Police Officer Barry Goodwin squatted next to a woman finishing her prayers inside the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C.
He listened to her explain why she had a right to pray in the main hall of the mosque, while a mosque employee countered that she was violating the rules.
“I don’t know the rules,” Goodwin, who’d been called to the mosque by the employee, admitted to the woman and the mosque employee.
“What’s going on here?” asked Goodwin.
What was going on was a protest last Saturday, Feb. 20, against the center’s requirement that women pray behind an 8-feet-tall, wooden partition at the back corner of the mosque, behind the male worshippers. The protest was led by Fatima Thompson, 44, of Owings Mills, Md.
I’ve been re-listening to two lectures by Dr. Mattson today, they’re short but full of wisdom. I really enjoy listening to Dr. Mattson and wish she had a higher profile in the media because she is simply brilliant. Her lecture Heaven’s Gate: How Muslim Women Open or Close Doors for Their Sisters touches on many issues I have been turning over in my mind recently.
…Secondly, ‘A’isha was public in her corrections. Of course she corrected some people privately but she also corrected people in a public fashion when necessary. When she heard that someone was attributing to the Prophet Muhammad something she found reprehensible, she did not hold back. In doing so, she taught that it is perfectly acceptable and sometimes necessary to challenge power publicly.
It is because of the example that she set that we see her students demonstrating the same kind of strength and courage. For example, ‘A’isha bint Talha, who was one of ‘A’isha bint Abi Bakr’s students, is well known for very publicly refusing the demands of others that she cover her face in public. ‘A’isha bint Talha was the most beautiful woman of her age, but she was also a great scholar of hadith who learned religious knowledge from her aunt and had the same kind of confidence to articulate her convictions.
…To have solidarity among women, therefore, we do not need to have a utopian sisterhood, where all women are joined in a mystical bond of love and caring. What we can learn from the sometimes strained relationships that ‘A’isha had with other women is that we can stand up for each other’s right, despite such strains.
The Myth of the Idealized Muslim Woman
…We can learn from ‘Aisha’s legacy that, all too often, the fullness of great Muslim women’s experiences is narrowed and appropriated by those wishing to present an “ideal” Muslim woman. Not only is it rare that we hear about the Companions’ weaknesses, as I have already mentioned, but all too often, the words or examples of the female Companions are drawn upon selectively to support a position that the women themselves would have been unlikely to support.
For example, one often hears those who wish to exclude women from the mosque citing a statement that ‘A’isha was reported to have made some decades following the Prophet Muhammad’s death: “If the Prophet had seen how women are behaving, he would have prohibited them from the mosque, as was the case with the Children of Israel.” Although A’isha uses a general term “women” in her statement, any reasonable interpreter would have to agree that it is evident that ‘A’isha did not mean all women. In the first place, ‘Aisha and her fellow widows lived in the mosque, so she obviously did not mean to exclude all women.
Rather than putting women down, ‘A’isha was simply holding women accountable for their behavior, and not expecting anything less from them than the high standard of conduct she expected of men. The fact that ‘A’isha’s words have been used to justify the exclusion of women from the mosque shows how important it is for women leaders to prevent their teachings from being appropriated to exclude women who do not conform to the sanitized, narrow image that others have constructed of them. Here, religious women have to be especially careful to avoid being set up as closed doors that keep other women from accessing the knowledge and sacred spaces they need.
…Another particular risk for Muslim women in our own time is our frequent reluctance to treat other women as individuals, rather than as exemplars of our collective feminine identity. Too often we seem to feel that obtaining a dignified identity for women in general is so vital that we need to sacrifice the rights of some women for the sake of us the group.
It is common in marginalized groups that there is pressure for individuals to conform for the sake of the good of collectivity. Many are afraid that if some of their peers make statements that are too challenging, then perhaps there will be a backlash. However, we need to remember that there is no general woman; there are only individual women, each with their own idiosyncrasies, values and beliefs.
An Act of Protest
…Certainly there is much values in respecting common norms of behavior and not acting counter-culturally simply to provoke a reaction. However, sometimes it is only outrageous behavior that will elicit a necessary reaction in the face of mindless complicity. Who is to judge when it is appropriate to sacrifice individuality for the sake of the common good and when it is necessary to fight for one’s rights, despite protests that one is creating discord (fitna)?
In the end, this is a judgment call that we can all make, but must not assume that any of our judgments are infallible. When it comes to women’s rights, we should not be so terrified of a backlash that we disown our sisters who take a more radical path. We might think that their behavior is outrageous, ridiculous, or over-the-line, and we can make that judgment. Still, we should support their right to be wrong.
You might say that now I have adopted a typical liberal stance on rights, despite beginning my talk with a recommendation that a more conservative path of transformation should be considered. Certainly, I believe that when it comes to gender relations in Muslim religious communities, that an ethical transformation based on spirituality, and drawing upon diverse resources of classical Islam will yield positive results. However, I also believe that this kind of transformation cannot occur today except in a social and political context in which the liberal notion of individual rights is upheld. Authoritarian and patriarchal tendencies run too deep in Muslim communities for any real transformation to occur without grounding our religious choices in a liberal political (in the small and large sense) framework.
The Prayer Space Example
…The Prophet Muhammad said, “Do not prevent the maidservants of God from the mosques of God.” What we have to understand is that women are not prevented from praying in the mosque only by words. They also are prevented when they are not afforded reasonable access to the prayer space and the opportunity to join the congregation.
The female companions of the Prophet Muhammad enjoyed this access during his lifetime; it cannot be anything other than disobedience to his teachings to deny such access. In order to open doors of spiritual opportunity for our sisters, it is, therefore, sometimes necessary to put aside our preferences.
Last Friday after my Penalty Box post was published, I went to salatul-jumu’ah at a hotel. The usual space was reduced by a third due to a scheduling conflict with another group’s event. On a normal jumu’ah we have three rooms, two for the brothers and one partitioned off for the sisters. This day with only two rooms, the brothers had one room and the second room was divided by some chairs with brothers in the front and sisters in the back. The partition was opened in the middle to allow the overflow of brothers to enter the second room and to provide the sisters with a view of the imam. Those sisters that desired more privacy could sit closer to the wall to be out of sight of the men.
I wish I had a better picture to show you because despite the impromptu nature of the setup, it was one of the best setups that I’ve ever experienced. I had intended to take more pictures after everyone left but I was only able to manage this one before a little girl grew fascinated with the slider capacity on my phone. By the time I regained control of my phone, the partition had been moved and the brothers were putting the rooms back in order.
I came early and took my seat in the back of the room against the wall to try to get into the ajr-filled last row but also in a spot where I would be able to have a clear view of the imam. The khutbah began with two beautiful reminders:
“None of you truly believes, until you love for your brother what you love for yourself.”
“And (remember) when your Lord proclaimed: “If you are thankful, I will give you more…” [Ibrahim 14:7]
I was struck by a few things that made my heart overflow with thankfulness and happiness and my eyes overflow with tears:
1. I appreciated being able to clearly see the imam standing while delivering the khutbah. The sensory experience is quite different when able to see the full range of expression and verbal and nonverbal speech than simply listening or even watching on a monitor. I think I’m a fairly good listener and have become adept at listening without visuals. I am usually able to stay focused, yet I believe my attention and focus was greater with the direct line of sight to the speaker.
2. I didn’t mind being cramped and squeezing myself against the wall to make way for the other believers, as space was a genuine concern. Continue reading →
Since I mentioned at the end of my The Penalty Box: Muslim Women’s Prayer Spaces post that I had an idea in mind to create a photoblog showcasing some of these spaces, a number of people have encouraged me to follow through on the idea.
I’d like to be able to couple the pictures with responses from the masajid administrators and also from brothers and sisters that attend that masjid. I’d love for people to be able to participate and show us all the lovely prayers spaces they have visited as well as those unfortunate penalty boxes, balconies, and broom closets, which many of us have also utilized for prayer.
I just need a good name for the blog and I’ll start it up, in sha Allah. It’s unfortunate that it seems like the only place where we can have this discussion in our communities, is online. But I’m also willing to do the legwork to also actively seek out to hear from masajid representatives. The intention is not to name and shame but to seek accountability for actions and decisions and possibly to improve conditions and/or generate new ideas and to hear and see what works well in certain communities. I’d like to increase the understanding, not decrease it or perpetuate stereotypes.
Check out my new post over at Muslim Matters, we’re having a lively discussion in the comments. Ruth Nasrullah, a former MM writer expressed similar sentiments two years ago in her Women and the Wall post.
One bitterly cold and windy weekend here in Washington DC, a friend and I decided to visit the U.S. Botanic Garden, which is located indoors. We left the garden shortly before sunset and decided to head over to a local restaurant to get a bite to eat. On our way, we could tell from the sky that the time for maghrib prayer was near. As I began to wonder where we would pray, the iconic minaret of the Islamic Center of Washington, DC just down the road came into view. Alhamdulillah, I thought, we can stop and pray there. In warmer weather I do not mind finding a spot to pray outside, but as this day was particularly cold, I was grateful for the opportunity to pray in a warm mosque.
We parked on the road and as we prepared to walk inside, an older brother of uncle-age turned to eyeball us on his way into the masjid. I reminded him to lower his gaze, and he hurried inside. Despite the cold weather, we walked around the building looking for a separate women’s entrance but couldn’t find one. Surprised, we entered through the same doorway used by the brothers and up the same narrow shared staircase to the shared shoe racks to the shared entrance to the upper level main prayer room. All this equality and equal access was quite remarkable and rather baffling, particularly because for Friday prayers, the cramped women’s prayer area is little more than a glorified basement broom closet.
In the years since becoming Muslim, I’ve come to expect separate and unequal, if not downright shoddy and dangerous accommodations for sisters in most masajid. My friend asked me where the sisters pray and I told her there is some space blocked off for us in the main hall.
She went in to find it but I held back, timidly, feeling a nervousness that has developed from my experiences of being a woman that desires to pray in the masjid. She motioned me inside, and we walked over to the area reserved for sisters. We listened to the adhan, and as my friend had never before visited the Islamic Center, she took in the sights of ornately decorated walls and ceilings. We prayed our sunnah and waited for the prayer to begin.
My friend asked me about the right of women to see the imam, a topic we had learned about in the AlMaghrib Divine Link: Fiqh of Salah seminar. She tried rather unsuccessfully to peek through the narrow cracks in the large wooden dividers to gauge whether she would be able to see the imam. I then suggested that we pray in the main section, in the back, behind the men. Not really much cause for fitna (discord) as there were barely two rows of men and ample prayer space. She agreed.
I must say, I felt somewhat nervous while waiting for the iqamah, our cue to escape from the penalty box/women’s prayer area and enter the main prayer area. I felt for a moment what Asra Nomani must have felt standing alone in her masjid in Morgantown, West Virgina (and I don’t agree with her on most matters), and also what countless women, forced into cramped, crowded, and unseemly prayer spaces in far too many of our communities, feel each time they desire to worship their Lord in the mosque.
After the iqamah, the scant two rows of men lined up, and we lined up off to the left side toward the back. One easily could have placed a dozen rows of worshippers between us and the men. We did something quite revolutionary, we prayed maghrib salah in the main room, outside of the penalty box, and then we prayed our sunnah. There were no fireworks, no angry shouts, and most of the brothers left quietly after they prayed.
One lone brother just could not resist telling us that the prayer space for women was located inside the penalty box in the back right hand corner of the mosque. When we said that we preferred to pray over here to be able to see the imam, he countered by telling us that the brothers who come late like to pray in the back (as if they could not find any other space to pray in that huge mosque). Seeing that we were unimpressed and unmoved by his feeble arguments and attempts to persuade us, he also left.
My friend then humorously suggested that the area designated for the women would be more rightly utilized as a penalty box for the men who come late to the salah, as a rebuke and punishment. Continue reading →
One of my coworkers and I were discussing all of the talk and preparation in the lead up to this past weekend’s blizzard, which blanketed much of the Northeast. She remarked that, the people here (in the Washington DC Metro area) were acting crazy, clearing out store shelves grabbing everything and anything they could lay their hands on as though being snowed in for a few days was more serious than the Day of Judgment, which of course, very few people actually fear much less think about and begin making preparations for it.
If we had our priorities in order, we would be preparing even more seriously for the day we will all be called to account. The day that will be equal to 50,000 years. A day when we will be swimming and some drowning in their own sweat. A day when we will be standing all alone, afraid of what we have sent forth, of our mistakes, of our sins, of our intentions (were they purely for the sake of Allah?). There will be no ties of kinship or friendship on that day, all will be standing naked. Aisha (radiy Allahu anha) asked the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam): “Won’t the people be looking at each other?” and he (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) replied, “The affair [on the day] is more severe and more serious than that.”
At Home Depot, there were only garden shovels left and the people were still snapping those up. I lost my gloves sometime last week and went to Target to try to find a new pair, I looked for the glove display only to be told by a worker that their entire inventory was sold-out. There were massive lines at grocery stores and gas stations, it looked like the aftermath of a natural disaster. All this before the first flakes of snow fell from the sky.
I’m from upstate New York where snow is just a matter of daily life in the winter. So I tend not to “freak out” over every little bit of potential snow accumulation. As a believer, I am reminded to take stock of not only if I have enough food and gas to make it through the weekend but of what I am sending forth and preparing for the real calamity. The day when the books, which omit nothing large or small are laid open and my Lord calls me to account. One of the salaf said, “Know that if Allah questions you about anything on that day, you will be punished.”
May Allah azza wa jal make us of those who remember and prepare for the final day and make us from those given our book of deeds in the right hand, and make us of those who have truly suceeded. Ameen.