Hide the pretty women

There’s an amazing story about a gentle creature that we hope still lives in the muddy waters of China’s Yangtze River.

It is the story of an endangered dolphin with bad eyesight. But it has highly evolved radar to compensate. I first heard this story about 10 years ago. Since then, because of over-fishing and noise interference from too many ships, China’s Baiji dolphin was declared extinct — until recently, when one was spotted.

I had never thought about a species becoming extinct in my lifetime. Instead, ‘endangered” is today’s catchphrase. ‘Extinct” applies to dodos, but surely not to dolphins? I also never thought I’d wish for the extinction of any creature — until now.

A creature that says it can see, but is limited in its vision. I’m talking about the person who regards women’s presence in mosques as an anomaly. The person who says it is makrooh (highly disliked) for women to attend mosque and places the responsibility of fitna (corruption) squarely on their shoulders.

An imam in a Johannesburg mosque angered many men and women this Ramadaan by making remarks that discouraged young, attractive women who have reached maturity from attending the night prayers lest ‘they” cause fitna. The imam’s X-ray vision into the completely secluded women’s section is truly astonishing — as, too, is his analysis that the cause of fitna is pretty women.

The message was simple — ugly women can rest assured. They are welcome. Good-for-nothing men can also relax — good-looking women are to be blamed for your moral lapses. And what of the women themselves?

Centuries of cultural conditioning and exclusion have ensured that for many, even limited and discouraged access to the mosque is a new and exciting experience — and an empowering one. But it wasn’t always so.

In early Islam, this access was taken for granted. It was one of the many freedoms Muslim women exercised without a second thought. It was acknowledged, protected and promoted by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions.

It was a freedom derived from an active taqwa (true submission) to the one god that is rooted in action and attitude over mere passive belief and ritual. It was a freedom that, when exercised, was like the Baiji dolphins’ sophisticated radar.

It helped Muslim women to navigate the muddy waters of a post-jahiliyyah (age of ignorance) society on the brink of greatness. And with this radar, women challenged authority figures and set forth arguments and opinions within the realm of not just public space, but also the sacred space of the mosque.

It also compelled women in Johannesburg, more than 15 years ago, to be unwavering in their struggle to access the sacred space. Even in the face of death threats, guntoting men and complicit men of religion, Muslim women in Johannesburg continued the struggle.

I remember the days when we were locked out of the mosque because, we were told, the imam had lost the key to the upstairs section. Women and their young children continued their prayers in the outside courtyard while it rained.

I recall pamphlet campaigns that culminated in the biggest-ever gathering in Johannesburg of Muslim men and women praying side by side on the festival of Eid. I mostly recall how women took their arguments to the men of religion.

Even today, they continue to engage with classical and religious texts and their arguments are clear and logical. As for the Johannesburg mosque in question, it is adjacent to a café that has been used as a meeting point for drug dealing.

Some young Muslim men attending the night prayers have been known to loiter outside.

It begs the question: would the imam say it is now makrooh for young men who may be buying drugs to attend the mosque?

Some of us women are weary of the endless battle around our space, our bodies and our freedoms.

The muddy waters we now wish to navigate are the new challenges of our rapidly changing world: the challenges of social and economic justice and a disconnected youth.

It appears that, in the early days of Islam, a woman’s freedom to challenge authority figures, speak out loudly in the mosque and participate in all its activities was as simple as swimming is to a dolphin. But those were the days when dodos were heading towards extinction and Baiji dolphins still roamed freely.

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