I am a single woman who is not able to drive. A combination of sensory processing and anxiety issues means that I have never felt fully in control of a car and have learned from experience that it’s safer for both myself and others if I’m not on the road.
It can often be difficult to go from point A to point B without a car. While the area where I live has a good public transit system, bus routes don’t always run where I need to go, when I need to get there, or on a convenient schedule.
One of the places I’ve struggled to get to is my local mosque. In order to reach the mosque, I first walk approximately ten minutes to the bus stop and then hop on for a ten minute ride to the nearest mosque. This, however, is the best case scenario. When the bus schedule doesn’t line up with prayer times at the mosque, travel time can eat up an entire afternoon. For example, I have to allocate over two hours to attend the Friday prayers each week and this means making a special arrangement with my manager to take such a long break from work every Friday.
I’m also unable to join the rest of my local community for tarawih – the recommended nightly prayers Muslim gather to pray in the mosque in Ramadan. In these protracted summer fasts, by the time the Imam wraps up tarawih, the buses have long since stopped running for the night, leaving me with no way to return home.
Almost every Friday, as I ride the bus to the mosque, I spot at least one other Muslim traveling with me to the same destination. There is the young brother in a wheelchair and the elderly man holding on tightly to his cane. Sometimes I’ll see a smattering of new immigrants, recently moved into the area and hoping to meet fellow Muslims at the mosque. And then there are people in my city who simply cannot afford to own cars.
My fellow riders and I are fortunate that our mosque is accessible by bus. Many are not. There are mosques in my area which, if I chose to visit, would take me over nearly three hours on three buses to reach. In fact, I still remember the route to one particular mosque I visited took me under a highway overpass and along a dirt road with no sidewalk.
I’ve observed that the mosques that are more inaccessible by public transportation tend to be located in wealthy suburban areas. This is simply how U.S. residential and transportation systems are structured. Muslims didn’t create these structures, but we have unwittingly reproduced them in our own communities.
The area where I live has a stark divide between the two groups that comprise the Muslim community. First, there are the middle class, professional Muslims – often of South Asian origin – who work in high tech industries and live in suburbia. And then you’ll find the poor Muslims, often refugees of Somali heritage, who live in more urbanized areas and attend overcrowded, resource-strapped mosques. My mosque falls in the latter category.
As Muslims and as Americans, part of our commitment to social justice involves redistributing resources from those with plenty to those in need. Wealthy mosques with generous donors should consider researching which neighboring mosques are running on empty and consider rerouting a portion of their funds and a handful of their staff or volunteers in that direction.
This social awareness should extend beyond the institution to its members. For example, as a single woman who converted to Islam some time ago, I would like to see a mental shift in my Muslim community when it comes to my accessibility to the mosque. Fellow Muslims have often thrown out the unhelpful suggestion, “Oh, well if you don’t have a car, you should just ask someone to drive you!” Their quick and easy solution is well-meaning, but misguided. The onus should not be on the person who does not have a car or does not drive. Very often that person is only marginally attached to the mosque to begin with, precisely because it is so difficult for him or her to get to! Converts and unmarried Muslims usually lack family and ethnic networks to serve as an entry point into the community, and our isolation is further exacerbated by the dominant ethnic group’s tendency to ignore or stigmatize us.
So when you don’t know people at your mosque very well in the first place, it can be daunting to approach a fellow worshiper and ask him or her for a ride, not just once, but on a weekly basis! Frankly, it feels like an imposition. Instead of burdening people who are already perched on the social periphery, mosque communities need to take the initiative themselves to improve accessibility. For example, a community member could serve as a carpool coordinator, managing volunteers who are willing to drive and inviting those who need a ride to sign up for one. Similarly, if the mosque has the resources, it could provide a shuttle van service for Friday prayers, Eid, and tarawih. Just as mosques often ask members to sponsor iftars, they could request shuttle van sponsors.
Changes like these would cost little or nothing at all, yet make our mosques much more welcoming and inclusive to the diverse range of Muslims who don’t drive or own a car. Not only would these Muslims be able to take part in many more mosque events, but we would feel like our concerns really matter to our communities.
Laura Poyneer is a European-American convert to Islam who lives near Seattle. She works in online tech support and volunteers for the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative. She is active on Twitter at http://twitter.com/muhajabah .
(Photo Credit: MIT)