Growing up in Pakistan for the first twelve years of my life, I had a distorted understanding of Muslim women’s role in houses of worship. I clearly remember one Eid-ul-Fitr morning, when I was around seven years old, watching my grandfather leave for Eid prayers with my father, uncles, and male cousins. Before the packed car rolled out of the driveway, I ran to ask my aunt if I too could tag along with my relatives. She answered that only men went to the mosque, while women prayed in the privacy of their homes. Over the years, every adult gave me the same response, and I accepted my fate readily. It was an easy enough, if not logical, rule to abide by as I lived in a Muslim-majority country where I could see no visible dissent to this arrangement. None of the females I knew challenged the idea and, in fact, most saw it as a “blessing” upon women to not have to pray in a mosque, and a “burden” upon men who were religiously mandated to pray at the mosque on Fridays and Islamic holidays.
This dynamic appeared to change when my family and I relocated to Canada. While Islam does not require women to pray at the mosque, it certainly does not bar them from their houses of worship, and although women who live in a Muslim-majority country may not feel the need to bond with other Muslims via the mosque, those living in non-Muslim states crave this interpersonal connection. The move to Canada allowed the women in my family to attend community mosques and participate in large prayer gatherings on religious holidays, but the access came with several strings attached.
Consider the following incidents at Canadian mosques, and you will come to realize the idea that “women belong at home and men should pray at the mosque” is still alive and thriving; it has simply changed place and form.
An acquaintance of mine no longer visits mosques because she once attended a wedding ceremony at a mosque where another woman humiliated her by loudly declaring that Allah would not accept my friend’s prayers because she had painted her nails, thereby rendering her pre-prayer ablution invalid.
Another acquaintance of mine recalls an incident that soured her on mosques. While on their way home, she and her mother decided to stop at a local mosque to avoid missing the sunset prayer. To their horror, as they both stood in the mosque hall, ready to pray, a woman, who managed the ladies prayer section, marched over and planted herself squarely in front of them. She then angrily threw an ankle length skirt at the daughter, chastising her for trying to pray in “tight” jeans, which, according to her, would nullify the young woman’s prayer. Although the mother fiercely defended her daughter, the woman continued to loudly berate the young girl. Humiliated, both mother and daughter stormed out, their prayers missed.
My sister-in-law also suffered a similar incident. A woman standing in a prayer row near my sister-in-law called out to her in a loud voice, admonishing her for wearing fitted jeans that delineated the shape of her figure. My sister-in-law retorted, telling the critic to mind her own business, but the woman remained undeterred. As the heated exchange continued, women in the small mosque began to turn and stare, either inquisitively or disapprovingly, at my sister-in-law. Finally, one of them intervened and diffused the situation by quietly encouraging my sister-in-law to forgive the other woman and let it go. Nonetheless, the encounter left a mark on my sister-in-law.
Another friend told me of the humiliation she endured at her local mosque. After pulling into the parking lot, she donned a head scarf before entering the mosque. A few women, who had committed to wearing the scarf at all times, saw her wrapping hers before walking into the prayer hall. When she entered the mosque and walked by them, they threw her dirty looks and one cattily remarked while looking directly at my friend, “Part-time Muslim!”
Even my brother-in-law found himself being reprimanded by another prayer-goer when he brought his daughter to the mosque. Despite my niece being only four-years-old, this man insisted that her father deposit her in the women’s section!
There are countless other stories of women facing undue humiliation and belittling at mosques for one reason or another. Ironically enough, it is at the hands of other women. Yet before we chalk this shaming up to females simply being spiteful towards one another, it is important to note that the judgments they pass on one another often originate from male authority figures, religious and otherwise, who persuade females that they are upholding Islamic values or worship etiquette when they chastise fellow mosque-goers .
I myself don’t visit mosques often. I feel neither happiness nor peace there. Instead I feel anxiety over whether I will find a spot in the cramped prayer space given to the women at the back of the prayer hall and whether the other women will look over my choice of dress with a critical eye. Now that I am the mother of small children, I also have to contend with the unwelcome or rigid attitude many mosques have towards children—something which particularly irks me as a key goal of any mosque should be to cultivate a love for communal prayer in its community’s children. .
However dreary the current situation, I find hope in reminding myself that life in mosques was not always this way, and God willing it will not remain as it is. Muslim Americans are still finding their way when it comes to establishing well-run, welcoming houses of worship for men, women and children. Yet we cannot expect time itself to change things; we have to make the effort, and if our efforts are pleasing to God, He will help us bring the unconditional peace, compassion, and kindness back into mosque life.Samra Hussain is a lover of God who aims to build compassion and understanding of people of all faiths to leave a better Earth for future generations. You can find her blogging at facebook.com/ftlogblog.
Photo credit: Tina Manley