/ 8 June 2018

All the women in me are tired

(John McCann/M&G)
(John McCann/M&G)


Outside, the world is cloaked in darkness. A police siren pierces the silence, as houses along the street become illuminated. There are still at least two hours before sunrise, but the neighbourhood is slowly waking up for the predawn meal of Ramadan.

While the house fills with the sounds of doors opening and closing, keys jangling, pot lids clunking, kettles whistling, the last of the family, sleepy-eyed and unsmiling, straggle into the dining room. By this point of the holy month, an intense tiredness envelops you.

Ramadan, you see, is like a beast, a benevolent beast, sure, but a beast all the same.

Every year, it clutches you at your ankles, turning you upside down, emptying you of food, drink, sexual pleasure and sleep, and it grips you like that over the waters of a clear lake, forcing you to confront the reality of yourself. It is a part of Ramadan that cannot exactly be curated for Instagram. And it is gruelling.

The initial excitement for the month dissipates into a routine of waking earlier, sleeping later, abstaining from food and drink, while also biting down on a sneering comment about the apparent size of someone else’s somethings — their brains, I mean. Please, I’m fasting.

Ramadan, you see, is meant to make us better people. According to scripture, it is meant for us to confront the nafs, an Arabic word best translated as ego.

The experience of the month is, however, not a solitary activity. This introspection of self must somehow be achieved while still negotiating the boundaries between yourself and others. Because Ramadan, for many Muslim communities, is also a unique moment of community-building. It is meant to be a time that fosters a sense of togetherness around a common experience, an opportunity to construct a shared identity.

And in many communities across South Africa, there is a unique kind of sharing of food, multiple exchanges of gifts, charity drives and fundraising for worthy causes that does indeed lend a novel experience of other people. But in some places in the country, the spaces for women to be Muslim is contested.

This week, a video of a man physically confronting a group of women who have sought to join the special night-time congregational prayers, called Tarawih, has gone viral.

It was impossible to open Facebook without also having to watch the video again. It was impossible to miss the debate, the outrage, the petty name-calling, the confusion. It was also impossible not to miss the inquisitive eyes of the rest of the world.

It is exhausting to have to experience this over and over again. Even when it wasn’t you who was among those women who opted to offer their prayers in the cold of the mosque courtyard, to be systematically excluded from a place of worship, is tiring. It is just as exhausting to have to feel the scrutiny of others, weighing up their prejudice against your personal challenges.

It is exhausting even to begin to explain to people not familiar with the South African contours of Islam and Muslim life why the very presence of a woman in a mosque is the cause of such a controversy.

But for many, many women living in Johannesburg, many of the city’s mosques are not an open space. They have always been the domain of men. No, it’s not a universally Muslim thing. Some mosques in the city do accommodate women. The majority of mosques around the world accommodate women. The holiest mosques in Islam accommodate women. It’s just that some interpretations of Islam have entirely excluded women from claiming their share in the public good that is a mosque.

You see, somehow mosques in Johannesburg have wrapped themselves in gold lacquer, earning themselves comparisons to that other extravagance, Ferrero Rocher chocolates, while inside they have hollowed themselves out of compassion or understanding. They host polemics about the persecution of Muslims in Burma and Syria, Palestine and Iraq, but remain blinded to their own persecution of the people in front of their noses.

Because the forced removal of women from a place of worship is not about Islamic jurisprudence, or debates about prophetic traditions about the best places for women to offer their prayers. This is about an act of violence. It is an act of violence that is born out of unchecked power.

Women’s bodies are just the collateral here.

And to borrow from Nayyirah Waheed, all the women in me are just tired now. All the women in me who must daily confront themselves to be better humans are tired of also having to make space for men who never have to confront the propriety of their being in the workplace, in the university, in the home, in the mosque.

We are just tired now.