Women behaving badly in mosques

<< 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.

52 Comments

  • OmarG says:

    Maybe they are not American women in mindset nor outlook? Merely residing here, especially it seems for us Muslims, does not automatically mean that die-hard attitudes are easily shed.

  • OmarG says:

    Well, that can be pretty hard when we have an almost complete socio-cultural disunity. How do we expect non-Americans to act American-like when they are not, without some kind of compulsory assimilation??

    We’re asking people to go completely against what they’ve known thier whole lives, all thier models and archetypes. I don’t think it can be done as the past decades of mosque history show. It only changes when the aunties and uncles as a class are edged out of power.

    What would you suggest as a less draconian alternative?

  • Mumina says:

    I am an American revert, and I will address just the one part of this that seems to be the biggest issue at the masjid which I attend, and that is the crying children. At least at our masjid the children are not running around and screaming, though I have seen this before.

    Our community is very diverse, with many cultures and languages. Some think that women with children should not come to the mosque at all, that they should stay home with the children.

    That may well have been the best situation for the immigrant women when they were in their home country. And it might even be the best solution in some of the major American cities where there is a large and dense Muslim community. But currently, these immigrants and reverts might be too isolated if they could not access the sisterhood of the masjid.

    For me attending Jummah is of tremendous importance. I could not practice Islam all by myself. But I do have some experiences from attending church here prior to my conversion.

    In American churches, children are expected to sit quietly. The parents are expected to discipline their children. If a very young child starts crying and cannot be comforted, his mother will take him out.

    Some churches now have a separate area for mothers with children, with the sermon piped in, so that the mothers can socialise and the kids can be as loud as they want, while in the main sanctuary, those who actually want to hear the sermon, and concentrate on worship may do so.

    This seems like a good solution to me. Also, because those women who do not understand english do not really benefit from the khutba, but they do benefit from fellowshipping with their friends.

    There was an akward situation this past friday, a young mother’s child started crying loudly during the khutba and would not stop. She did not know to pick up the child and walk out. But the worst part, really unfortunate, was how some of the women told her she should not be there with the child after they finished their prayer. She was almost in tears. We really could be more compassionate.

  • asmauddin says:

    OmarG, I agree that it requires no less than a change in leadership. I don’t think it needs to be abrupt, but American-born Muslim leaders need to start stepping up to the task of leading – and changing – our mosques.

  • uma1 says:

    Thanks for all the thoughtful comments everyone.  I wanted to add, to particularly address some of Mumina’s comments, that I was explicitly thinking about churches when I was writing this piece.  I kept wondering: what do they do differently that we somehow have not managed yet?  I think there does need to be more of a focus on keeping children disciplined.  However, that is hard when even the other adult (women) are chatting and not listening, and all the responsibility is put on the women. I’ve often found that children behave differently with their fathers than their mothers.  If men were more willing to keep the children, at least once in a while, the children might behave differently (especially since they could experience the different atmosphere in the male section).

    I also wanted to clarify that this analysis reflects mostly my own experiences in the mosques I have attended, and I’m sure that the mosques that have a greater number of younger attendees may not have some of these issues. 

    I also agree that a change in leadership will have to be part of the solution.  However, until that leadership is more diverse in ethnicity and gender, it will be hard to really get concrete changes.  After all, everyone does not equate leadership with change.

  • OmarG says:

    @Uzma: you’re right: we do need to keep our kids with us more often. I, especially love it when my 4 year-old behaves so well with me on Jumah. On the other hand, I’m acutely embarrassed by my older sons’ antics.

    Also here’s a deep dark secret: sometimes we go to the mosques to decompress ever so briefly from the stresses of being a dad, somewhere I can go to feel like an adult for just a little bit and connect with God in the peace of a mosque compared to the loudness of home when they’re awake…just so you know πŸ™‚

  • asmauddin says:

    OmarG, I think the point is that American mosques should treat mosque-goers as they are treated in other American contexts. Perhaps by being in America, we should be working to change the standards rather than perpetuate the ones existing elsewhere in the Muslim world. And perhaps by raising standards, we can begin to see the type of behavior we expect to see from women in mosques.

  • Mumina says:

    I was not finding fault with immigrants, that was the implication to which i objected.
    I am truly sorry about the name calling. A bit of paranoia on my part.

  • Mumina says:

    And I never capitalize the word zionist.

  • asmauddin says:

    Qudsia,

    Valid points. And yes, I can vouch for your total Muslimness πŸ™‚

    I just wonder, though, if it’s possible for a woman to be the primary caretaker of her children but for her to still want to have some quiet space when visiting the mosque. While I agree that many of these women probably expect to have to sit with the kids when they go to the mosque, it might be nice to offer an alternative once in a while..like maybe a children’s room where men are allowed to sit as well. I find it troubling that kids’ rooms, when they actually exist, are women-only spaces, thus forcing women into a position they (and their husband) might not want.

    It’s one thing to acknowledge that many women want to be stay-at-home moms and take full responsibility for their child in all public and private spaces, including the mosque; it’s an entirely different thing to assume all women are like this and then structure our mosques accordingly.

  • qudsiaraja says:

    Some observations, make of them what you may:

    While the issue of how space is allocated in a mosque is indeed a significant issue that needs to be addressed for this reason and others (for example, this sort of separation also exacerbates domestic violence situations, because women often are unable to establish a genuine relationship with the Imam, whereas her husband is most likely on good terms with him, thus making the Imam more partial to making exceptions and excuses for the man), I think a key issue is not addressed.

    And that is of American Muslim/Muslim American women CHOOSING to take on the role of primary caretaker for the children, and thus assuming the very responsibilities that come along with such gendered roles (which also would naturally extend to caring for the child in the mosque, amongst other places). Although my observation is mostly anecdotal, it should come to no surprise to anyone as I strongly feel that women that choose this path are in the majority rather than the minority. American Muslim women overwhelmingly tend to leave their professional and academic pursuits to become stay at home mothers, and while this is not necessarily a bad thing, the perception that it is the RIGHT thing to do, and that their decision is informed by their faith/Islam, and that motherhood is a noble challenge that all Muslim women should undertake, and that most of all, it is NATURAL…is quite common. It is also worth noting that these women are generally highly educated women that are considered 2nd or 3rd generation.

    Whether I consider this to be a good or bad phenomenon is entirely a different discussion.  But I do think it’s unfair to pin the issue of women’s participation in religious activities, or a mans level of (un)involvement in his childrens lives on the immigrant experience.  I also find it troubling to suggest that cultural nuances ‘back home’ equate to unruly behaviour and poor social etiquette.

    This article tends to suggest that men are holding women back from participating in mosque activities, becoming active members in their religious communities, and enforcing gendered roles whereas the reality of the matter is, a lot of Muslim American women gladly accept those roles.

  • Mumina says:

    Again, my apologies to all those participating here.
    At a friend’s church, I am told that the children go to Sunday school while their parents attend services, if they like.

    What is the proper etiquette around parents mixing in Quran classes?
    Or at Muslim schools? Do the parents ever act as teachers’ aids?
    What if a mom or dad wants to go check on his or her kid in class?
    Do Muslim schools have the equivalent of PTA meetings? How are those handled?

    Is it possible that outside of the mosque sanctuary area itself, say, on a different floor or wing of the building, that the rules of conduct appropriate to business or education be observed?

  • OmarG says:

    @Mumina: >>outside of the mosque sanctuary area itself

    I don’t think there is any concept of a sanctuary in a mosque in Islam. There are no special rules for good conduct inside versus outside a mosque and no stuffiness; Islam is easy and I always enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of most mosques compared to the stuffiness of most churches I had attended as a child.

    All the earth is a mosque as is said in the Quran so there seems nothing inherently sacred about a mosque building. Any sacredness, if it exists, is in the congregation of people to worship God. But, that’s just me though…

    However, we may have gotten some customs like that from others over the centuries by insisting on taking our shoes off in the mosque (I can’t recall any such thing mentioned about the Prophet’s time), carpets (Prophet’s mosque had gravel) or not mixing (the women were behind the men and the companions were known to visit each others homes and socialize with the spouses of friends if they happened to be not home). Just try any of that today and people will totally flip out.

  • Mumina says:

    Yes, Omar,

    The term “sanctuary” is one I borrowed from my Catholic past, to refer to the masjid itself. Are there better terms to use to differentiate the area of worship itself from others that might be on the grounds such as book store or snack bar?

    You see, I would not converse with you in the area of worship, and if we were at a mosque that had a snack bar, I would not come over and sit with you at your table. But I would consider it appropriate to exchange pleasantries if I were the snack bar cashier and you were a customer, and I would also consider it appropriate to work with you at the snack bar.

    I have attended a fund raising dinner at a mosque where meals were served family style around big tables. And there, whole families sat together, as they would at a restaurant. And I was welcomed to sit with them. So I might end up joining you and your family around a table like that,(sitting next to female members of course), in a different wing of the very same building where I might have worked with you at the snack bar, but not have sat at your table at the snack bar.

    Now, that I am writing about it, I remember how exhausting all this was for a new Muslim to navigate.

    Salaams,

    Mumina

  • asmauddin says:

    I think the norm is to have the prayer space segregated but common areas integrated. That’s why I suggested that the kids’ room be integrated. Even if adults are praying in the kids’ room as their kids run around, presumably they can do so with men in front of women.

  • Mumina says:

    That sounds good.

  • OmarG says:

    Sounds good to me too. @Mumina: that sounds like a normal day to me, without the unnecessary sexual tension which seems to permeate male-female interactions. One mosque (majority Desi) I went to in another city when I lived there had the women behind us with no barrier. After jumah, we set up tablecloths on the floor and all ate family-style which I truly enjoyed since Muslim women often ahve some really neat things to say; some of them were fantastic administrators whom I was glad to have helping to run the mosque.

    >>I remember how exhausting all this was for a new Muslim to navigate.

    YUP! That’s why I just ignore foreign people’s cultures now and just do what’s normal here (not haram, of course).

  • Mumina says:

    @qudsiaraja, I suggest that you brush up on your reading comprehension skills. The conclusions you make in your last two paragraphs are erroneous, and have all the earmarks of a zionist participating under the guise of being a Muslim; trying to cause division.

  • qudsiaraja says:

    haha. thanks for the suggestion but my reading comprehension skills are pretty on point.

    in my second to last paragraph, i referenced this point that the author makes:

    “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 etiquette. 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.”

    She clearly draws a distinction between Muslim women immigrants and their cultural values/etiquette in mosques, versus the ones of ‘American’ Muslims. I find the argument faulty for several reasons. 1) I’ve already mentioned it, but i think it’s a pretty big (and wrong) assumption to make that immigrant cultures are inherently unaware of social etiquette. On behalf of my parents and their generation, I find that offensive and irresponsible 2) While it may be easy to suggest that immigrant Muslim women behave this way in mosques because of their lack of exposure to mosques/the public sphere, what’s to explain similar behaviour amongst Muslim (immigrant?) men in mosques? I think the mens section has its own fair share of problems – be it not turning cell phones off, chit chatting, so on and so forth. sure, they may be quieter during the khutba because they’re sitting right in front of the khateeb – so yes, I’ll give her that much credit for acknowledging that. I agree with that much. but I’ve seen similar bad habits amongst immigrant men and ‘American’ Muslims. what’s really to blame? cultural differences? i just don’t buy the argument.

    As for the comment I made about many Muslim American women opting for gendered roles – what about that comment enraged you so much so that you had to start with the name calling? Why is it that saying ‘muslim women increasingly accept gendered roles’ is offensive? do gendered roles really offend you that much, or is it the uncertainty of my identity? I think you’re reading too much into my response. Please check your insecurities at the door – you’re making the faulty connection between ‘gendered roles’ and ‘subservient’/‘second class citizen’, when that is FAR from the case.

    I haven’t really communicated my personal thoughts on gendered roles. In fact, I stressed that my personal take on it is irrelevant. I really and truly believe that Muslim women that identify with gendered roles are in the majority, and that they willingly take on those roles. So why victimize them in the process? If it’s something that is chosen by many, why point fingers at the men and ask them to pitch in, when technically they are most probably already fulfilling their gendered role by being the bread winner?

    As for the comment about my post as ‘erroneous’ and one bearing ‘all the earmarks of a Zionist participating under the guise of being a Muslim’…well, all I’ll say is that, if anything, one can always count on Muslims to come up with conspiracy theories when someone presents a counter point not to their liking πŸ™‚

    That being said, you DID make my morning. No ones ever called me a Zionist before. But before you cook up more conspiracy theories, let me assure you that Asma Uddin, the editor of this lovely website, can vouch for my ‘muslimness’. Sorry to disappoint.

  • qudsiaraja says:

    I forgot one last comment:

    There was a report out perhaps in the past year (or 2?) ago about a similar trend amongst American women as a whole. Educated professionals that decided to quit their jobs and devote their time at home (and in essence, accept gendered roles). Of course, there’s a socioeconomic piece to this too, and all women obviously can’t afford to do this. But it’s still worthwile to note that, given the opportunity, women – muslim or not – are beginning to lean more towards accepting gendered roles again (and when I say ‘again’, I mean in the American context, where women previously fought for equal rights and equal opportunities in the workplace).

    I think it’s a pretty interesting social phenomenon worth looking into.  I’d love to conduct a survey amongst American Muslim women about this – but i’d be sure to include a name and address verification section so as to ensure that Zionists under the guise of Muslims don’t skew the results πŸ™‚

    peace.

  • asmauddin says:

    OmarG, the darkest part of that secret is that the same respite is not given to many women πŸ˜‰

  • muqarnas says:

    I didn’t see this photo as illustrating the content of the article, so what exactly is so “egregious” and offensive about it?  I just saw it as illustrating women in the women’s section, which then leads into the article, which discusses the perception of women’s behavior and the root cause of it.  I don’t think it’s productive to fixate on the placement of these women’s hijabs in the photo (if that’s in fact what you consider to be such an egregious offense).  This article is about behavior, which is far more important. 

    and on a sidenote, i think Baba Ali is awful, and I particularly hate the “that’s not hijab” sad-attempt-at-being-funny.  He does nothing but promote judgment against Muslim women based on appearance, when there’s already so much judgment to begin with.  Intelligent humor challenges the status quo, it doesn’t perpetuate close-mindedness.

  • asmauddin says:

    Yes, just to confirm, we didn’t mean anything with the picture we chose except to show women in the women’s section of a mosque. Sometimes it’s hard to find photos that illustrate an article perfectly!

  • muqarnas says:

    i agree with asma’s suggestions. 

    this article is spot on.  the “women behaving badly” syndrome is an issue of nurture, not nature.  if men were conditioned from childhood the way women are – i.e. treated as a fitna, no expectations placed on them, relegated to a back room – they would behave badly too.  and if women were treated with a sense of respect and responsibility and seen as potential leaders from childhood, the way men are, i think they’d step up.

  • Mumina says:

    The situation might not be quite as bad as the photo for this article suggests. John Raineri’s interesting composite photo is from an interfaith event, so those women appearing to be the most egregious offenders, are not Muslims at all. This image and others of his can be viewed at this link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/goodimages/3356045193/

    Not that we don’t see at least a few examples like these every Friday. You are probably all familiar with Baba Ali’s, “That’s not Hijab”, but I will include the link, as he says, “Just in case you forgot.”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4jQi0Gjy3M

  • katseye says:

    If we had a more inclusionary, family oriented atmosphere in most masjids, then maybe we wouldn’t have such divisions and “bad” masjid ettiquette. Or maybe introducing the idea of having children’s classes or babysitting during the lectures or prayers would be beneficial. Some masjids offer this service, many do not.

    I also may add that we are fundamentally lacking mercy. The Prophet, saws, used to give shorter sermons or choose shorter surahs while praying when children were crying. This way, the mother or father could attend to the child after prayers were completed and didn’t feel the embarassment of disruption. And yet one more interesting tid bit, the Prophet’s, saws, grandchildren used to climb and roll over him while he was praying. He didn’t get angry or yell at Fatimah for not controlling her children. Rather, he was thankful for having his prostrations prolonged.

    As for women, I’m not interested in why anyone else is at the masjid. I know why I go. I’m not interested at their reasons to be there or what they have on, or anything else. If we can each walk away with a learned experience, alhamdulilah for that.

  • sharpasand says:

    Why do girls have to be in the back of the room during the prayers ?  Does this not have a negative psychological impact on Muslims girls growing-up with the perception that they are somehow lesser then their male peers and hence be relegated to the back of the room ?

    I am not sure if we will accept similar treatment in outside-the-mosque life.  For example, what if the public schools start asking that all girls to sit in the back of the classrooms.  Or better yet, all Muslim boys and girls be asked to always sit in the back of the classrooms.

  • sharpasand says:

    @Mumina: You may choose any words you deem fit to explain how and why you justify accepting for yourself or your daughter or sister or mother to be sent to the back of the room.

  • Mumina says:

    @Sharpsand: I will, but you did not answer my question.

  • sharpasand says:

    @Mumina: Not sure what exactly you are asking.  Is your opinion going to be different and dependent upon my ethnicity, gender, size of my computer screen, sexual orientation, height, age, brand of car I drive, skin color ?

  • Mumina says:

    @Sharpsand, I would like respond to your question. This is one that is frequently asked. First, though, in order to understand where you are coming from, so to speak, I was hoping you could clarify something. When you use the word, “we” here, to whom does it refer?

    Communicating through text has the disadvantage of lacking verbal inflection. So I want to choose my wording carefully to avoid misunderstanding.

  • katseye says:

    Some masjids in America and elsewhere in the world have women in the back of the masjids-as was the case at the time of the Prophet, saws. But many do not allow women in the back of the masjids, in the halls, or even to speak-and this is in America!

    Mumina, you are blessed to be in a masjid where there is no barrier. I, on the other hand, rarely go to the masjid because we have a barrier. A note used to hang on that barrier that said, “women control your children”. On occasion, there is an invited speaker-and the q & a portion is limited to men. Women are third class citizens and I cannot justify it in my mind, so I do not go.

  • OmarG says:

    @sharpsand: >>a choice made by Muslim women themselves for personal comfort andconvenience.

    Then let them not complain when no one cares about what they think or want from the mosque when they *choose* not to participate. To be counted, you have to participate.

  • katseye says:

    I’m glad to see someone wanting to discuss the psychological impact of gender segregation in the masjids. Why do we not apply it as a view of the world. If masjids are willing to either dump women in a utility closet or push them outside of the “masjid experience”, then why would we think that there would be justice throughout the world for muslim women?

  • muqarnas says:

    >>but is rather a choice made by Muslim women themselves for personal comfort and convenience.

    i wouldn’t put it this way.  while i don’t entirely disagree with Mumina’s points, i will say that it’s not exactly a personal choice for women to sit in the back.  we do it because we’re supposed to, because that’s the tradition, and even though it is more convenient in some ways, that’s not the primary reason we do it.  i think sometimes the “convenience” argument is used to justify the tradition…

    my friend once went to a masjid where both the men and women were in front.  the men formed prayer rows toward one side of the room, and the women formed prayer rows right across from them.  there was an aisle in-between, i think it may have even been a place for couples to stand so husband and wife could be next to each, and so there was still separation so that men and women wouldn’t be distracted by each other during prayer (the only convenience argument i really agree with). 

    so there are other options.  i think this option is much more egalitarian, without sacrificing the comfort and convenience and tradition of sitting separately from the men.  i just wish more people were open to this alternative.

  • Mumina says:

    I wouldn’t be opposed to a barrier down the middle;front to back. But I do like the open, architectural beauty of no barrier.

    @Omar: Thanks for the “YUP!”, I needed that.

    My friends & I are working on building more of a sense of community by holding informal halaqas after Jummah.

    I write check to the mosque from my own account.

    My primary reasons for attending a mosque are to worship Allah(SWA), and to learn from, and be inspired by the khutba.

    Have a great day everyone: )

  • muqarnas says:

    there wasn’t a physical barrier between the men and women at this masjid.  just an empty aisle that could be filled by couples wanting to pray together.  i agree, having no barrier is visually and psychologically more pleasing, which is part of the point of this article.

  • Mumina says:

    @Sharpsand: No, none of those things matter. I just wanted to know how much info to include.
    Anyway, I will just talk about what my mosque is like and why I am happy there.

    At our mosque there is no separation wall or barrier between the men and women. We women do sit at the back.
    When we pray, we pray in a line, shoulder to shoulder, with our shoulders or arms actually touching. And of course we prostrate. Personally, I do not want to be literally rubbing shoulders with the men as I pray, nor do I want to be prostrating in front of the men.
    Aside from these reasons, there is an advantage to sitting in the back; we can lean back against the wall.

    I have lived all but the last couple years of my life as your average American woman. In high school, I was not allowed to take the mechanical drawing or shop classes I wanted to take, because I was a girl. In my twenties, I once was the victim of domestic violence. I have been denied jobs in male-dominated fields because of my gender. I have had to put up with sexual harassment on the job.
    I worked for decades before there was any such thing as “sensitivity training”.

    I do not have a problem sitting in the back. I do not view it as the equivalent of sitting at the back of the bus.

    It is hard to generalize about how women are viewed and treated in the American Islamic world, because it is such a tremendous mix of races, cultures, classes, etc. Certainly, the situation is not ideal. I have had some very disappointing experiences, where I felt women were not valued, or our accommodations were definitely second-rate. But the state of Islam in America is evolving, and I have found several mosques where I do feel comfortable.

    I hope this answer some of your questions.
    Sincerely,
    Mumina

  • Mumina says:

    Yes, I know. But if I were to attend a mosque that was divided this way, (down the middle), I would feel more comfortable If there was a barrier of some kind. I have seen a picture of a lecture hall that was divided this way by an openwork musharabia about 6’ high. This would still be aesthetically pleasing. One could still get a sense of the open space of the masjid.

  • sharpasand says:

    It seems most of the comments here are from adult/grown-up women who are relating the issue(s) to their own personal experiences, likes and dislikes.  What about those who are raising young daughters.  How do you explain to your girls that while they are to compete and strive to be better then others (boys and girls) in every aspect of life (school, work etc) but something about them is so “different” that the moment they enter the mosque door they have to let the boys lead while they (girls) sit in the back of the room?

    Telling young impressionable girls to take their mandated place in the back of the “room” cannot possibly be without consequence.  Its got to have some psychological effect on them as they grow-up absorbing this practice, or tradition, of being “behind” boys just because they are girls.

  • OmarG says:

    @sharpasand: I think this speaks to the larger issue of the enormous tension between wanting to be religious and wanting not to devalue oneself or family. For example, each Friday I’m asked to accept a number of things I disagree with and strongly feel are not actually mandated by the Quran and Sunnah. Yet, I quietly accept most of them inside the mosque but write and discuss against them outside. I do so just to have some measure of peace and not push that tension into interpersonal relations. And indeed, once we dissent publicly, all possible interpersonal pressure is brought to bear to force us to conform.

  • muqarnas says:

    good question. i don’t have kids, but speaking as a woman who had to grow up with this kind of mindset, i agree that it causes a profound case of cognitive dissonance. i ended up dealing with it by basically splitting my mind in two, into the western, secular mindset that says I can do anything, and the communal-muslim mindset (which to me is not the same as the more egalitarian islamic-spiritual mindset) that constantly emphasizes my status as a woman. this is clearly not healthy, but that was the only way i knew how to deal with it, until i got a brain and learned to question things and learned that i can disagree with certain traditions and still be a faithful muslim. it’s still a work in progress, but i do avoid masjids more often now and focus more on my inner spirituality, and i’m more at peace that way.

    if i have a daughter one day, i would try and explain that communities and traditions are slow to change (this goes for ALL communities), and so yes, while women traditionally still sit in the back, she shouldn’t interpret this as meaning that either she is less-than or that this is the way it must always be.  it wasn’t long ago that women couldn’t vote in this country.  today men are still paid more than women for the same job.  so how would you explain that to Your daughter?  non-muslims love to apply selective amnesia to these realities when they self-righteously attack muslims for their gender issues. do muslims have a LOT more work to do?  of course…

    one day things will hopefully change, and my daughter may choose to advocate for that change to occur in the masjid setup or she may not, but i would remind her to keep in mind the egalitarian principles in Islam, even if they don’t always manifest themselves in the community.  it’s not a peachy answer, but at least it’s honest, which is more than what i got growing up.

  • sharpasand says:

    This is really very heartening to hear that this relegation of girls to the back of the mosques is not due to some edict from Quran or Sunnah,  but is rather a choice made by Muslim women themselves for personal comfort and convenience.

  • muqarnas says:

    wow, no one else wants to weigh in on this topic sharpasand brought up?  i was looking forward to other people’s responses.

  • asmauddin says:

    Muqarnas, no worries. I have someone writing an entire article about the issue raised by sharpasand. πŸ™‚ Stay tuned for that…

  • asmauddin says:

    Mumina, fair enough, but I think comparing the two doesn’t answer the relevant question. And I think that what makes the mosque example fundamentally different is that it’s a spiritual space. Girls are told that sitting in the back of a room, or in a closet somewhere, or entering through the back door, is what GOD wants for them. We can criticize society and tell it to stop demeaning women, but when a given measure is justified on a religious basis, it leads to serious internal turmoil.

  • Mumina says:

    Has anyone looked at the magazines at the supermarket check-out lately? I think if I had a daughter, I would also be very worried about the demeaning messages there. Not to mention MTV and TV.

  • katseye says:

    The masjids were created so that people can worship the the Almighty. That they could go and offer their prayers, make duas, and listen to inspiring khutbahs. Outside of this, we go so that we may learn Qur’an, learn Qur’anic arabic, or go to learn religion in general. Yet, in some masjids, it feels like the light cannot enter through the doors, life is being suffocated because of the darkness such segregation causes.

    I cannot relate this experience to standing in line at the drug store, supermarket, or any other place. Being in line and staring at smut that is market driven is not the same as going to pray and having to stand in a musty dungeon listening to the prayers over a loud speaker that crackles and blurs words.

  • muqarnas says:

    well-put asma and katseye.  i agree.  i’ll add that while i agree market-driven smut is also very harmful to young girl’s psyches, there are plenty of other female role models (CEO’s, Congresswomen, Activists, etc) out there for young girls to look up to.  they may fall victim to worshipping smut perhaps due to lack of guidance.  but ultimately, they have a choice to decide who and what they want to become.  on the other hand there is often no choice when it comes to their place in the muslim community, or extremely limited choices at best.

  • Saadia says:

    “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.”

    I like to keep my personal space organized in normal times.

    Otherwise, at the mosque, its a good idea to start seeing the women’s space as a haven – where things are clean, beautiful, private (which is why many women prefer a partition of some sort) yet connected, and where personal issues (esp. related to female anatomy) are not touched upon or even discussed during speeches.  (No one is perfect, but no one should allow themselves to offend or be manipulated in the name of religion and talking about personal issues at the mosque isn’t funny or flattering – its disturbing). This, along with taking women’s suggestions more seriously, might help with attendance and perception.

    I don’t see any problem hearing the speeches or asking questions in current circumstances. Also, I think the idea of spiritual inferiority might be more apparent in some areas than other – a lot of people believe in spiritual equity so this can’t be generalized so as to point to the urgency of this problem.

  • Jamila77 says:

    I am extremely offended by this article. There is no wonder why Westerners have such horrible and misinformed impressions about Islam.I am a Black American Muslim sister since I was 16 years old. I knew Islamic etiquette even then, I learned attending the mosque on Juma is mandatory for brothers and women did not have to attend but were encouraged during the Eids. I respect the masjids.Through my 39 years of Islam I have seen the progressive work of American and non American muslim men and women. I am a Hajerra and have been to other parts of the middle east and Africa. During my Hajj one of our Black American sister’s was attacked for praying in a site that men claimed.  Muslim men from everywhere stood up for her and defended against the attack. I am a American Muslim woman and would never accept that type of abuse. The world is our masjid and we (women are here to worship Allah too).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *