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19 Sep 2014 21:39
A woman listens to the sermon during the opening of the Open Mosque in Wynberg, Cape Town. (Rodger Bosch, AFP)
Finding God in a place of worship doesn’t have to be a struggle. But it can become one when that sacred space is inhospitable and unwelcoming.
On a visit to a small town in South Africa,
a few years back, my search for a mosque led me to such a space — the storeroom
at the back of a café.
Here, women and children were squashed together on a
tattered carpet, surrounded by the smell of stale fried chips, boxes of sweets,
large containers of oil, rice and cool drinks.
For over 20 years, with Muslim women in
Johannesburg and Durban prevented access to mosques or relegated these
undignified back spaces, Muslim activists in South Africa have waged a gender
jihad to gain inclusive access to mosques as well as the Eid Musallah (the Eid
prayer space, usually out on an open field).
During this period, two pioneering mosques
established an inclusive, tolerant and non-sectarian space. Claremont Main Road
Masjid (CMRM) in Cape Town and Masjid al-Islam in Brixton Johannesburg have placed
a strong emphasis on community building, and social justice for more than 17
both mosques, women participate in all initiatives, deliver the Friday lectures
and are active members of the mosque committee. Men and women share the prayer
space standing side by side: in Masjid al-Islam separated by a latticed wooden screen,
and in CMRM, a simple rope.
The media hype about the “new” Open Mosque
in Cape Town, described as South Africa’s first “Qur’an-centric, gender-equal,
and non-sectarian” mosque has raised some eyebrows. For we gender activists and
adherents to the previously mentioned mosques, this Open Mosque is not quite so
What is interesting, though, is the
response the open mosque story has elicited, particularly from a senior member
of the Johannesburg-based Council of Muslim Theologians, Maulana Ebrahim Bham.
In an interview with Steven Grootes on radio
this week, Bham was asked to comment on the statement by the founder of the
Open Mosque, Taj Hargey, that the Qur’an does not say that men and women should
worship separately. Referring to the two sources of Islamic teachings, the Qur’an
and the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him), Bham said: “The
Qur’an tells us to do whatever the Prophet tells you to and whatever the
Prophet prohibits you from, then stay away from it.”
Ironically, the argument that he uses is
the same one those of us who hail from the trenches of the gender jihad have
always used to insist on women’s inclusion and equal participation in mosques
and Eid prayer spaces. In a sense, Bham made our case for us.
There are authentic prophetic traditions
where the Prophet Mohammed urges men not to prevent women from attending the
mosques. In fact, in one such tradition, the Prophet orders all women to attend
the Eid prayers.
Other authentic traditions describe the Prophet’s
mosque as a space which was shared by men and women, and in which there was no
physical barrier between them — a veil or curtain. They prayed separately but
together in the same space. Women were active
participants: they spoke out aloud in the mosque and even challenged the imam.
Bham questioned the idea of an Open Mosque,
implying that all mosques fit the bill. “I do not know of any mosque in South
Africa where people stand at the gates of the mosque and say you have committed
such and such sin, you are not allowed to enter. I have never seen it happen,
it has never happened,” he insisted.
But women’s experiences are that many
mosques in Johannesburg don’t accommodate them, and of the few that do (the
majority of which are overseen by members of Bham’s organisation) are yet to
achieve the inclusiveness of the Prophet’s mosque.
Some of these mosques have luxurious
spaces, decorated with arabesque, wooden screens, plush carpets, under floor heating
and chandeliers, but women are forced to jostle for room because of minimal
space. Women continue to be viewed as sexual beings, a source of “fitnah”
(corruption) that threatens men’s spirituality. They are often discouraged from
attending. They remain unseen and their voices are muted. Campaigns for their
inclusion in the Eid congregational prayers are met with antipathy and often
vitriol by the imams.
The true nature of the mosque as a
community centre and place of worship where community relationships and ideas
are forged and where Muslims weave the fabric of their society has been
There certainly appears to be a mismatch
between, on the one hand, Bham’s implied contention that all mosques in South Africa
are Qur’an-centric and “open” and, on the other hand, Muslim women’s lived
realities within and at the gates of these sacred spaces.
If indeed theologians like Bham are
advocating what those of us in the gender jihad have been — an adherence to the
Prophetic example — then it stands to reason that all Muslim prayer spaces will
have to be more inclusive, with more space allocated to women and no barriers. Women’s
voices will cease to be muted and their full participation will be encouraged. Dingy
back rooms of cafés will become a thing of the past and finding God in that
space will cease to be a struggle.
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