Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Day 28: I still have a problem with this and I don't have a horse in the race

Okay, I've been trying to figure out how to say what I want to say and it's just not coming out quite right.

Yesterday Heather posted a link to an article about woman only mosques in China. These are mosques where even the imam is a woman - no men at all. However, one of the mosques that was talked about is not (in my opinion) an actual mosque because it's still led by the male imam in the mosque 100 meters away. So the building is a part of the mosque, but not it's own unique mosque, see?

And yes, I would think that having their own building is most likely nicer and far roomier than many women's spaces that I've heard of in basements or second floors or tiny rooms off to the side, but here's my issue:

There seems to be, from what I hear from men and women who are Muslims (so this isn't just my opinion), a tendency to shunt women out of the majority of mosques in the world. They're not afforded the same opportunities for leadership within the mosque community, their opinions and needs aren't taken as having as much weight as their male counterparts and they are relegated to second-class in many instances. This is, perhaps, a function of the belief that women don't *have* to attend prayers at the mosque like men do and so why should time/effort/money be wasted on facilities for them?

Still, women do want to attend services at the mosque, at least jumah in many cases, and so there are these token spaces that are woefully inadequate and not kept as nicely as the spaces for the men. Again, this is me going off of what I have read from Muslim men and women. I've only personally been to one mosque, one time, and while the space was significantly smaller than that designated for the men, it was not as bad as some of the stories I've heard. It was beside the space for the men, separated by sliding glass doors that had been mirrored on the men's side so that they couldn't see in but the women could look out and watch the imam as well as hear him through the speaker system. Anyway.

So these women (and the same set up occurs in the US and Canada from what I read) have a separate building that is only for them. They're responsible for the upkeep, etc. and so it's a nice place for them to go and pray. Which, I would think, would encourage more women to go more often. And that's a good thing, right? Right.

But is having a separate building a step in the right direction?

I just can't help but feel, looking at it from the outside, like I've said, that it's just a further separation between men and women. Now the women aren't even in the same building. They've been shunted *further* from the imam who is supposed to be a teacher to them.

It feels like an extension of the 'out of sight, out of mind' mindset.

For anyone interested, here's the original article: China's Women-Only Mosques and a second article, China's Female Imams, that was linked by a reader in the thread.


  1. I went to 3 mosques in NY in my time there. The one with the school was like you described with equal dividing of a space. It was nice. The second was a small room in the basement with a TV. It was a nice room but way too small. The third was where I attended youth group. The women's side was extremely small. It often didn't have enough prayer mats and the carpet on that side was not kept up. You basically prayed on top of each other it was so small. Many came late and prayed at home because there wasn't enough room. You could not see the imam. The men's side was nice and huge. They refused to let us come and pray behind them on their side when the woman's side had some water damage. So we had to go to the basement and pray instead with one of the girls leading prayer. It seems that it varies from mosque to mosque what the woman's side looks like and how the women are treated. But yes this situation was a huge turn off for me when studying Islam. I don't like feeling like a second class citizen in my house of worship.

    1. I figure it's probably like churches, each mosque has it's own personality and it's a reflection of the people who make up the body of the church.

  2. I'm sick right now and my brain's all fuzzy and not really up to thinking about the actual issues and questions here in depth. But I'll probably be back for them later, because it's an interesting topic and I don't really know anything about it, so I like reading what you have to say.

    For now, I just thought I'd note that I really kind of like the idea of a completely female mosque with a female imam. I don't think I'd ever heard of that before, and it sounds like a great idea, at least to have as an option but maybe not as the default.

    Also, reading this made me think of the mosque-ish place I visited once. It turned out to be not so much a regular mosque as an Islamic retreat center, and when we went the only person there was the director. So he let us walk around on our own and explore the mosque building, and it was beautiful and just being there made me feel like I was in sacred space, even if it wasn't my religion and not really something I wanted. That probably doesn't have much to do with your actual post, but just the whole idea of Muslim women having a space that is theirs (whether that's with men or on their own, whatever makes them most able to experience that sacred space and come together for prayer) brings that to mind because that's important and everyone should be able to have that if they want it. And it's probably not the fanciness of it (in fact, this place was pretty simple) and so having a small space doesn't necessarily take away from that, but if it's because the women's space is an afterthought and they're not receiving the same care, that could be a problem.

    I think somewhere in there I lost my train of thought. Yeah, I'll try again later.

    1. Aww....poppet. I hope you feel better soon!

      I'm actually not a fan of complete gender segregation at all. I don't think that it's good for anyone.

      I agree that it's not the fanciness of any place that makes it comfortable or wonderful for people to connect with God and worship in. But I do think, if it's going to be a man-made place then it needs to be kept in nice condition. From what I hear in many cases the women's section is basically an afterthought and that attitude, of not being really wanted, seeps into the people.

    2. Thank you! I'm still not totally better, it comes and goes. But luckily, it seems to be working with me, so I've felt well enough on days when I had commitments, and then as soon as I finish out the day it comes back with a vengeance. :D It's weird, but I think it might finally be actually going away. At the very least, I'm clear-headed enough to understand your post better, so yay.

      I agree, complete gender segregation is not a good thing. I think what I meant was that it's nice to have separate spaces occasionally. In the church where I spent my teen years, there was pretty rigid gender separation in everything except the primary services and events. Bible studies and small groups that met during the week had to be men-only or women-only. That drove me crazy, I thought there should be a mixed option for people who wanted it. But the church leadership felt that in groups made up of the same gender, people would be more able to speak freely and dive deeper into the material.

      I don't necessarily agree, and that was almost never the case for me, but I think obviously some people got a lot out of that, or else they would have done away with that method of doing small groups. So I like the idea that there could be a women-only (and for that matter, a men-only) mosque for people who want that, and that there are women who are imams (I didn't know that) to serve those communities. It seems to me that, even moving away from the separate buildings/mosques idea, having a man and a woman in leadership positions would be a good way to meet the needs of everybody and help everyone be heard. And where that doesn't exist, having a totally separate mosque that is all their own is not a terrible way for the women to make sure their needs are met.

    3. Also, yes! Exactly! This part: "From what I hear in many cases the women's section is basically an afterthought and that attitude, of not being really wanted, seeps into the people."

      That is what I was trying to say but I think I did it badly. So thank you. I think that's the important thing, that however the issue of space and gender is handled, it's done so that everyone is valued. People know the difference.

    4. I'm glad you're starting to feel better! :)

      Okay, this: I think what I meant was that it's nice to have separate spaces occasionally. I agree. I actually enjoy having a separate space to worship where I'm not bumping up against men all the time. It's just...not that I'm distracted by lusty thoughts or anything but I find it easier, somehow, to concentrate on non-world things when I'm not surrounded by men. They're distracting on some level to me. *shrug*

      But I also don't like feeling like I've been shunted off someplace else. That's why I like the plans that have the women praying in the same room either behind or beside the men. It seems more welcoming and inclusive to me.

      On the other hand, in study groups or classes, I see no reason for there to be segregation. Sure, men and women communicate in different ways and there may be some kinks to work out with making sure that everyone's needs are met and voice is heard but that's where you need a good teacher/leader.

  3. In Syria I went to a few mosques and am trying to remember the women's areas. I recall going to a famous Shiite mosque and the women's section being rather small, but I didn't compare it to the men's section since I wasn't allowed over there. At the Umayyad mosque women were in the back, but it seemed pretty open to their seeing the imam. I was too busy looking around to pay lots of attention. That place is fascinating!

    I enjoyed your thoughts on this topic, and do understand where you're coming from.

    1. :D

      I wish there were more mosques in the area so I could have a better personal sampling.

  4. There are three issues regarding the women’s prayer area here; space, location and cleanness.
    1. Muslim men should pray five times a day in the Mosque whereas Muslim women are not although there are obliged to pray five times a day as well.
    2. No more than 50 years ago, whether in the East or the West, men go to work and women stay at home taking care of the house and the children.
    Therefore, mosques were built to accommodate more men than women.
    Except for Ramadan, number of women in Muslim countries who go to mosques is significant. During the Month of Ramadan many Muslim women go to mosques. Women have to pray in a dedicated place in the mosque. It could be in the second floor of the mosque or in a smaller section of the mosque.
    Because now there are many female college students and because many women do go out for work, more than before, I believe it is time to think of enlarging women’s prayer area. The increasing numbers of Muslim women who need to use the mosque while being out make it necessarily to think of enlarging the women’s prayer area in mosques.
    I have lived in Jordan, Kuwait, Syria, and Malaysia. In these Muslim countries, I have never heard that the women's section is less clean than the men's section. Women's only complain was about the noisy kids.
    In Muslim countries, mosques are the responsibility of the government. So, there is a paid employee who takes care of the mosque. In the US, the Muslim community that uses the mosque either volunteer to clean the mosque or hire someone depending on how big the mosque is. Not cleaning the women’s prayer area or not taking care of it is just ridiculous and makes no sense to me. I don’t think it is the common thing here in the US though.
    Women praying behind men are in no way meant to degrade women. The idea is that instead of mixing men and women together in one group the prayers are split into a group of men and a group of women. The group of women could pray behind the men or in the second floor depending on how big the mosque is.
    To answer your question, I don’t think it is a good idea to have only women mosque. Couple of years ago, a sheik in Saudi Arabia proposed gender segregation in Mecca. His ridiculous proposal was shut down instantly by other Saudi Sheiks.

    1. Malik, Malik, I was so hoping you would comment on this post! :)


      1. Yes, this I understand. But there's a difference between not being required and not being allowed. As far as I'm aware, Mohammed never discouraged or forbid women from praying in congregation at the mosques. The attitude that women *shouldn't* pray in the mosque seems to have cropped up later.

      2. True, times have changed rather recently and maybe it's just a matter of not all facilities or attitudes having caught up.


      When I speak of complaints of unclean or not well cared for women's sections, I'm repeating what I have read written by women who have encountered these conditions. Since most of the blogs that I read are written by women living in the US and Canada those are the mosques they tend to speak of. Personally, the local mosque's women's section seemed clean and well cared for to me but I can't discount the greater experiences of these other women either.


      Personally I don't feel that praying behind the men is degrading to women in and of itself. I think that some peoples' attitudes about *why* women should pray behind men is degrading but that's not the same issue. I'd actually far prefer that set up to one that has the women in an outbuilding or another room entirely. Those two scenarios still smack too much to me of trying to remove the women from the full life of the community.

      If I were designing a mosque (which I'm not) I would have it only be the one prayer room and split it down the middle so that women could be on one side and men on the other. Separated but side by side.

    2. I've prayed behind the men before it never bothered me. I liked it a lot better than being on the other side of a wall. More inclusive.

      I think Malik hit it on the head. Some of the mosques here take it that because women don't have to pray in a mosque that they don't need to make the accommodations. I get it that the women's section really doesn't need to be as big as the men's. The Men's side does need to be bigger. But that doesn't mean the women's section should only fit 8 people you know? I've also noticed that it depends on what culture the mosque comes from. The school was mixed. For Ramadan, they took the wall down and allowed the women to pray behind the men. The one I went to that wouldn't let the women near the men was Irani. The Shiekh was really nice but he was not a fan of young women being anywhere near the young men. He practically babysat us during youth group lol!

    3. I've prayed side by side with men before, but separate - not in the mosque but in one of the Orthodox churches I visited. The women were all on one side, the men on the other. I like it. :) Even at my local mosque I didn't feel excluded, though we were in a separate room. It didn't really feel that way though because the room was side by side with the men's space and the barrier was a glass wall.

      I get it that the women's section really doesn't need to be as big as the men's. The Men's side does need to be bigger. But that doesn't mean the women's section should only fit 8 people you know?

      This. If you're going to have separate sections, then when you're planning to build the mosque you need to take into account the number of women in your community. If the space that you're planning for them couldn't fit them all if they decided to all attend on the same day then you need to make it larger.

  5. You also have to consider that all the children end up on the women's side. That was usually the bigger issue.

    1. True. I forget about kids sometimes. :)

      Huh. Whelp. If we go with the one room, divided down the middle solution then that's not a problem, is it. *Everyone* gets the joy of children in their lives! >:D


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