/ 1 November 2005

Bowing to one God

When foreign Muslims, including from some conservative Muslim countries, visit South Africa, they are usually stunned that there are so many mosques with no women’s facilities. That some mosques (mainly in the Western Cape) do have women’s facilities does not placate them. And when visiting some mosques that accommodate women, they become despondent to see torn carpets in tiny rooms, narrow rooms, dirty rooms, damp rooms and dark rooms that pass off as ”women’s sections”.

Some mosques in different parts of the world have shunned the women’s gallery or basement and include women in the main mosque space, where they have direct access to the sermon and imam. Women are either at the back or side-by-side with men. Sometimes this main space is divided by a partition, a curtain, a chain or a strip of carpet.

The Grand Mosque in Makkah — where women and men have always prayed in the same space, the Islamic Centre of Southern California and the Noor Cultural Centre in Toronto are examples. Locally, women and men have prayed together in the main space at Cape Town’s Claremont Main Road Mosque since 1994.

Johannesburg’s Masjidul Islam has had women and men standing side-by-side — separated by a strip of carpet — for its outdoor ‘Id prayer for the past eight years. The mosque has now decided to divide the main mosque space to accommodate women there rather than in the upstairs gallery.

In Durban, the popular North Beach ‘Id prayer, whose main organisers are women, also accommodates women and men in the same space.

In the mosque of the Prophet Mohammed, 14 centuries ago, women and men prayed in the same space. No partitions, no curtains, no chains or strings.

It was also the centre of communal activity, women included.

It’s amazing, then, that some Muslims still claim women should not pray in congregation and should restrict their prayers to their homes. It is an aberration of the faith.

The prophet Mohammed instructed women, including those menstruating — who are usually exempt from praying — to be present at the prayer venue, especially at ‘Id. But in South Africa, there is a dearth of venues for women’s ‘Id prayer.

Ironically, women’s marginalisation does not mean they play no role in mosques. One of my childhood memories is of the local mosque committee regularly visiting, even harassing, my widowed grandmother for donations to build a mosque. Some of the first mosques in this country, in the Cape Colony, were built by women.

But such involvement does not necessarily translate into influence over what happens in the mosque or secure a space for the women who built it. A beautiful mosque in a Kwazulu-Natal town was built 15 years ago by a women’s group. They raised the money for it and decided on its design and name.

After it was built, the mosque was handed over to the town’s men to run. The result: yet another mosque where women are marginalised.

The men in some mosques go to great lengths to keep women out ‒ even when there is space for them. In one Johannesburg suburb, a cleric tried his utmost to subvert the committee’s decision to have women praying in the mosque. He delayed putting in a sound system, then wanted completely separate entrances and then insisted on separate driveways … all attempts to delay the inevitable.

In the many battles fought around the issue of women’s space, one lesson is clear. There will be no decent space for women in our mosques unless women themselves fight for it. And once the space is won, it will mean nothing if women don’t use it. More fundamentally, prayer space becomes irrelevant if gender relationships are not transformed. Women’s ‘Id prayer facilities, for example, will not be fully utilised if the belief persists that women’s primary ‘Id task is to prepare the meal while men’s is to pray.

Na’eem Jeenah is the president of the Muslim Youth Movement, an activist and freelance journalist. This article first appeared in Al-Qalam newspaper