<< From the AltMuslimah Archives >> Women in American mosques are loud and messy. They allow their children to run free. They socialize and chatter during khutbas. They rush out after the prayers and don’t participate in cleaning or re-organizing the space. They wear inappropriate clothes, allowing their scarves to slip off their heads, and dousing themselves with strong perfumes. They insist on coming to the mosque while menstruating, and pollute the consecrated space with their unclean presence…
These stereotypes about women in mosques are commonplace and especially prevalent in American mosques.
Many Muslim American men attest to seeing or hearing of this behavior during Friday prayers at their local mosques. What eludes the casual observer, like the majority of Muslim men who have never entered or prayed in a women’s prayer section, is the root cause of these problems.
Our community’s perception that women behave badly in mosques is intimately tied to the belief that women’s spirituality and prayers carry less importance than men’s. This collective opinion of female spiritual inferiority has settled into both the ritualistic and social practices of American Muslims, and explains both the dismissive treatment women receive in mosques and, in turn, the behaviors they exhibit because of this ostracization.
The belief is so deeply ingrained in American Muslims that we act upon it in social as well as religious contexts. For instance, even at dinner parties, Muslim men usually socialize in larger, neater, and child-free spaces, and they pray together in congregation. The women, on the other hand, haphazardly pray (or don’t pray) on their own wherever they can find a nook, and are expected to focus their attention on their children and on serving the meals and cleaning up afterwards. This paradigm of male spiritual superiority, which carries into the mosque, where men’s spaces are invariably more spacious, serene, and free of children, creates a deep concern for the many professional Muslim women who are struggling to reconcile the neglect which they experience in mosques with the respect with which they are treated in other contexts.
This treatment of women is in contravention to the Q’uran and Prophetic tradition, which equate the value of men and women’s worship and spirituality. The Q’uran unequivocally states that Allah has reserved His forgiveness and rewards for all people who follow His path. The fact that He explicitly mentions both men and women in each line, rather than just saying “people,” accentuates this gender equality:
Surely the men who submit and the women who submit, and the believing men and the believing women, and the obeying men and the obeying women, and the truthful men and the truthful women, and the patient men and the patient women and the humble men and the humble women, and the almsgiving men and the almsgiving women, and the fasting men and the fasting women, and the men who guard their private parts and the women who guard, and the men who remember Allah much and the women who remember — Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and a mighty reward (Al-Ahzab 33:35).
Surah Al-Tawbah similarly makes it a point to mention men and women separately:
And (as for) the believing men and the believing women, they are guardians of each other; they enjoin good and forbid evil and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, and obey Allah and His Apostle; (as for) these, Allah will show mercy to them; surely Allah is Mighty, Wise (Al-Tawbah 9:71).
The gender equality affirmed in the Q’uran was apparent in the mosques of the earliest Muslims; the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) led men and women in prayers in the same hall, without walls or separations between genders.
The behavior of Muslim American women in mosques, as well their designated spaces in the mosque, indicate that American Muslims have not internalized these clear standards of equality. The rationale many mosque-goers offer is that because women are louder, less responsible, and less focused on worship, they should be excluded from the main prayer areas. This reasoning erroneously equates the cause with the effect. The real reason why women do not feel invested in their mosques and purportedly behave badly is precisely because they are physically and intellectually separated from the area where the prayers are being conducted and the khutbas delivered..
When women sit in cramped balconies or stuffy basements, separated from the khateeb by walls or partitions, they miss the real impact of the khutba. They cannot see the khateeb, often cannot hear him properly, and cannot directly ask him a question following the lecture. It is no different than listening to the khutbaon the radio at home. The spiritual impact is dulled, and the chatter of other women, who are equally distracted and unconnected due to the physical separation from the speaker, further exacerbates the problem. Furthermore, when the khateeb is out of view, the primary motivation to attend the mosque becomes the ability to socialize with other Muslims. Only by providing women with a direct view of the khateeb will this problem find a resolution.
Another consequence of the erroneous assumption that women’s spirituality does not match that of men’s, is the practice of leaving children with the women. This, again, is not rooted entirely in tradition. There are several hadith indicating that the Prophet would not only welcome children into the men’s section, but would even hold children in his arms or balance them on his shoulders while leading the prayers. It is extremely rare that American Muslim men hold their children during prayers. Most of the so-called children’s sections are usually designed or situated in a way that only mothers can enter and discipline their little ones. Men are therefore absolved of their parental duties, and left free to concentrate on their prayers. Until there are family sections in mosques, where both men and women can monitor their children and where families can pray together, the inequality that results from children being consigned to women only spaces will persist.
Also exacerbating the situation is a tangle of generational and cultural issues. American Muslims immigrants bring the attitudes and expectations of their own culture and generation with them into the mosque. Many neighborhoods in Pakistan, for instance, do not have accommodations for women in the local mosques. When the women from these neighborhoods begin attending mosques in America, they do so without any previous understanding of mosque etiquettes. This problem, of course, is also generational, and it often seems that the women, who were raised here and have gone through the American educational system, have less trouble conforming to mosque etiquette. The concept of listening to lectures, keeping your voice down, organizing groups to enter and exit in an orderly manner, are all inculcated in American school children. The behavior of Muslims bred in American mimics their behavior in educational and professional settings.
As long as the American Muslim community’s perception that women behave badly in mosques remains tied to the erroneous belief that women’s spirituality and prayers are inferior to men’s, we will continue to see the same patterns of behavior recycled again and again—-men (and women) looking on with ill concealed disapproval at cramped, disorganized spaces filled with chattering women and screaming children. Until American Muslims differentiate between the cause and effect of misbehavior at the mosque, rather than conflating the two, there can be no real changes in American mosques.
(Photo: John Raineri)
Uzma Mariam Ahmed is a contributing writer to AltMuslimah. This article was originally published on January 18, 2010.