Anita Nayyer on why the British Muslim debate about women in mosques is relevant to everyone
Picture this mosque: Men and women flow in and out five times a day. At the edges the scholars of the religion can be found. The most sought-after scholars are women. Throughout the day men and women remember God & study the scriptures. Some are refugees taking shelter here. This is a snapshot of the mosque that the Prophet Muhammad ran in 7th Century Madinah. The mosque enabled community, charity and worship. For All.
Now fast forward to 21st Century Britain. Mariam is out shopping with her husband and prayer time comes in. They head to the mosque. When they arrive a man runs to find them at the door. He tells her husband sternly that women aren’t allowed. She needs to find another mosque. She protests. The man shouts. The next mosque is a 20 minute walk away. It’s cold and wet and in 20 minutes time, prayer will have already finished. She feels humiliated and wronged. The scene is based on actual stories I have received on a campaign page I set up in 2015 called #OpenMyMosque.
In modern day Britain more than 1 in 3 mosques have ‘no facilities’ for women. Yet the Islamic rules for prayer are the same whether you are male or female, we must bow our heads five times a day. The Prophet Muhammad instructed his followers ‘Do not stop female worshippers from visiting God’s mosques’, creating a normative rule in Islam that it is haram (prohibited) to do what mosques in Britain today are doing.
Disquiet around how mosques in the UK treat women is growing amongst British Muslims. Last month a conference by the Muslim Council of Britain ‘Our Mosques Our Future’ was designed in part to address discrimination in mosques. OpenMyMosque have a regular flow of complaints. Some worshippers set up their own complaints pages. This one has plentiful feedback. Where prayer spaces do exist for women, they are too often second-class spaces. Ill maintained, unhygienic, inaccessible.
It doesn’t stop at prayer spaces. When mosque elections take place, they should be our opportunity to voice the change we need. To choose the board members we want or run for positions ourselves. But the ballot papers in the mosque hallway are often not physically accessible to women. In the centenary of womens’ suffrage, these mosques are able to limit their votership to men-only by the simple act of a locked door.
In Muslim areas where the door to public life is largely dependent on influence at the mosque, this limits women’s access to wider public positions. As the Citizen’s Commission on Barriers to Muslims in Public Life heard only too well and records in its report.
The majority of Muslims in Britain are born here. We look to the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque as our blueprint and contemporary culture for our expression of community and charity. Surprisingly though, most mosques (44%) belong to a minority of first wave immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. In particular, to a subgroup who froze their religious rulings in 19th Century India to protect the religion from British interference. Amongst their rules is an exceptional one that states that it is highly disliked (although not prohibited) for a woman to attend the mosque.
Not only is this position problematic within normative Islamic frameworks. It is problematic in a modern Britain where equalities legislation should protect my ‘religious character’ and my ‘gender’. I cannot be barred from praying five times a day at work because that forms part of my protected religious character. So why can I be barred from entering a place of worship (a charity) due to my gender? We do have legal precedent that penalizes mosques who bar women from elections. So why is the practice still so widespread?
Partly this is due to theological illiteracy or lack of confidence to challenge mosques amongst those to whom we turn to enforce our rights; statutory bodies and political membership groups. Many believe that this systematic sexism is integral to the religion. In one case, where a complaint of gender discrimination was raised to the Charities Commission, the mosque was able to falsely argue their right to discriminate under ‘shariah law’.
Muslims of Britain are responding by setting up our own places of worship. But we also call on statutory services and political organisations not to treat us with exception when we raise the issue of discrimination in mosques. As British Muslims, we expect to be protected by equality laws in the mosque, as in every other realm of our life. And the Labour party’s drive for inclusion in Muslim majority areas must acknowledge and address discrimination in the mosque to create a supportive environment for Muslim female candidates in its ranks.
Anita Nayyar is social psychologist and gender equalities activist