Home Religion & Spirituality Unmosqued: Muslim Woman’s Struggle for Space and Belonging

Unmosqued: Muslim Woman’s Struggle for Space and Belonging

The central issue is that due to male dominance, women and women’s issues, experiences and their authority over knowledge are either under recorded or totally excluded from Islamic historical context. Furthermore, the interpretation and application of the Qur’an and sunnah are often ‘at the mercy’ of male interpretive privilege. In this regard a woman’s identity is only associated with her domesticity and invisibility.

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Sometime back I was in Nainital for a vacation, it was time for Zuhr so we decided to stop by a near masjid and offer salah before heading to our next destination. The driver drove us to a beautiful masjid on a busy street, in the heart of the city. At the entrance we were stopped by a man and told that women are not allowed in the masjid as there was no designated space for females. Standing at the gates and having a full view of the empty masjid we requested for permission to offer just two rakahs but of course we were denied straight off, as the area was closed off for women. I mean how did we forget, of the many things that women don’t have, easy access to the mosques is one of them.

Mosques used to be the heart of Muslim communities. It functioned not only as a center for having a congregational prayer but also as a wheel of community development and civic participation. Although it’s religiously compulsory only for men to attend the mosques daily for five prayers but women too have been attending it.

During the time of Prophet(pbuh) women were active attendees of mosques. They would carry their young babies with them, Prophet (pbuh) never barred them from entering the mosque. In fact when babies cried in the middle of the prayer, he’d made the prayer short enabling the mothers to attend to their babies but he never asked them to stop coming or leave their infants behind.

In one narration the Prophet (pbuh) said,” Do not stop the women from entering the houses of Allah”.(Musnad Ahmad 1:40 )This hadith is the biggest advocate for women’s participation and roles in mosques.

But the patriarchal hegemony of mosques has rendered mosques to remain “bastions of male dominance”. Most mosques do not have a welcoming ambiance for women, the space provided for them is usually is very small, unkempt and devoid of facilities. The hadith of Umm Humayd in which the prophet(pbuh) tells her that it would be better for her to pray in the innermost part of her home is often used to explain that it would be better for women in general to pray in their homes than in the masjid.

However, while this narration and one similar to it are encouraging women to pray in their homes, scholars also discuss whether or not that was meant to be for these particular individuals or for all women through all of time. A counter argument put forward to this states that, in home a woman might be living with her father, her brother or her husband, or her son.

If the issue that scholars talk about is that a woman will be seen less by men as she goes to the masjid- why is she being encouraged in her own home to pray in the inner most part of her home instead of like the living room? Is it really about not seeing her or is it that the context of the hadith is something else?

A famous scholar Ibn Hazam mentions that there are so many narrations of women going to the masjid in so many different circumstances, at the dawn and in the dark carrying their children, during the time of Prophet(pbuh) that the only person who could deny that fact, is someone who is ignorant. Abu Shaqqa also talks about the wife of Ibn Masood, Zainab (May Allah be pleased with her) would pray in the masjid, there are also so many accounts of female companions who would go actively to pray in the masjid at all times of the day and night.

Hazrat Atiqa, the wife of Umar the second caliph was present in the masjid when hazrat Umar was brutally stabbed several times leading to his martyrdom on 23rd Dhul Hijjah. When Hazrat Umar wanted to put a cap on Mahr, an elderly woman stood up from the middle of the masjid and challenged him, stating that his proposed policy violates Islamic laws and the Caliph withdrew his proposal. That was the best generation of women and yet they were actively involved in the masjid, planning, taking part in religious services and listening to Prophet’s sermons.

The struggle of muslim women to have access and afford a space within the masjid is an extension of the greater marginalisation, exclusion and discrimination meted out by patriarchal hegemonic order. Women in medieval Islamic history are described as not only in praying mosques but they even built them. They were free to study and teach both men and women. They were placed at the centre as equal participants in the matters related to faith and other social issues.

“In Delhi, we have the 16th century Khairul Manazil Masjid built by Maham Anga, the foster mother of the greatest Mughal ruler Jalaluddin Akbar. The Khairul Manazil Masjid, built in 1561 by Anga, is said to be the first mosque in Delhi to be commissioned by a woman, the same woman who was virtually the ruler of the empire in the early years of Akbar, as the Mughal scion was too young to fulfil the responsibilities of an emperor.” An excerpt from the book ‘Women in Masjid’ by Ziya Us Salam.

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Khairul Manazil Masjid built by Maham Anga, the foster mother of the greatest Mughal ruler Jalaluddin Akbar.

The wife of the prophet, Hazrat Aisha would spend a lot of her time preaching ahadiths to the the companions inside the mosque premises. To this day there stands a pillar inside the mosque named as ‘Ustuwaanah Aisha’ (The pillar of Aisha).

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Ustuwaanah Aisha, the pillar under which the prophets wife preached fellow companions

The primary issue is that due to male dominance, women and women’s issues, experiences and their authority over knowledge are either under recorded or totally excluded from Islamic historical context. Furthermore, the interpretation and application of the Qur’an and sunnah are often ‘at the mercy’ of male interpretive privilege. In this regard a woman’s identity is only associated with her domesticity and invisibility. The men who enjoy the sacredness of the masjid as they pray to their Lord, keep the woman at bay because they see the presence of women as an onslaught on their modesty. This feeds into a greater normative patriarchal narrative and generally accepted assumptions of women’s modesty, honour and freedom.

Sometime back, a popular digital media channel visited several masajids in Delhi to speak to the Imams about women coming for namaz in the masjid, the outcome of that show must leave our heads hanging in shame with the uncouth patriarchs churning out ignorance. Not a single self-proclaimed upholder of faith, got the matter right as per the injunctions of Islam instead all of them were either misquoting Prophet(pbuh) or talking their desires and culture.

The role of women in spreading and teaching Islam is integral to faith. In the formative years of Islam and even much later women prayed with men, participated in wars, tended to the wounds of the injured, took part in commercial interaction and played a pioneer role in education. Women have been the gatekeepers of Islamic history – they flourished in scholarship of the past and had great influence on fiqh, ahadith and political history. Mosques are spaces for spiritual growth and development and women too have right over them just as men do. Allah talks about the spiritual and moral need, and equality in definitive and explicit terms.

“Allah has prepared forgiveness and great rewards for the Muslim men and women; for the believing men and women; for the devout men and women; for the truthful men and women; for the men and women who are patient and constant; the men and women who humble themselves; for the men and women who give charity; for the men and women who fast, for the men and women who guard their chastity; and the men and women who are exceedingly mindful of Allah”. (Al-Ahzab 33:35)

Recently I posted a reel of women’s section on my instagram account, celebrating the women inclusive masjid of my locality and I received so much backlash for it, both by men and women. What many don’t realise that by keeping the women away from mosques they’re not only depriving women of their spiritual needs but also impeding their ability to engage in educational, social and many other community issues.

The precedence of culture and ignorance over guidance leave women spiritually frustrated and many, specially in the West are oscillating to the other extreme. Though it’s not a justification but we cannot deny the fact that the unislamic attitude of some muslim clerics rooted in ignorance, culture and prejudices is pushing an overwhelming number of women to the other extreme of the pendulum. They cannot sanitise their roles in laying to rest the records of religious authority, intellectual standing and engagement in mosques of women in the past.

There is no other religion where women were so present and active as they were in the early years of Islam and yet it’s quite unfortunate that they’re so unheard of and their stories have to be unearthed.

Qur’an gave women revolutionary rights, but sadly the mortals don’t. For ages we have been flaunting them with sporadic or nil application. Even in seventh century the Prophet (pbuh) was way too advance and ahead of his times, for the mindset of the men of 21st century. The 21st century muslim women is not asking for anything that Islam hasn’t already given her and yet it’s ruffling too many feathers because unlike yester years the women of today are asserting their rights.

Women can become powerful agents of revolutionary change in the society, they can be the trailblazing women who fill the spiritual gaps that have been created for centuries now,they can become muhadithaat, mujtahidaat, hafithaat, muftiyaat and all forms of scholars, if only we remove the egregious disparity between what once was and what now glossed over image it appears to be.

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