By: Doaa Baumi
Recently, there have been a lot of discussions about the role of women in mosques. The establishment of women’s mosques in many countries has made headlines. In light of these events, many scholars have rushed to evaluate the legitimacy of women being segregated in mosques. Others question the ruling of women leading prayers and delivering the Friday sermon. However, the question remains as to why women are barred from attending some mosques.
The Condition of Women’s Section in The Mosque
In many Arab countries, due to the fact that Muslim women are not expected to attend the five daily prayers, the women’s room has been repurposed for other activities. In some mosques, particularly in rural areas, it is not even expected to have a female section inside the mosque. Consequently, the number of women visiting the mosque has gradually decreased, with the exception of Friday sermons when large numbers of women usually attend. There are two different arguments regarding the women’s section inside the mosque: The first argument claims that according to some cultures, women are not expected to leave their homes except in certain cases, and therefore the structure of the mosques does not include any section for them. Furthermore, this argument avers that it is not an obligation for Muslim women to pray the five daily prayers in the mosque, unlike Muslim men who have an explicit obligation to pray the five daily prayers in the mosque. This argument lays out prophetic traditions that recommend women to pray inside their homes. For example, it was narrated from ‘Abd-Allaah ibn Mas’ood that the Prophet (peace and blessings of God be upon him) said: “A woman’s prayer in her room is better than her prayer in her courtyard, and her prayer in [the most private area of her] room is better than her prayer in [any other part of] her room” (Narrated by Abu Dawood: 570; al-Tirmidhi: 1173). The second argument places the reason for women’s absence inside the mosques is due to the limited understanding of the religious texts which consider the mosque a space shared only by men.
The situation is not different in western countries. Although mosques in western nations fulfill diverse functions in order to meet the Muslim community’s various needs, women still have limited access to them. An American Muslim woman reports: “We found that the majority of mosques follow a patriarchal model with poor access for women, and women’s representation in mosques’ governing structures were non-existent.” Another American woman articulated the women’s struggle during the Friday sermons. She said, “It is a little hard with the women chatting in the back and the other women are loudly shushing them and children running around and screaming. Since women are not able to see the Imam while praying and can barely hear him it then becomes difficult to follow him, and many women become confused. While some women were kneeling, the rest were prostrating and finally none of them were sure if they had completed their prayer in a proper way.”
Women And Mosques During The Prophet’s Time
Before we examine the participation and inclusion of women in mosques, it is crucial to highlight the role of the mosque during the time of the Prophet. The mosque was not only a place to perform the five daily prayers, but it was also considered a school for Muslims to learn about their religion. Furthermore, Muslims sat in the mosque to discuss new laws and legislations, and the mosque was understood as a community area where people would gather with their friends and hold celebrations.
For women, the mosque was the place to do all kinds of activities. Women came to pray in the mosque, attend educational sessions, and participate in discussions with the Prophet on various topics. During the time of the Prophet there was no physical barrier. Men were told to go to the front and pray while women were told to go to the back. In many incidents the Prophet indicated the importance of women being part of the mosque’s life. For example, “Do not prevent the female servants of God from attending the mosques of God” (Fath al-Bari). There are many evidences that point to the importance and regular participation of women in the mosque during the Prophet’s time:
1. Many narrations suggest that discussions occurred inside the mosque between the wives of the companions and the Prophet on religious topics. Women not only attended these religious discussions, but they also raised questions and concerns.
2. There are many narrations that provide directions to men for how to behave in the mosque when women attend. In one narration, the Prophet asked men to wait for women to depart the mosque first and then men could leave.
3. There are many conditions affirmed by Muslim scholars for women to visit the mosque: “Not to wear perfume or fancy clothing that may lead to temptation, the road to the mosque should be safe…”
The Role of Culture in Marginalizing Women’s Role in The Mosques
Indeed another element that affects women’s status in the mosque is the cultural element. While the role of the mosque in many Muslim-majority countries has been limited only to the five daily prayers, it has extended in western countries to encompass all the activities which assist Muslims in expressing their identity and maintain a sense of belongingness. Due to the fact that the majority of Muslims in the west are mainly immigrants, they often import the cultural norms of their native lands. Consequently, Muslim women in the West find themselves interacting with a dichotomy which they cannot relate to. This dichotomy is a mixture of both cultural and religious elements which fail to fulfill their needs as Muslims living in the west. On the other hand, this dichotomy does not reflect an accurate example of Islam.
Reviving The Role of The Mosque
It is not surprising that many of the arguments that marginalize women’s roles in the mosque build their argument from the fact that according to Islam, women are not required to pray the five daily prayers in the mosque. Alternatively, women can pray in their houses or in their rooms. However, this argument confines the role of the mosque to a physical place for prayers only. The other roles of the mosque have to be emphasized and stressed. The mosque also has a great importance in community building, particularly where Muslims live as minorities. As mentioned before, mosques in the West have multiple functions which are important to keep Muslims united and tied to their Islamic identity.
In this regard, Dar Al-Ifta issued a fatwa on the importance of women visiting the mosque in the west. The fatwa was issued in response to a question about the ruling of women going to the mosque for prayers. The question articulated that many Muslims who follow the Hanafi school of jurisprudence in the UK stated that it is forbidden for women to go to the mosque, and therefore they would not consider a women’s section inside their respective mosque.
The answer highlighted that this ruling within the late Hanafi school was based on a time when it was not safe for women to go to the mosque. Therefore, due to the corruption and the fear that there might be temptation which risked the safety of women, they were not allowed to visit the mosque. However, in our modern time everyone knows that this has changed completely in both the Muslim majority and minority countries. These days women can safely go to their work, schools, and so on. It is irrational for women to be able to go wherever they want while closing the door of the mosque to them.
Women need to visit the mosque to learn about their religion, to know how to perform rituals and to be established in their religion. For women who live in the west the mosque is sometimes the only place in which she can perform her prayers safely. The mosque in the west is the place to represent Islam and it should not be limited to a single gender.