Fathima Mohamed* starts to get ready to go to Taraweeh prayers at Houghton mosque almost every night, as soon as she’s eaten her iftar meal. Mohamed has been attending the prayers for the past five years with her daughters.
Muslims around the world are currently observing the fasting month of Ramadan, which features the nightly Taraweeh prayer. Taraweeh is usually performed in congregation, as an addition to the five other daily prayers that Muslims perform.
“After having spent parts of Ramadan in Mecca, attending Taraweeh here is such a beautiful way to really come alive during Ramadan,” says Mohamed. “There is a tremendous sense of community and belonging that we feel in being a part of it. As mother, I love being able to do this with my daughters. I think it’s really nice that, as women, we have the option.”
Across town, similar spaces for women in mosques don’t exist.
When two women, fed up with having to drive from the southern suburbs to join the nightly congregational prayers during Ramadan this year went to pray at the Masjid Siraatul Jannah in Ormonde, south of Johannesburg, they did not think they would be starting a movement.
“We were basically just two females sick of having to drive very far to go to the mosque and so we decided that, if no one is going to give us the space, then we will just take it,” says Allie. But after the hostility they encountered, the Women of Waqf was formed. They went back the following week determined to perform Taraweeh and were confronted by an angry male worshipper. A video of the incident went viral on social media and has opened an intense conversation about the place of women within aspects of religious life in the South African Muslim community.
The women’s prayer facilities at the Ormonde mosque are for passing female travellers, and are located in a separate part of the mosque to the men’s section. Women are therefore unable to physically follow the men’s prayer congregation.
“We have been slandered, insulted, and attacked personally, which has added a personal cost to partaking in the cause,” says Tazkiyyah Amra, one of the women. Amra’s video showed an older man screaming at the women and labelling them “morons”.
The Women of Waqf aims to heighten the visibility and role of women in Muslim community spaces, including mosques. The group’s co-founder Shameelah Khan had moved back to Johannesburg after spending a year in Cape Town doing Islamic studies and “realised the extent to which many women here are disenfranchised and not really given a space”, says Allie.
There have been a range of responses to the women’s defiance.
Right-wing South African Muslim publication The Majlis referred to the women as “prostitutes and lesbians”, and Western Cape faith-based organisation the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) said in a statement that it was “deeply disturbed at the degrading and vile statements expressed against our sisters-in-Islam, in Ormonde. It is indeed a travesty when women are verbally violated and silence reigns from the male counterparts in our communities.”
The determination of the group — they have returned every night — has made solving the ongoing tension a priority. “There are a number of mosque committees that have realised the need to accommodate women in mosques and have already made appropriate arrangements, wherever possible,” says Moulana Ebrahim Bham, chief theologian and general secretary of the Council of Muslim Theologians.
“For the future, there are congregations that have plans to cater for the need to accommodate women. Space and other constraints pose a challenge to such an accommodation in many of the already existing facilities.”
Bham says it is important to understand both sides. “Women are not forbidden to go to a mosque. However, there are logistical arrangements that have to be in place in order to avoid intermingling of the sexes and a compromise of Islamic rules that govern modesty. For these reasons, it has been a position of some Islamic scholars, for generations, to encourage women to offer their prayers at home,” he says.
Allie and Amra believe that their protest has opened up dialogue about how patriarchy continues to be reproduced in religious spaces.
“This is something deeper than not allowing women into the space,” says Allie. She says that the continued exclusion of women was “a sort of generational progression, in terms of, ‘We’ve done this, so therefore we will continue to do this, because we’ve been doing it for generations.’”
“The issue was initially a lack of facilities for women praying at many mosques in Johannesburg. This was informed by a misunderstanding of the sunnah [teachings from the life of the Prophet Muhammad], usul ul fiqh [the roots of Islamic law] and a patriarchal interpretation of Islam,” says Amra.
“It has evolved in that we now are also dealing with violence against women and a community-wide ignorance of what the sunnah actually says about women in the mosque.There’s also a lot of disillusionment and misconception that men have the right to these spaces that women do not have the right to.”
Allie, originally from Cape Town, highlights cultural differences between Cape Malay and Indian mosques, saying that women are always welcome in the former, without any issues. The MJC statement also reiterates this point.
Amra adds that the responses from some women to their campaign has revealed how women sometimes act as gatekeepers of these patriarchal customs: “It is not only men who misunderstand the equity that Islam affords to both men and women, but also women. Both men and women need to be educated around gender topics in Islam, the sunnah design of mosques, and Islam’s zero tolerance for discrimination against women.”
For the last few nights of Ramadan, there has been peace between the feuding parties at the Ormonde mosque, and the women have been able to continue to pray without resistance.
“A temporary solution has been reached for the month of Ramadan, and it is hoped that after Ramadan both parties will be able to facilitate a greater discussion to reach a permanent solution,” says Bham.
Representatives of the mosque declined to comment, but confirmed to the Mail & Guardian that they will engage in further dialogue once the month of Ramadan concludes, which is expected to be around June 15.
*not her real name