/ 7 April 2024

Joburg’s mosques need to be more open

Safrica Islam Religion Ramadan
Pray away: Muslim women pray the first Taraweeh evening prayer on the first day of the fasting month of Ramadan at the Nizamiye Mosque in Midrand, Johannesburg, but the author laments the lack of equitable spaces for women in many of the city’s mosques. Photo: Gulshan Khan/AFP

If you’re driving south on the M1 highway in Joburg, past Gold Reef City theme park, a little further on you’ll find something called Masjid Siratul Jannah. It is affectionately dubbed “The Ferrero Mosque” by many, due to its golden brown hues resembling the decadent chocolates.

This mosque was at the centre of criticism a few years ago when a video emerged of a man stopping women from getting too close to the main section where the men pray. The mosque has a women’s section but it’s far from the main section where the recital of the Qur’an can’t be properly heard during prayer. 

I’ve also seen a sign at a place of worship in a mall where women were asked not to pray at a certain time because the place was overflowing with men and they couldn’t all fit in. In response, someone hilariously quipped sarcastically whether the prayers are not compulsory for women as they are for men. 

Many mosques in the city don’t have access for women to pray or they have rooms in a far-flung region of the mosque courtyard where the congregation and recitation can’t be seen or heard. Often these rooms are tiny leaving people packed in small confines praying in discomfort.

The benefits and rewards of praying in a congregation far outweigh praying solo and Muslims make it a priority to frequent the mosque, especially in the holy month of Ramadan. The reward is said to be 27 times higher for praying in the mosque as opposed to praying at home. 

For the prayer to be counted it is important for the voice of the Imam (person who leads the prayer) to either be heard or for the congregation to be seen. Therein lies the problem with the room in a corner. 

I haven’t been to many countries but I’ve been to a few where Islam is widely practised including Malaysia and Turkey. What struck me was that in all the mosques I visited in these places, there was proper space available for women to pray, not cast away. A space where they prayed without being ousted to the confines. 

If one looks at the most important sites in Islam, Makkah and Madinah in Saudi Arabia, women have access to pray, and access to the mosque without an eye being battered. Why then is it a problem here in Johannesburg? 

It boils down to a few issues. The Indian-centric Muslims believe a teaching of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) that states, “The best place for a woman to pray (salah) is in the innermost part of her home”. The problem is that these leaders forget the following teaching of the Prophet, “Do not prevent the female servants of Allah from the mosques of Allah”

Some scholars believe the first teaching was made to one specific woman whose husband took issue with her frequenting the mosque. The second is conveniently forgotten.

Infringing on another’s rights is a major sin in Islam and doing so by not allowing space for women in mosques should be heavily criticised. The problem is the patriarchal nature of South Africa’s Indian Muslim men who believe women belong at home and have an inability to lower their gaze — another crucial teaching of the Prophet.

Another reason for this could also boil down to what women are being taught because a host of women genuinely believe they should not pray in a mosque and they belong at home. These types of thinking require a major mindset change. 

There need to be more women on boards, especially in mosques or religious centres, women need to be part of the decision-making of these important sacred spaces. 

Growing up, we were always taught that a mosque was God’s home, a community, a place to learn, to pray, meet people and, if you’re young, to play and meet friends. 

Yet there is a growing sentiment I’m noticing. For instance, the mosque I go to sent out a notice at the start of Ramadan. It said, “Please do not bring children to the mosque [especially for the nighttime prayer], we do not want them playing outside, making noise and creating security risks.” 

The sound of laughter and kids playing are some of the most joyous sounds. The absence of it in the mosque would be a sad day. How do we expect people to grow up with the mosques and learn the value of praying in the mosque and having it in their hearts if we throw a performance every time a child is slightly noisy. Some of my fondest memories are playing with friends in the mosque boundary. 

I’d hate for the new generation to miss those moments. Joburg needs to open up the mosques, it needs to make them the centre of Muslim communities, make it a space for families, women, and children and watch how people fall in love with the religion.  

This article was updated to remove an ambiguous paragraph mentioning the Houghton Masjid that might have caused confusion.