Posts Tagged women in the mosque
In the last post, I talked about how as white North American converts, we often found ourselves living out other people’s fantasies of an Islamic ideal. Usually, these were the fantasies of immigrant or immigrant-descended Muslims, but sometimes these were the fantasies of other (usually older) converts.
These fantasies could be aspects of the thought of modern Muslim political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jamaat-i Islami which had become popularized, such as the notion that “Islam solves” social problems such as racism by uniting all believers within one umma. Or, they could be quite apolitical and superficially profound ideas taught by various neo-traditionalists, such as the idealization of the medieval Sunni scholarly tradition.
Either way, these were things that either didn’t really exist anywhere today in reality, or did exist, but fell miserably short of their idealized billing.
How did we not realize that these were fantasies rather than reality—and that trying to live them out would lead to some serious problems? Partly because in those pre-internet days our knowledge of what was really going on in Muslim communities even here in North America (forget anywhere else) was very limited.
And partly because what I would call a “reality filter” had been quite quickly and coercively implanted in our minds, so that even when we did see, or read or hear about Muslims past or present acting in ways that seemed to challenge our fantasies, it wouldn’t lead us to ask some pretty obvious questions. That reality filter was constructed and reconstructed daily, through ubiquitous phrases such as:
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.
…it is when a woman wants to claim the right to ownership of her own body.
The comments that I have received since the last post have been overwhelming. Partly because they’re unintentionally triggering. But mostly because this is such a complicated, interconnected mess of issues. It’s like saying “no” touches a wire that threatens to blow out a bunch of circuits. Or threatens to blow you up. Or something.
Men using porn and justifying it “Islamically” because their wife supposedly isn’t attractive enough, and their kids having to witness their mother being treated like that. Questions of marriage law and whether it can be reformed… and if it is even ethically possible to have an “Islamic” marriage… and what the ramifications of this are for those who want to remain within Muslim communities. And the internalized guilt for not following the rules, for refusing to “sell” your vagina in marriage in exchange for nafaqa and a new guardian. And internalized guilt also because, well, doesn’t the Qur’an say to men that “women are your tillage”? How can a woman refuse to be tillage, or in the very least, refuse to pay lip-service to the idea, and still claim to be a Muslim?
And yet another issue that no one has mentioned yet (but give them time…): the implications of all this for the laws and community practices governing acts of worship. (more on that in a minute)
Oh God, in other words.
“O you who believe! Stand up for justice, bearing witness for God even against yourselves…” (Q 4:135)
* * * * *
So far, my musings on Muslim identity have been very much centered on MY particular experiences as a white North American convert. Which is unsurprising, but also potentially distorting in a way. Perhaps the problem is not so much with all the racial and gendered dimensions of conversion in North America, but… me?
I mean, sure, conversion to any religion is bound to have its challenges. And becoming Muslim in North America in the early ’80’s was very much a leap in the dark. I thought that I knew what I was doing at the time, of course, but looking back, I just shudder at how remarkably unaware I was of the implications of just about everything that I was doing. Yes, those were the pre-internet days, and I was young and very naive about the way the world works, but really….
And once I had begun to get a sense of how race and gender and class and a whole host of other factors were going to make my relationships with both Muslims as well as non-Muslims a lot more complex now that I had converted and become a practicing, conservative Muslim, then surely any half-way sensible person wouldn’t still expect any sort of warm welcome, much less a sense of belonging? Maybe I just had very unrealistic expectations—not only due to the dawah literature I read, but due to… white privilege. After all, in this racially polarized society, how was it reasonable to have expected anything other than what ended up happening?
(and we continue discussing “the spiritual aspect”…)
“Although women can and did go into the mosque during the days of the prophet and thereafter attendance at the Friday congregational prayers is optional for them while it is mandatory for men (on Friday).
This is clearly a tender touch of the Islamic teachings for they are considerate of the fact that a woman may be nursing her baby or caring for him, and thus may be unable to go out to the mosque at the time of the prayers. They also take into account the physiological and psychological changes associated with her natural female functions.”
Early 80’s ghost: I don’t know why, but this sounds a little… off, I guess. The way the first sentence is worded, it sort of sounds as though whether women can go to the mosque is a question. But why would it be? Why wouldn’t any member of the community be able to enter a place of prayer?? Am I missing something here?
Commentator: Your instincts are correct—there is a long-standing debate among Muslims about whether women can go to the mosque at all, and if they can, what the conditions and limitations on their attendance are.
For a number of reason, many of which I outlined in my last post, Eid al-Adha was far from being my favorite holiday back when I was a conservative Muslim. In the insular, very conservative community that I belonged for a number of years, Eid was really a celebration of patriarchal power and privilege.
While I and my convert friends did our best not to acknowledge this, and tried so hard to get into the spirit of things, to find some spiritual nourishment in the whole thing—or failing this, to at least make it memorable and fun for our kids, it was practically impossible for us not to notice that its overwhelmingly patriarchal focus left barely any room for us or our children. It was a celebration of a particular type of hyper-masculinity that all but erases every way of being that doesn’t fit into that mold, and damns to hellfire all those of us who can’t help but protest the injustice of being negated and shoved to the margins.
But as this year’s Eid al-Adha approached, I began to hear things that made me wonder if perhaps I hadn’t written off this holiday too quickly. One mosque had invited a woman to give the sermon at the Eid prayers. And another was having a woman lead the Eid prayer. History was being made, apparently—and on this day of all days, when the story told in innumerable sermons around the globe studiedly ignores female subjectivities, and real live women are most typically relegated to the kitchen. I could hardly believe it.
But I was skeptical. The holiday is what it is, I thought. How could a few women giving sermons or leading prayers make any difference? Wouldn’t it be the ritual equivalent of… I don’t know, trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?
A couple of days ago, I walked into a store, looking for a plain, simple three-quarter length sleeve tunic. Something that would be light enough to wear over pants during the summer. In a neutral or quiet color, such as beige or light blue.
The salesperson asked if she could help with anything, and I said that I was looking for a tunic. She directed me to a rack with several different styles and colors. Some with bright blue patterns. Some with purple flowers. Some that were a very bright turquoise.
I shrank inwardly—I didn’t think that I’d like the way they looked on me—but tried them on anyway. Bright blue patterns didn’t suit me. Neither did purple flowers. As I had expected. I had somewhat more hope for the turquoise tunic, but when I looked at myself in the mirror, I quickly decided against it. The fit wasn’t right, but even more problematic was the color….
“That color looks great on you,” commented the salesperson.
“But you could see me from ten miles away in this!” I said, trying to sound like I was joking, but feeling really uneasy at the idea of ever wearing anything like this outside. “Do you have this in any other color?”