Women in mosques: On the margins of faith

Ziya Us Salam | Updated on January 10, 2020 Published on January 10, 2020

Outside the fold: Prayer space is not marked out for women and they seldom figure on the management committees of mosques   -  NISSAR AHMAD

Women have traditionally been excluded from offering prayers in most mosques in India. A new book explains how this practice goes against the tenets of Islam

On Eid in 2011, I drove my 76-year-old mother to Old Delhi Jama Masjid. It was the first time she had stepped out for Eid prayers; a little surprising considering she was otherwise particular about her daily prayers. It took some patience and not a little persuasion on my part for her to head to the masjid. I had seen in countries such as France, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Turkey that women regularly went to mosques. Not so in India. “If the Prophet’s mosque accommodates women, what’s preventing you from going to a mosque in India?” I would ask her.

For years she just laughed it off, adding, “Women pray at home. Men go to mosques.” Then she went for Hajj, the pilgrimage every Muslim is to make at least once in their lives, and her world changed. She saw how women prayed in Al-Masjid Al-Haram in Mecca and Al Masjid Al-Nabavi in Medina. When she returned home, she related, “Women go to Allah’s house in huge numbers. Here, the maulanas do not allow women.” This was the moment I had been waiting for. “It was the local maulanas, and not the Prophet who discouraged women from going to mosques,” I said.

Finally, she agreed, and went out with me, my wife and daughter to offer Eid salah in a congregation. Though she offered her first community Eid prayer at an advanced age, my mother was still lucky. There are millions of women in the Indian subcontinent who go through a lifetime without ever going to a mosque, not even on Fridays and the two Eids. In fact, every Friday, it is common to see Muslim men, in their crisp white clothes, heading to the local mosque. Women stay home.

Except in a few hundred mosques in Kerala and some mosques maintained by Ahl-e-Hadith sect and Jamaat-e-Islami, women do not figure in the scheme of things. There are no women on management committees of mosques, no provisions made for women to perform ablution before prayers, no halls or prayer spaces marked for them. It is almost like mosques have been reduced to a male monopoly. It is contrary to what Prophet Mohammed preached, and what the Quran says. Around 60 times, the Quran asks the believers, men and women, to establish prayer. While one can offer prayer in solitude, a prayer can only be established in a group, a congregation. The Prophet asked men not to forbid women from going to mosques. During his lifetime, when women came with small babies to attend prayers, children who might cry in the middle of a prayer, he did not ask women to leave them behind or stay home. Instead, he made the prayer shorter, enabling women to attend to their babies soon.

Women in Masjid: A Quest for Justice; Ziya Us Salam; Bloomsbury; Non-fiction; ₹499


My book Women in Masjid: A Quest for Justice stems from an innate faith in the teachings of the Quran and the Prophet. It aims to correct a historical wrong in the Indian subcontinent where women suffer due to insistent patriarchal interpretations of religious texts. As I write in the book, “Women have been exempted, not prohibited from going to the mosques. The Prophet encouraged them to say the Friday and Eid prayers in a large congregation.”

The Quran tells us, through verse 31 of Surah Al’Imran, “Say, (O Muhammad), If you should love Allah, then follow me, (so) Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. And Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” It quells all possibility of a debate on the subject; as the Prophet had clearly welcomed women into mosques.

A beginning, as I point out in the book, can be made in the subcontinent by encouraging women to attend Friday and Eid prayers in mosques. Men will have to make space for women. Not in a cursory room, as some mosques tend to do, but a place right behind them. Just as the Prophet did during his time. Until that is done, the patriarchal forces will continue to prevail over the word of Allah and His Prophet. Society will remain paramount and faith subservient. It is time for every mosque to declare that it is un-Islamic to close their doors to women. Next, women should be incorporated into mosque committees.

So far, men have decided the matters for both men and women. In cases where mosques have logistic problems in making a separate entry and exit for women, women should be encouraged to have their jamaat (congregation). After all, Umm Waraqa, a contemporary of the Prophet, was once asked by him to lead prayers at her house. Ultimately, women’s prayer space has to be restored, just as the Prophet had visualised it: Behind the men in the last row, in a location from which they can see the Imam, and not some obscure corner from which they can neither see the Imam, nor hear the recitation clearly. It is time for women to reclaim their sacred space. Women in Masjid hopes to aid the quest for justice.

As for my mother, her Eid prayer in Jama Masjid was to be her only salah in a mosque; she breathed her last months later.

Ziya Us Salam

Published on January 10, 2020
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