Several weeks ago, one of my daughters had a school field trip that involved visiting a Hindu temple, a Christian church, and a mosque. A class project on world religions.
Along with the permission forms sent home for parents to sign came a letter from the teacher explaining the type of behavior and dress that would be required of the students. Much of it was very reasonable, reminding the students that these are places of worship, so they needed to behave respectfully. But the girls were also told that they needed to wear long, loose pants (preferably sweatpants) and headscarves when they were at the mosque.
I paused, reading this letter. The field trip was going to take place in the afternoon, in the middle of the week. They would not be attending Friday Prayers, or any congregational prayer. They were not going to pray, either—they were there to see the building, and to hear the imam explain a bit about Islam and the community and the kinds of rituals and activities that would normally take place in a mosque.
In other words, what on earth would be the reason for requiring a bunch of mostly non-Muslim teenage girls to wear headscarves?? Or even to worry about what they might or might not be wearing on their legs??
My daughter wasn’t bothered by this, however. Because she took it for granted that somehow, a girl entering a mosque with uncovered hair or limbs profanes the mosque. And she was proud that at least she knew better than to even think of doing that, unlike some of the non-Muslim girls in her class, who didn’t seem to understand that you have to really watch what you wear to the mosque.
I pointed out to her that when I had first visited that same mosque in the early ’80’s, I saw women wearing short-sleeved, tight, scoop-necked shalwar kameez entering that mosque with transparent dupattas loosely draped over part of their heads and not concealing much of their hair, in order to attend Friday Prayers. They entered through the main door, along with everyone else. Then, they went up to the women’s balcony, put on the large white cotton prayer khimars that were kept there for all those women who did not come to the mosque dressed “suitably” for prayer, prayed, and left at the end of the service.
Nobody shouted at them to cover their hair. Nobody stopped them at the door. Nobody scolded them for daring to enter the mosque dressed like that. Nobody told them not to come back again unless they were going to wear “proper hijab.” Nobody handed them a pamphlet telling them how they ought to be dressing. Nobody told them that they were a fitna to the brothers, either.
Somehow, in the last couple of decades, there has been a sea-change, I told my daughter. Nowadays, a lot of people seem to think that even young girls have to be covered from head to toe in the mosque, forget a grown woman. But this is very recent. It didn’t used to be this way.
But I could tell that she could hardly believe it. And I can’t blame her, because I remember my reaction the first time I saw some old pictures from mosques from Detroit in the 1950’s. The Ladies’ Auxiliary (that had raised a lot of the money to build the mosque) stood proudly out in the parking lot, along with the male board members… and everyone in the picture was dressed like a typical 1950’s American. The men were all in dress shirts and pants, and the women were all wearing short-sleeved summer dresses. There wasn’t a single headscarf in sight. I remember staring at those pictures and wondering, how could that be?? Try entering any mosque parking lot nowadays dressed like that, and see how far you get. Or better yet, try joining any of the women’s committees. Just lol.
Somehow, being a Muslim woman today has come to mean buying into the notion that female bodies are obscene.
What does it do to girls to be raised with such an idea? What does it do to their mothers to inculcate such notions in their daughters??
But then, I suppose that I should be grateful that that letter hadn’t also said that menstruating girls wouldn’t be allowed to enter the mosque.
Years ago, I remember when promoting body-policing of women in my local mosques was being touted as… liberating. (And yeah, I fell for it.) Because some mosques actually banned women from entering altogether, and others required that women stay out of sight of the men—in the basement, or behind curtains, or behind tall, high barriers. Not only during prayers, but even at events such as when a speaker came. So, the idea that women had to be taught what exactly to wear, and how exactly to behave, and that sisters ought to enforce these standards on other sisters was held out as an improvement. Because if only women would dress and behave “properly,” then they too would be able to attend mosques and be in the same room as the speaker. It was our fault for being so undisciplined, supposedly.
But that wasn’t what generally ended up happening, by and large. While some mosques that had formerly banned women altogether began allowing them to pray in classrooms and so forth (which was an improvement of sorts…), it seemed that the more that women wore “correct” hijab to the mosque, the more mosques put in barriers (or built higher, thicker barriers) to segregate the women and make them invisible and inaudible to the men.
It’s been a journey, coming out from behind the barrier. At first, I believed that I had to prefer praying behind a barrier, on the balcony, or in the basement, because a good Muslim woman should always seek to conceal herself as much as possible from men’s gaze (and what could possibly be more sexy than a woman covered head to toe at prayer?? lol). I never heard any born Muslim woman objecting to it, so I figured that none of them had a problem with it. Until I found out that this wasn’t true—it was that talking about it was so taboo. Once the ice was broken, and I realized that lots and lots of women found the ways that we were being treated in mosques objectionable, then I could begin to be honest about what I was really feeling, and what the effects of being treated as a distraction or a walking obscenity were.
And it was scary, because, well, where was this going to stop? We could object to women being made to pray in the basement, because obviously there was no basement in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina. But we were told that we had no grounds to object to being made to pray in the back rows, even though we couldn’t see or hear properly. Because ultimately, we were a distraction and an occasion for fitna [insert appropriate hadiths here]. And of course a woman couldn’t ever lead men in prayer (except possibly in some very rare situations maybe, that were never, ever going to happen in our mosque), because that would cause men to lust after her and therefore be degrading to her. (Why it is that men have the power to instantly degrade any girl or woman at all by lusting after her is never, ever explained.)
When the woman-led prayer movement began, and then the pray-ins, I was cautiously hopeful, but also wondered where it would all end. I hoped that it would change things, but realized that it probably wouldn’t. Because I was coming to realize just how difficult and convoluted all this stuff is about women’s bodies and sexuality and ideas of what makes things sacred. Hard to sort through even if you are committed to being fully honest, but pretty much impossible if all you’re willing to do is to spin apologetic rationales for what you already believe you have to agree with. And to get the powers-that-be to critically examine their ideas about women’s bodies—those same folks who have now devoted years of their lives to telling women how to dress and promoting gender segregation and so on, and calling it “liberation.” Not going to happen.
How would the movement survive? Would it sell out, in order to try to meet the conservatives half-way and try to keep a conversation about women in the mosque going? And even if it established its own prayer spaces, what was to keep it from becoming a sort of “we’ll let women lead sometimes, but otherwise it will all be pretty much the same” kind of thing?
So, I was delighted to read this blog post, “Creating Space: Mosques Affirming All Bodies, Minds, and Hearts.” This is a vision of what mosques can be, that is based on tawhid. And it is amazing.
Reading through this post, I was particularly struck by the stated policy on people’s clothing:
Our dress code asks that we clothe ourselves in accordance with the nobility of the soul. There can be no policing of bodies. No declarations that nail polish, the lack of head scarf, or a t-shirt with a musician’s image on it are threatening a person’s relationship with God. This is easy to accept when a person wears unrevealing clothing. But if someone comes in wearing very low cut jeans and a thong that shows when they bend over, then it’s a bit harder. Even for us. But everyone must accept that the individual determines their body’s relationship with God. And the effect of their dress on others? Anyone who does not feel comfortable praying behind them, should not pray behind them. We try to help people understand that their gaze is their responsibility. [the emphasis here is mine]
Imagine that—a Muslim space where women’s bodies aren’t held hostage to men’s desires or comfort levels. A Muslim space where piety isn’t about controlling others’ behavior under the guise of “giving nasiha” or “upholding the sunna.”
Because it was really all about control. All of it was, I realized. All the concern about what women wear, even if they’re out in the parking lot. All the fussing about what a group of non-Muslim schoolgirls will wear, even though virtually nobody is going to see them. It’s all about control, boundary marking of “our” sacred space, making sure that “our” rules are supreme and everyone must bend to them, emphasizing that mosques exist in order to meet the needs of men first and foremost and that this is the way God wants it… and that women’s bodies are inherently a problem to be dealt with, covered, silenced and hidden away. What a powerful way to control girls and women—to inculcate the idea that our bodies are intrinsically problematic and more distant from all that is holy than men’s are.
Reversing so many years of this kind of conditioning is no easy or straightforward matter. But the establishment of such prayer spaces holds up a vision that things can indeed be otherwise than what we were taught that they have to be. And for me, that’s what matters. Because I don’t think that the majority of mosques or Muslim communities in North America will change much, at least not in my life time. My focus is on recovery, as well as showing my kids that there are in fact other options.