Rites and Rights: the Mosque Movement From Mecca to Main Street

Rites and Rights: the Mosque Movement From Mecca to Main Street

Margot Badran

Women are flocking to mosques around the world. Now, during Ramadan, they are packing mosques nightly in many countries for tarawwih or the recitation of the Qur’an. It has not always been easy, or indeed possible, for women to participate in communal worship.


Exactly 95 years ago when the Egyptian National Congress met in Heliopolis, in the midst of the anti-colonial struggle, writer, educator, nationalist, and feminist Malak Hifni Nasif (known under the penname Bahithat Al-Bad’iya) seized the change to forward the demand that women regain the right to participate in congregational prayer in the mosque that, as she pointed out, they had enjoyed in Mecca and Medina in the early days of Islam. If male nationalists, as fervently as women nationalists, wanted the colonialists out of Egypt, Malak Hifni Nasif and others wanted women in the mosque.

In recent decades, women have won increased entry to mosques. Yet, with new gains come new concerns. These include women’s use of mosque space. While often curtailed in their access to the mosque or relegated to inferior space in mosques around the world, Muslim women have traditionally looked—both figuratively and literally, every time they pray—to the holy city of Mecca where male and female believers pray in common space in the Grand Mosque and circumambulate the Kaabah together. This is in stark contrast to the extreme gender segregation and female face shrouding that prevails in the rest of the country, advertising the extremes and durability of the very patriarchal practice the Qur’an had come to eliminate. The ritual at the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina has traditionally reflected the Qur’anic ethos and the practice of the early egalitarian Muslim community. This, however, is now threatened.

It was with outrage last August that women received the news from the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques Affairs that they were to be removed from the circumambulation area around the Kaabah called the mataf and to be shunted to the northern wall of the Grand Mosque. Women in Saudi Arabia swiftly objected. Soon women around the world joined in. Hatoon Al-Fassi, a Riyadh-based writer and historian, objected in the press that the proposed plan “not only goes against the message of Islam but also wounds the feelings of Muslim women.” She continued: “The main problem of the proposal is that it denies Muslim women the right to pray at the holiest place on earth, near the Holy Kaabah, where prayers are answered and where the faithful can achieve better devotion and closeness to God.”

Islam was revealed for humankind ( insan ), women and men alike. She reminded people: “The Prophet (peace be upon him) has instructed that women must not be banned from mosques,” stressing that “throughout history, from the earliest days of Islam, women have never been banned from praying inside the mataf or any other parts of the two holy mosques [at Mecca and Medina].”

Women are referencing the Qur’an to back their rights. Many call this discourse Islamic feminism; others prefer simply to call this ijtihad or rational investigation of religious sources. Suhaila Hammad of the National Society for Human Rights quoted the Qur’an: “As to those who have rejected [God] and would keep people from the Way of God and from the Sacred Mosque [ al-masjid al-haram ] which we have opened to all people [ al-nass ]—equally the dweller there and the visitor from [another] country—and any whose purpose therein is profanity or wrongdoing—We will cause them to taste of the most grievous penalty” (22: 25).

There have been increasing restrictions lately placed upon women with respect to worship and devotions, Al-Fassi notes. The proposed restriction at the holy shrine in Mecca was just the latest example. It was certainly the most distressing example. Alerted by Saudi women, news of the proposed restrictions sent out shock-waves among Muslim women world-wide. Aisha Schwartz, founder-director of the Muslimah Women’s Alliance in Washington, immediately set up the Grand Mosque Equal Access for Women Project that circulated a petition protesting the restrictions. Very quickly a thousand signatures were collected. Women inside Saudi Arabia and around the world, meanwhile, carried on protesting in the media. It was the most striking example to date of concerted Islamic feminist global protest and one that authorities could not ignore.

Suddenly in mid-September, less than a month after the plan was first announced, and two weeks before the start of Ramadan, the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques issued a second statement saying the proposal had been dropped. In making this announcement, Deputy-Director Nasir Al-Khuzayyam was careful to re-affirm that “Women and men stand on an equal footing in Islam.”

Women have been flooding mosques in recent years in many of the old Muslim communities in Africa and Asia, and in the newer communities in the West. If the mosque serves more purely as a place of worship in Muslim-majority societies in Africa and Asia, in the West the mosque constitutes community space and an important gathering place for families. Many mosques in the United States in recent years have had to increase their prayer space, extend their education centres and childcare facilities, and expand parking facilities to accommodate the growing needs.

There are various spatial arrangements in American mosques. In many mosques women pray in a section behind men. There are also a good number of mosques where the physical barriers dividing male and female congregants include high walls and other partitions that prevent women worshippers from being able to see and hear the imam leading the prayer. In one mosque in southern Illinois a portable dividing wall mysteriously disappeared overnight (it was said young women had a hand in this) and in a mosque I visited in Chicago word was out that a wall that had been torn down was about to be re-erected following the installation of a conservative mosque board. As one wag put it: “Muslim women are up against the wall.” In some mosques “wall wars” are unnecessary, however, as women are relegated to separate places altogether such as balconies or side rooms.

In many mosques women are required to enter through a side door. Some Muslim women in America have been rebelling against being shunted aside in a country where it has not been forgotten that some people, because of race, were forced to sit in the back of the bus. Activist Asrar Nomani tells in her book Standing Alone at Makka how one day she and a group of women walked through the front door of the mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia.

The contemporary mosque movement can be traced back over a decade to early post-apartheid South Africa when the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town invited African-American theologian Amina Wadud, author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, to give a pre-sermon talk at the Friday congregational prayer—the first such invitation issued to a woman. On that occasion, also for the first time, women descended from the balcony to occupy the main prayer hall with men, and have remained there every since praying parallel to men. Farid Esack his book Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism and Fahmi Gamieldien in The History of the Claremont Main Road Mosque: Its People and their Contribution to Islam in South Africa (a 150-year-commemoration volume) have written about this spiritually moving experience. The landmark event, however, also led to angry protest and threats by militant diehards against the imam and others as Gamieldien also details in his book. It is no surprise that those who had struggled against racial apartheid had no patience for gender apartheid.

The spread of the mosque movement coincides with intensified democracy and human rights campaigns. Muslim activists insist that equal rights do not stop at the mosque door. It is as absurd as it is illogical for Muslims to enjoy equality, or to fight for equality, in the secular space of the nation (as Egyptian feminist nationalists understood early last century) and to accept inequality in religious space—and all the more so as the Qur’an celebrates human equality. Many around the world who clamour most loudly for social justice and decent treatment are often the very same people who are willing cavalierly to deprive women of their rights. Along with outrage against the assault on their rights, women are getting fed up with the travesty this makes of Islam and the stereotypes such behaviour fosters in a world all too ready to denigrate Islam and Muslims.

Ritual is as important to religion as to the nation. Ritual is a symbolic and practical adhesive of the community. Prayer is enjoined upon believers and especially meritorious is the weekly congregational prayer. So significant is this collective prayer on Friday that the day itself is called in Arabic “the day of gathering” or yawm al-jum’a. Is only half the community to be gathered? It has not escaped notice that women, who have been exhorted to be upright believers, and whose behaviour has been monitored and evaluated in the name of religion, have been denied equal rights in communal worship, the most praiseworthy form of prayer. This transmits the message to women: you may enter the secular space of the nation as equals but not the religious space of the umma (the Muslim community) and while you must be pious you needn’t fret about the blessings of communal prayer. It is supremely ironic that the first bastion of gender equality for Muslims was religious space and now religious space is the last bastion of patriarchy.

It has not been easy to know about women’s activism inside Saudi Arabia. The exception was the drivers’ protest by a group of women at the time of the first Gulf War that made headlines—at a time when large numbers of foreign journalists were hovering about—and which came to naught. Saudi women’s protest against women’s expulsion from the mataf and the Grand Mosque was a campaign of words or “information activism” they took to the Saudi media—and it was a resounding success story.

Hatoon Al-Fassi told me: “Issues like these are part of my beliefs and my motivation not to remain silent.” Taking her cue from the Qur’an, she insists: “I believe we as women can do a lot for women from within Islam.” There is no more concise and eloquent definition of Islamic feminism than this.

Al-Fassi and other women, while happy with the victory, are not sitting still. They are taking nothing for granted. She has recently called upon Saudi women writers to join in creating a cyber network to keep on top of issues. More than 50 writers have signed on. Nothing will hold back women determined to practice their religiously-granted rights, especially retaining or re-claiming their rightful place in the mosque, and they know The Book is with them.

During Ramadan it is not enough that women or men gathering for the nightly tarawwih simply to recite the Qur’an. Muslims must heed its message of human equality, insist growing numbers of Muslim women from Mecca to Main Street.


Reprinted from al-Ahram Weekly Al-Ahram Weekly Online : Located at: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2006/816/cu2.htm
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