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Shawerma Republic Against segregation in mosques

After a recent trip to Bosnia, where Muslim men and women pray in the same shared space, Ceasefire columnist Ruqaya Izzidien asks why things can't be the same in the UK.

New in Ceasefire, Shawerma Republic - Posted on Monday, February 28, 2011 6:41 - 12 Comments

By Ruqaya Izzidien

Separate prayer rooms are against the essence of Islam

I recently returned from a holiday in Bosnia and Herzegovina and, when not steadily upping my chances of winning the Fatty of the Year title by shamelessly devouring countless Sarajevan pastries, I was invariably to be found in one of the country’s typically jovial mosques.

Stepping into one of Bosnia’s mosques is like being transported into an oyster; they are cosy, inclusive and elegantly understated.

The pearl of these mosques, however, is their community. You regularly strike up conversation with other people, and (shock, horror) even with members of the opposite sex, while waiting for your turn to make wudu. As a rule, the women of these mosques pray in the same room as the men, either in a designated section at the back, or on a large balcony that overlooks the men’s area. Together in one room, the women and men are joined together in one prayer and a single community.

This is what is fundamentally lacking in numerous mosques across the United Kingdom: community.

Muslim women in Britain are typically separated from the men by the kind of wall which would make the Minuteman Project proud. It is hard for a woman to find a sense of belonging in her mosque and community when she is stuck praying in the broom cupboard, grazing her forehead on yesterday’s Iftar crumbs. There is a reason that every congregation has an imam; it gives you someone to follow.

The pseudo-Islamic attitude of incarcerating Muslimahs in the mosque dungeon is not only alienating, but it is also impractical; for those of us who don’t have heat-vision goggles to hand, following the congregational prayer -or jama’ah- is often impossible. In rural areas of the UK it is not unusual to be the only woman present at congregational prayers. I have arrived late on occasion and found myself praying solo in the women’s section, at a loss and unable to coordinate my prayer with the rest of the jama’ah. The stress of it alone is enough to make you break your wudu.

Women are one half of the mosque, in essence if not always in numbers, and we have the right to be able to follow the imam. Even at al Haram mosque in Mecca, women aren’t shuffled into the shoe cupboard. All the oldest mosques in the world are open and undivided. Yet still this modern segregation is commonly perceived as more Islamic. When did man decide that instead of following the blueprints outlined by the first Muslim generations, he’d trump these with an all-new design of his own, that excludes the mothers and sisters of Muslim society?

The solution is simple and necessary if British Muslims wish to reverse the dwindling number of Muslimahs who frequent their mosques. Install a divider that covers half of the women’s area, leaving a designated section completely open so that those who want to participate in the jamaa’ah in front aren’t restricted from doing so. Women who wish to pray in privacy would be able to do so behind the barrier.

There are those who argue that it is anti-woman to settle for praying directly behind men. “You should seek to be equal with men,” they tell me. After spewing my characteristically infantile knee-jerk reaction of “Muslimahs have a little more ambition than that,” I attempt to reclaim some credibility by explaining that, in theory, we already are equal to men; we have rights over them and they have rights over us, that is how Islam, and indeed society, works. But there is an elementary difference between seeking to be, in practise, equal to men and seeking to be men. To request to pray with men is to create an issue where one doesn’t exist. Why would you desire to pray amongst men unless you aren’t comfortable being a woman? To aspire to join the male congregation is to commit the ultimate sexist act; implying that there is something innately superior associated with being amongst- or simply being- men.

Where you happen to stand in the congregation is irrelevant as long as you are able to follow it. There is no need for women to pray at the front, unless they are using the mosque for anything other than its intended purpose. (Yes, I’m talking to the ruthless husband-shoppers.)

British Muslims have a lot to learn from their Bosnian counterparts. My trip to the country’s mosques led to my befriending a mueddhin, climbing a minaret and meeting countless welcoming worshippers. Most importantly it reminded me of the essence and the community that mosques are required to have. Being part of the cacophony of ‘Ameen’s’ brought back tingles I haven’t felt in years. This is what it’s about; community.

Praying directly behind the men in mosques does not lead them to try to steal your handbag, hijack your oestrogen or propose to you just because you happen to be praying behind them. The worst it will do is lead other worshippers to greet you with a ‘salaamu alaykum’ on your way out, and we could all do with a little more peace in our lives.

Ruqaya Izzidien is a writer, cartoonist and a spoken word artist. Her column, ‘Shawerma Republic’ appears every other week.


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Against segregation in mosques | Shawerma Republic
Feb 28, 2011 11:49

[…] first article for the Shawerma Republic Column in Ceasefire Magazine explores the unIslamic notion of separate prayer rooms in mosques which is common in Britain, and […]

Feb 28, 2011 12:20

Excellent stuff, I totally agree – interesting point about there being no historic segregation. Not being a muslim myself, when I’ve visited mosques, I’ve alway assumed that that was just the way it was, didn’t realise it was a more modern step.
Would love to hear more about the “ruthless husband shoppers” !

Feb 28, 2011 13:20

I love this article! I think it’s really important that people (especially the Muslims) are made aware or these modern changes that create unecessary harm. I recently had a conversation with a ‘potential suitor’ about this very same issue and his response was “why focus on sunnah when you should just focus on the Fard?”. Ofcourse I laughed and immediately crossed him off my list! He continued to say, “Times have changed and women do have more rights, nowadays where is the inequalities in Islam?” After giving him mulitple examples the look on his face said ‘here we go again, another suffragette’. Ignorance still prevails.

The ignominy of it all is the so called community leaders have failed to educate muslims in such matters and have allowed this to be percieved as part of Islam.

A documentary was made on this topic which is definitely worth checking out http://www.nfb.ca/film/me_and_mosque/

Feb 28, 2011 15:47

You are right, old mosques dont have these segregation walls…Istanbul Mosques are beautiful examples of that

Feb 28, 2011 16:29

Great article, and very funny, thanks for this.

Feb 28, 2011 17:57

Great article, certainly not asking for much. I think you were a little too kind in omitting to mention that there are many Mosques in Britain which simply do not provide a space of prayer for women – certainly a huge violation.

My travels to South Africa, in particular Cape Town, greeted me with an equal sense of relief. Claremont Main Road Mosque is the only one I’ve ever been in where women can choose to pray alongside men in the main room, with little more than a rope separating them. Alternatively, they can seek the privacy of the balcony above. This Mosque also regularly hosts female speakers and enforces gender balance as part of its policy – an example that Britain needs to follow.

Minuteman Project
Feb 28, 2011 19:38

Ms. Izzidien,

Thank you for including the Minuteman Project in your humor.

Furthermore, I always wondered why there were never any women bowing down on all fours alongside the men paying homage to Mecca in the pictures and videos I have seen of mosque rituals.

As far as a border fence for the southern U.S. border with Mexico, yes, it is necessary until such time as the U.S. government takes our national security, our rules of law, and our sovereignty seriously.

Sincerely Yours,

JIm Gilchrist, Founder and President, The Minuteman Project

Feb 28, 2011 20:54

Thanks for all the feedback. Maisie, the ruthless husband shoppers could have a whole article to themselves!

Usayd, you’re absolutely right about the male-only ‘mosques’. Maybe we should mobilise women and crash their jama’ahs one by one? It’s fantastic to hear about the mosque in SA and there are also one or two in the UK that are beginning to resist the trend of total segregation.

And I’m glad the Minuteman Project has a sense of humour.

Feb 28, 2011 21:06

@ Jim Gilchrist – I have to agree the reference to Your project seamed kinda silly and out of place

as did you paying homage to Mecca line – we Pray to God and God;’s House in Mecca was built by Prophet Abraham and one of his son’s Peace be upon them! – Also if you look at the pictures from Mecca there are women there also.

@ Ms Izziden – While I agree with some of your comments there is more requirement on men having to go to the Mosque as a rule and not an exception whereas for women its a more open point.
Most of the smaller mosques hence catered to men 1st . In some of the larger mosques like here in Manchester, the central mosque here – there is a whole floor no less for women – so not a huge issue.
Also we have to be of our time and sometimes that means men have to take presidence in some issues – that is the natural order of things and not a point about equality as you said also in some areas women have more rights.
May I suggest voting with your feet and perhaps there’s meant to be segregation at certain locals – it may say more to the fact of our men’s concentration levels then the status of our highly esteemed women folk!

Zeyad M
Feb 28, 2011 21:21

@Jim Gilchrist – Muslim women and men pray side by side in Mecca.

Question: How coordinated are your efforts with the government? Is a renegade vigilante force the best way to maintain national security? Have you weighed the PR damage in your decision to assemble such a force?

@ Ruqaya Izzidien: I think the core issue is that culture some times trumps religious practice. During the time of Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) women played a central role in society and there was minimal segregation. They had defined roles in terms of child birth, etc, but Islam came to liberate women from the shackles of Arab culture (i.e. they gained right to own property, inherit, etc).

They had defined roles in society, that often complemented and completed the roles of men. Women even fought in battles, showing that women could often take on the roles of men when need be.

So, when I read your article I feel like you have the right to be upset and should assemble your own task force to get the word out and help disspell the myth that women are secondary to men in Islamic culture.

Feb 28, 2011 23:18

I’ve heard from one sister who was at a conference in a mosque with no female area that she ended up going across the street to ask the father of the church if he minds her praying there – he did not.

I’ve also seen in some countries that on 27th Ramadan (most likely for laylet al qadr) they dedicate a whole mosque to women only as the womens’ areas in other mosques get too overloaded.

Maybe we should start a naming and shaming campaign – that would get it some attention.

Newtons third law- Equal but opposite, not the same!

(redneck accent) men are still superior in every which what way!!!

Mar 1, 2011 7:42

yeah nice

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