Women In Mosques: Barriers To Participation

sign for the women's section: Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Note: This post is part of a continuing theme here at HijabMan.Com. For an earlier post on the subject, check out: Women In Mosques.

There’s a barrier in front of me and it’s covered in orange felt. An unknown brown stain sits right in front of my face. Coffee? The imam is talking about supporting our community — I think. I can barely hear him over the din of women gossiping about their children or that new muslim who wears her hijab in a bun. I wonder if it’s me they’re talking about. What is that, coke? When I put my forehead against the carpet in prostration I can smell feet. The men are just on the other side of the barrier, and no one bothered to use odor eaters. Seriously, is it a dirty water stain? That’s disgusting.

Partitions dividing the women’s and men’s sections are just one of many contemporary additions to our North American mosques. But unlike water fountains and basketball courts aimed at providing needed services, the barrier aims to silence and shut women out of the community under the guise of sacred personal space.

Muslims always had some form of sex segregation when it comes to communal ritual worship. For obligatory prayers, men and women have their own prayer sections — with women either praying behind the men, or beside them with a separating aisle. Religiously suggested and sanctioned modes of dress and behaviour intend to help the sexes mingle chastely outside of worship situations.

Traditional, cultural and political appropriations of these logistics have not only lead to partitions, making us feel like second class citizens, but have also forced praying women into mosque basements or kept them hidden at home.

Over the past 30 years partitions have crept slowly across the face of North America.

Mosque communities are diaspora, they are home grown, African American, cater to converts or exclude anyone who doesn’t speak the language. Some are progressive, others are moderate. Some are more strict than others. Some have charismatic, accredited leaders. Others have to rely on volunteers to keep the community running. All belong to a wide range of Islamic interpretation and expression. All at some point or another have had to deal with the barrier discussion.

Generally, men tend to dominate mosque administrations. This is in part because of a fallacious belief that women cannot hold positions of power, but also because many women are holding down a job, caring for children and the household and simply don’t have the time to sit on a volunteer mosque position. Those who do volunteer tend to be retirees with empty nests, female Islamic scholars, university student representatives or simply stellar sisters who can balance career, children and mosque. But they are few and far between. And really, in mosques where partitions show up, there is rarely a woman on the executive board.

Those in power tend to have a smattering of Islamic education and try their best to provide religious services for the community, while answering the concerns of Muslims who are growing up with distinctly North American concepts and values as well as the cultural expectations of older generations. Many of these mosques started in someone’s basement, in old banks and even abandoned Anglican churches. In these mosques there tends to be no “traditional” imam, and the role of community leader is shared among a roster of volunteers.

Enter the culturally and politically motivated religious group.

They come with good intentions. They come with “valid” religious credentials (valid could mean a turban, a very long beard, or an actual degree from an accredited religious institution). They come specifically to help this fledgling, North American mosque survive in a morally corrupt secular country with no state-sanction Islam to tell them how it’s done like it is “back home” or according to the “real Islam.” They carry authority. They are highly intimidating. They sometimes even carry funding from overseas, have access to scholars who support their religious interpretation, and who use religious text to wrestle power away from the community. They are mosque pirates and their leadership includes promoting the complete segregation of women.

From Little Mosque on the Prairie:

Oh the fuss that’s made over these partitions! They’re erected without first consulting the women. So we walk into the mosque with a shocking, “oh hell no.” Many women take this as their cue to leave and never come back. Others argue and argue, but either the men in power don’t listen, use misinterpretations of the religious text to prove the barrier’s Islamic justification, or they simply defer the argument to women who actually want to be secluded.

The barriers are also ingeniously constructed, making it painfully obvious that someone puts a lot of thought and effort into excluding women. There’s the drawn curtain (my favourite); the one-way mirrored glass; venetian blinds; old 70s felt room dividers; opaque glass; a solid wall with tv projection and poor sound system; very pretty woven wood slats; and so many more.

looking through the barrier

Now, there’s no Quranic sanction for the seclusion of women. So how is it justified?

Well, apparently women are a distraction, so we are made invisible. Hijab, modest dress, and even niqaab aren’t enough. You can never be sure as to what will set off a man’s immoral thoughts and feelings, so it’s best not to be seen. Or heard. When we do attend the mosque, it’s also drilled into us to be silent, out of the fear that our soft, sultry voices will incite lust in men who cannot possibly be trusted to control their own desires.

And for some poor souls, even announcing the times for a sister’s weekly swim is enough to send them lasciviously imagining round, supple headscarves floating in water.

You know, perhaps it’s best if women just didn’t come to the mosque at all.

This is the subtext. The “official” reason for the barrier is to help create sacred personal space so that both men and women can worship without sexual distraction.

Oh great. I’m behind a barrier for my own spiritual good. If I weren’t hidden from the male gaze, I would cause the spiritual downfall of countless men. Because you know, we all come to the mosque to hook up (well, sometimes). And apparently, humans are incapable of worship in the presence of the desirable other sex. Must really suck if you’re a gay Muslim and you’re forced to pray next to people you’re attracted to.

As of the year 2000, about 66% of mosques in Canada had some kind of partition.

Now, some women do indeed feel more comfortable praying behind a barrier. In the majority of Muslim countries women just don’t go to the mosque. It’s not encouraged. Mosques tend to be overrun with men and the space set aside for women is generally lacking or falls into disuse.

There are also cultural justifications for the partition. North America provides an interesting dynamic for the immigrant Muslim population. The culture is different and potentially isolationist — there is also religious freedom. If you want to meet people from “back home” you can do so at the mosque. Many women attend the mosque for the first time only after they’ve come to Canada or the US. First its for companionship and later its to actually learn about Islam.

In this case, the barrier does indeed provide a safe space for women to meet and network. Ask anyone about the most annoying issue about the barrier. It’s not necessarily the subjugation of women. It tends to be the loud gossiping and socializing during the sermon. But what would you expect? The barrier shouts to us, “you’re not a part of the mosque religious or decision-making culture!” Of course we’re going to feel safe in our little space, unwind and have a bitch n’ stitch. No one cares that we’re there. So why should we?

But we should care because the problem with the partition is that while it’s toted as creating a sacred personal space, where men and women can worship freely without distraction, it denies women participation and access to religious education, makes unfortunate assumptions about the moral fortitude of Muslim men, and encourages the disempowerment of women.

The Qur’an has the capability to promote equality between the sexes. When she’s old enough, I’ll be teaching my daughter Eryn how to read the Qur’an, how to understand problematic verses, and hopefully to encourage her to be an empowered Muslim woman. I would hate for her to grow up seeing the barrier as an essential part of mosque culture. I would hate for her to feel less than anything she is capable of becoming because of her sex.

Thankfully there are brave women and men who continue to challenge the partition’s status quo. Mainstream, moderate mosques refuse to put up a barrier, or accommodate both sides of the argument. Some mosques have even gone back to men and women praying side by side. Women, like myself, subvert the barrier by praying in front of it, or if it’s a curtain, simply tearing it aside. Some women even decide to just lead prayer themselves.

For years women have been empowering others through social networks, offering positions of leadership and opportunities for women to engage in politics, social justice and feminist interpretations of Islam. I find it interesting that while it is not an Islamic requirement and more of a cultural misappropriation, mosques have gone through complete renovations to install high-tech wall dividers to cut the mosque in half. When everyone could be accommodated through a “barrier on wheels.” That way, those women who really feel that they need it have the option. And as for the few blokes who just cannot stand to see a women when they enter the mosque — perhaps they’re the ones who should stay home.

–WoodTurtle

This post originally appeared at wood turtle, where she shares experiences in Islamic feminism and modern motherhood.

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12 comments

  1. BooRikti says:

    Thanks for this article. For me, the barrier and all the appearance requirements for entering a mosque have effectively barred me from Islamic community locally. As a community non-member, I don’t feel in a position to criticize “other people’s mosques.” I hope community insiders will gradually decide to change their ways.

  2. Effie says:

    In our local mosque, we didnt originally have any sort of opaque partition. There was a velvet-rope divider kind of similar to what’s used to mark off the path of a line in airport security or a bank. Then one loud angry woman started bullying all the other women to pray in the children’s play room because she thought being in the same room with the men made us immoral. Because her husband is a doctor and huge financial backer of the mosque, a lot of women have listened. She even tells new visitors to the mosque that they HAVE to pray in the tiny playroom. The men in the community in general dont seem to support this at all, and most of the women don’t personally seem to care beyond the fact that she does such a good job of shaming everyone into complying. I’ve stopped going because I’m tired of the “slut shaming” I get for praying in a space where I can do sajood on the carpet instead of another woman’s back. From what I’ve seen, we have to get women first and foremost to stop trying to force each other and themselves into this flawed idea of gendered space before we can even start to tackle the problem of men pushing women aside in the Islamic community.

  3. mohamed says:

    mashallah very well written! I think it comes down to a matter of taqwa and intention. If the people in charge of the mosques sincerely want to empower/involve the sisters and still follow the sunnah in the way they feel is right, thats all it really takes. I’ve seen barriered mosques with amazing participation and leadership from women, but mostly in the college crowd. Unfortunately there are many mosques where the leadership is only interested in planning the next event, and not thinking deeply. I’m in no position to be criticising, though, I’m an outsider too lol!

  4. Woodturtle says:

    @Effie, you’ve hit the nail on the head with “slut shaming.” We can’t go around claiming that hijab protects against immodest sexual interactions and then force women to hide behind a curtain because they’re a distraction by simply existing. 

    Women have always engaged in their own oppression. It’s a power play. And I completely agree that change needs to start with us as well. I have a “mosque cop” that I deal with on a regular basis. And it’s really hard standing up to them. I just tend to explain that according to the major schools, our prayers are invalid when there is a barrier and we can’t see the imam. I go for the “open it for the fardh prayer and close it for the rest if you must” route. That seems to work.

  5. Jasmeen says:

    I really like the partition at my mosque, because some of the brothers are downright CREEPY. Like, looking between their legs in sujood to try to get a glimpse of a Muslimah’s butt creepy, or not lowering their gaze, or even going on the women’s side AND opening the door to the bathroom AND looking in AND seeing me without hijab making wudhu AND continuing to stare.

    It’s really sad and pathetic that I am harassed the most at the mosque and not any other place in America, but I guess that’s the reality. I’m sure if they took down the partitions things would get better after a few generations, but I don’t think I’m strong enough to be able to handle it in the meantime.

  6. Anne says:

    Like Effie, our Mosque went from the radical approach of opening the curtain a tiny sliver so the countless sisters who wished to see could cram in there to get a peek, to the “group consensus” one way mirror, which upon its grand unveiling had a curtain put over it because one sister thought the men could see “women shapes”. Unfortunately, we often percieve the most pious woman as the one who wears her oppression well and forces others to wear it too. FOr converts, like me, it is difficult to maintain faith when you are literally on your own. Jasmeen – men can be told to keep it in their pants, if the ummah spent as much time shaming perving men as it does women they deem whatever, you would be fine praying without a barrier. Why should we be responsible for irresponsible men.

  7. Leels says:

    Effie-

    I found your comment really insightful, and morbidly funny. I too have witnessed that it’s mostly women in our parents’ and grandparents’ generations that insist on enforcing some form of gender segregation. I think your experience is very telling– what are mosque leaders doing to gain back the women congregants that they’ve alienated due to their hostility and indifference? Absolutely nothing– and this does not bode well for Islam in America. Speaking of which… this IS America! We don’t and shouldn’t let people push us around, we are individual thinkers, not a uniform collective. Don’t let that woman strip you of your dignity and independence. My response to her would be firm– that I have a perfect right to pray in the main prayer hall and that’s where I’ll stay. If she resorts to intimidation, I’d just completely ignore her (although what I’d like to say is: “Listen lady, I have more character in my pinky than you have in your whole body and I’m going to pray where I want.”). She’s not your mother, your teacher, or your parole officer she has no right to tell you what to do or where to go. She’s a stranger who is abusing her social power– in other words, a bully, exactly like you said. Bullies want attention and the only way to deflate them is to deprive them of their importance. Ignore, ignore, ignore.

  8. Jazz says:

    It seems that the biggest barrier to female participation in the mosque is a lack of education in Islamic texts amongst Muslim women and to a certain extent men. Perhaps when more Muslim women climb the ranks of Muslim scholarship we will have more female scholars who will be able to re-interpret the Qur’an whilst sifting out the cultural minutia which seem to create such big barriers to female participation in the Muslim community. And yes I must agree with other commentators that it is frequently women who most ardently push for such gender segregation. Insha’allah things can change for women in Muslim communities during the near future. Until then we must do our best to cope with the current situation while introducing our older generations who typically lead such mosques to new approaches, and most importantly stay true to our religion.

  9. Fatimah says:

    I really really like this blog, the analysis, and the commentary. It makes me feel good to know that other Muslim women are thinking along the same lines as I am, keep it going sis!

  10. Ossy says:

    I am a recent convert to Islam. I truly enjoy going to my local mosque for the Friday prayer, but it bothers me that the women are always cramped in the back. Usually when I come, I can hardly find a spot to pray, while the men have all the space they need in the front. I pray to Allah to help us, the Muslim community, to become more accepting and just.

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