Why we need to take women’s demand for religious spaces seriously
There are a growing number of conversations that are needlessly proving polemic amongst young Muslims. In a world increasingly shaped by algorithms, likes, shares and specious quips, many of these dividing issues require more understanding and nuance than we have the time or attention span to dedicate.
Central to these debates amongst Muslims is gender. Although we can split Muslims in many ways – left or right leaning, Millenial vs Gen X, pro-Mo Salah Christmas pyjamas vs against – the most divisive issues current amongst socially active Muslims centre on gender. A debate, ironically, as old as time itself, appears to have us all in a chokehold.
And seemingly there is a lot at stake – Islam prescribes gendered differences in domestic and public life, and how we interpret, employ and live these differences will bare an impression on the future of the Ummah, as well as our intimate lives. These debates also have deeply personal implications – there is a mandate by which we all need to adhere to based on our most basic sense of identity and being. And therefore a barometer by which people are likely to judge. They therefore require a sense of humility and self-awareness that is sadly all but fading amongst the most vocal of us who tend to shape the direction of this now defining issue.
At the core of this debate, and something we lose sight of entirely, is the fact that men and women are equal as believers in the sight of Allāh. This means we all have equal access to our Creator, and of course without contravening our Sunnah, we all need to shape our lives to ensure we are closest to Him. Worship, and all that we do as creation, is aimed at strengthening our spiritual health. Our closeness to Allāh, the knowledge we acquire to achieve this, and our sense of religious identity as a result, are absolutely critical to our sense of religious well-being. As men and women we have absolutely equal weight in this regard – we all need the tools required to optimise our faith.
Enter stage left the humble British mosque. British Masjids are typically a reflection of the immigrant demographic at any given time in Britain – architecturally, racially and socially. Earlier Masjid’s were typically established by immigrant men to meet their religious and social needs. Symbolically, one of the earliest Masjids was designed according to orientalist tropes, by a non-Muslim architectural firm, in order to be granted funding as a community building. Despite all the great and ground breaking things both that first generation of Masjid-establishers and those Masjids have achieved, this not so well known fact exemplifies many of the reasons we need to revise our collective religious and civic spaces as Muslims.
Much like the continuing discourse surrounding gender and Muslims, mosques often operate on cultural rather than religious lines and crucially they take from external, orientalist tropes concerning Muslims rather than scripture. In the same way that gender roles in Islam do not mirror those of a lost 1950s America, British Masjids should not adopt a ‘boys club’ approach to access. This is true because, as Muslim Census’ report so clearly demonstrates, access to Masjids as sites of spiritual and religious development, acquisition of knowledge, and places of physical safety during prayer time, is integral to Muslim women’s spiritual development – and a lack of that access is impairing their faith.
Research undertaken by Muslim Census uncovered that only a quarter of Muslim women in the UK have a Masjid local to them that provides facilities for women. Seen in light of the fact that, as Muslim Census reports, 25% of Muslim women rarely visit the Masjid whilst a further 17% never visit it, and 22% of Muslim women noted they feel uncomfortable in doing so, and it is clear that Masjids are not catering to the needs, nor engaging meaningfully, with Muslim women. And this has its consequences.
61% of Muslim women reported that the limited access to Masjids that they experience has a negative impact on their spirituality and their relationship with faith. Crucially, where Muslim women reported not having a Masjid locally available to them, a significant 48% said they felt disconnected from their faith, highlighting the substantial contribution of a local Masjid with appropriate facilities for women in nurturing their relationship with Islam.
Access to Masjids as physical spaces for prayer is not the only resource Muslim women identified as a need. 65% of respondents noted the need for easy access to female scholars and a further 54% noted the need for classes that specifically cater for women and address their experiences as necessary services. Focus group participants also noted that where they were able to access people of knowledge, this was often only through their male relatives and their religious networks. This often made it difficult to discuss matters pertaining exclusively to women or personal and gender-sensitive issues, adding unnecessary barriers in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. The implications of this are worrying – not only are Muslim women limited in their spiritual development due to our institutional failings, but they may also be prevented from fulfilling religious rites through this barrier to learning.
Unsurprisingly, Muslim Census findings also revealed that only 45% of Muslim women reported having an overall positive experience within their community. The likelihood of reporting a positive experience varies slightly with age – only 43% of Muslim women between 18-34 are likely to report a positive experience in contrast with 55% of Muslim women over the age of 45. This generational gap points to a worrying trend of increased disenfranchisement amongst Muslim women.
There are racial implications to be explored amongst these institutional blockages – Muslim women with Indian heritage reported the highest overall positive experience – 48% – in contrast to Muslim women from the Black community who reported the lowest – 41%. Equally, Muslim women aged 18-34 and those from the Black Muslim community were most likely to report relying on only online sources to seek guidance.
Focus groups also revealed that Muslim women felt like salat became a tick box exercise due to the lack of available prayer space, and having to use alternatives such as changing rooms, depriving them of tranquility or khushoo in their prayer, and making them more vulnerable to potential harassment. Another participant stated that she found it difficult to make ‘practicing/spiritual’ friends – underscoring the need for religious fraternity, and the Masjid’s potential in bringing women together on the grounds of faith and spirituality. This is especially important as only 32% of respondents felt connected to the wider Muslim community.
Masjids sit on the nexus of the private and public, civic and spiritual, cultural and universal and all the competing ideas that those entail. They are natural sites of tension because in the context of the UK they are the institutional expressions of a private faith. They are complex projections of our desire for our community with all the contrary ideas that this brings to the surface. In light of the results unearthed by this report, there is a need to revise Masjid structures – both physically and symbolically, in order to ensure women’s faith is not treated as an inconvenient after thought.
What this should not become is another proxy debate for or against feminism or women’s rights – this issue is one of our faith as a community, which will impact Muslim men and women now and for years to come, and it extends beyond the limited scope of issues feminism encompasses. At the heart of it, as a minority faith group, is the desire for women to access and create a Muslim community for themselves, and, critically, which will impact the next generation of Muslims.
If, as the research shows, Muslim women feel their faith is dependent on access to religious spaces, then the Muslim community is hijacking a conversation between Muslim women and Allāh on unwarranted grounds.
While we could spend time on this mental back and forth of what is publicly acceptable for Muslim women, we are ignoring the reality that means women require a safe place to pray, an Avenue to meet other Muslim women and create bonds, and a place to turn to in times of religious hardship and confusion. Surely that in itself is entirely uncontroversial?