“O Mary! keep to obedience to your Lord and humble yourself, and bow down with those who bow.”
— Qur’an 3:43, Shakir Translation
If you haven’t already noticed, the issue of women in mosques is gaining increased attention, especially in North America.* After reading a statistic from CAIR’s Mosque Study Project (PDF) finding that only 2 of 6 million Muslims attend mosques in America, I created an informal survey in October of 2003 and posted it on my web site. I sought to test my hypothesis that many women do not attend the mosque because of their dissatisfaction with their prayer space. Often times, the space allotted to women in mosques, if there is any, is not as nice as the space provided for men. In fact, some mosques partition the women’s section off, leaving them with limited access to the imam, or prayer leader. Women’s sections that double as storage areas or basements are not uncommon. The question that lingered in my head everytime I entered a mosque was “Does the lack of women’s equalspace and accommodation in the mosque discourage them from attending?” Over the years people argued with me, suggesting that if women actually attended mosques, their prayer spaces would recieve more attention. It became a classic “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” battle.
My survey received an overwhelming response from all over the world with over 600 completed surveys. Coincidentally, articles exploring women’s attitudes towards their prayer space began to appear in mainstream and Muslim press soon after my survey’s launch. Asra Nomani wrote an article for the Washington Post, and a number of pieces appeared1 on MuslimWakeUp.com. Muslim comedians like Azhar Usman of Allah Made Me Funny had also incorporated the issue into their sets, seeking to call attention to it. Zarqa Nawaz, a Canadian filmmaker was interviewing scholars for a documentary film about the topic in January of last year. The younger filmmakers at DS-Films released a video titled The Life and Times of Some Random Masjid that included a scene inside a women’s section. A fascinating mosque election diagram is displayed on their web site as well. After so much hype, the issue begged to be commented on by a male khatib and sure enough, Abdul Malik Mujahid delivered a sermon at one of the largest mosques in Chicago, adding his two cents. Most recently, Nakia Jackson, famous for her “urine stains” comment on a Religion and Ethics weekly special on Women in Mosques, was the subject of this Boston Globe article.
While the myriad of articles, poems, and the Mosque Study Project of 2000 made some important observations about American Muslim mosques, it merely scraped the surface in regards to gender and space. According to the Mosque Study Project, women comprise approximately 15% percent of mosque attendees on Friday. In addition, in approximately two-thirds of the mosques surveyed, women either prayed behind the men’s space while separated by a partition, or in a completely separate room from the men. Karen Leonard, in Muslims in the United States: The State of Research, cites Ihsan Bagby’s research on African-American mosques. Bagby found that in 81% of immigrant mosques women pray behind a partition or in another room. In only 30% of African-American mosques does this practice occur.
A preliminary review2 of my own data suggests that levels of dissatisfaction among Muslim women who have attended American Mosques are high, as anticipated. However, levels of satisfaction are also higher than anticipated. This may be due to a unbalanced sample; the survey was sent on Muslim mailing lists. It makes sense that Muslims on mosque mailing lists and browsing Islamic web sites are already comfortable in their prayer space. Indeed, the unexpected levels of satisfaction may be due to something that I overlooked. Many women, like Nataka Clayton, are quite comfortable in their prayer spaces. My mass-distributed survey had captured an image of the diversity of experience, but qualitative research is necessary to determine the factors involved in levels of satisfaction and participation.
So Dr. Wadud had led a mixed congregation, Amsterdam has its first female-only masjid, and thousands upon thousands of women are still not-so-happy with their prayer space or accommodations in mosques around the world. Admittedly, it seems as though some women are quite content with their mosque space. I would, however, be inclined to put forth the belief that those women who are already happy with their mosque-space would still be interested in having an equal say in the executive boards of mosques to ensure that the female members of the community are well-represented.
In any case, I see three fingers on a webbed foot- three groups (lots of overlap) who seek to change (for the better) women’s space/accommodation/voice in the mosque. 1. Those who prefer a confrontational method (i.e. women leading prayers, mosque pray-ins, etc) 2. Those who prefer working within pre-existing mosque-hierarchies to create change from within 3. Those who advocate a split entirely (i.e. female-only mosques in China, India, and now in Amsterdam).
Which is right? Which is wrong? Which works? Which doesn’t?
Too early to tell.
- Early Sunni Discourse on Women’s Mosque Attendance (PDF) Check page 10.
- Maryam’s Women in Mosque Link List
- Female Leadership- One Moulana’s Perspective
- Women in India build their own Mosque
- Why Your Mosque Should Be Woman Friendly
- Hadith About the Issue
- Shiite Women Knock at Mosque’s Door
- Women Leading Prayer
- God Knows No Gender
- Islam with Chinese Characteristics (mentions female Imams, female-only mosque in China)