibit men from working at the shelter, with clients or even visiting. However, it’s different for educational institutions – Ex: certain women’s colleges were created because surrounding colleges were men-only and prohibited women from attending … Eventually, those men’s colleges went co-ed (some as late as the 70s and 80s) yet, the women’s college remained all-women in the sense that only women live on campus and the school predominantly caters to women, but men are allowed to attend, visit, teach and work on campus.

      The creators of this mosque did not, to my knowledge, speak of abuse at a mosque or being prohibited from attending a mosque. They made statements about not feeling welcome at their mosque, which inspired them to create this initiative. Perhaps that was a matter of strategy; I just don’t see it as the same.

  • Sami says:

    Salaams and thank you. I agree, this doesn’t resolve the problem I believe they are claiming they are tackling, it’s further segregation and resolves the issue for sexist mosques in that it allows them to continue as they are unchallenged. The truth is, I feel more welcome in a church than I do in a mosque, no one cares what I’m wearing and I can sit anywhere I like. I pray for mosques like that, where men and women can pray side by side. Likeminded women and men unite, then let people choose which they prefer .’ to you you’re mosque, to me mine!’ Salaams

  • Juma Circle says:

    You be bolder, I challenge you to start your own gender-equal mosque. It can be done. We’ve been running one for 5 years in Toronto and helped start other communities in Canada and the US. We can help you too, if you like.

    Good for these women that they created a space they feel comfortable in that speaks to their particular needs. It is incredibly well organized. Professionally done. I admire them. There should be spaces for everyone, spaces that serve the needs of everyone in the community. If this develops into something gender-inclusive and equal, great, if not, then it continues to serve those it is serving right now.

    So come on, step up to the force of your critique. Walk your talk. Email us. We’ll help you start one in your community. It’s actually really easy if you’ve got the will. Seriously.

    • Nadia says:

      I’ve heard and hope to visit one day! Forget “unmosqued”… I barely have a community to call my own. I’ve moved around a lot over the years. On the bright side, I’ve gotten to experience different mosque communities, so to speak, had some great experiences and some not so great experiences. So I’ve gotten to learn a lot through each. I recently moved to the Cambridge/Boston area after getting married. Haven’t fully gotten to experience the community here, yet, so I’m not even sure I should be the one to assess the needs here. It’s a pretty diverse and progressive area, I have heard of some great events and initiatives – I look forward to checking them out.

  • Nadia says:

    To follow up on a few general points:

    1) I don’t necessarily find women’s only spaces to be better or safer spaces. I attended an all-women’s school in Pakistan. I ended up at an all-women’s college for undergrad. In my experience, just because a space is all-women doesn’t necessarily mean the environment will be one of greater understanding or build a closer community.

    1.b) Additionally, in my experience, I’ve been prohibited once, I think from actually attending a mosque. Other than that I’ve had mixed experiences – some good, some bad. Of the bad – It’s not just men at various mosques that have made me feel unwelcome, it’s women, too – Women who police other women and interfere with the spiritual side of being at the mosque and reinforce certain overbearing patriarchal notions.

    2) Breaking out into women’s only groups can be comforting to some at times, and I recognize the value of this. In that sense, I find this to be more of glorified halaqa and that’s fine if that helps women feel spiritually or communally connected. But I’d rather put effort in or be a part of a institution or spiritual center where I can go freely with my husband and the men in my family, rather than having to be separated further.

    3) In addition to mosques being spiritual centers, they are also community centers. I’m not persuaded that creating segregated community centers is a sign of progress. It’s a sign that things have gotten so bad that a certain community members can’t feel comfortable being around other community members. And those community members breaking off can be seen as a sign of protest, but also reinforces a community division.

    3.b) Again, personally, I would rather put in an effort towards working with a more inclusive goal – not one that excludes those who would otherwise be supportive simply because of their gender. I would also rather put in effort towards creating environments where my future children can share the spiritual experience and that begins with us teaching and socializing our boys in gender equitable ways rather than teaching our girls to be more empowered and leaving our boys keep being socialized as they are and end up resentful and dysfunctional.

    These are all simply my thoughts. I’m not against the founders or those who find value in such an initiative. I admire and applaud the effort made in creating such an initiative.

  • Deborah Elaine DeWitt says:

    I wholeheartedly support the development of women’s masjids, but agree that this is not a permanent solution, and does not represent the ultimate goals of those who have founded The Women’s Mosque of America. But we should recognize that this may be a necessary step toward the ultimate goal of a full and equal inclusion of women within the American Muslim community and its masjids. Necessary in the same way that US Affirmative Action policies enabled women and disenfranchised minorities to begin to overcome the effects of centuries of subjugation.

    Similarly, prior to 1850, almost all colleges in the USA were sex segregated. The establishment of women’s colleges was an important step towards the ultimate, full and equal inclusion of women throughout all major institutions of higher education.

    I hope, above all else, that the Women’s Mosque of America will provide the necessary support and training to enable American Muslim women to become qualified muftis. We need qualified female scholars with formal standing to challenge entrenched misogynistic rulings.

    Salam.

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