Speaking of “prayer privileges”

On Facebook I recently posted: “Note to self: if you want to nurture your faith, stay away from the masjid!” It’s a sad reality of being a Muslim woman. What should be a space that is the center of our spiritual and religious life becomes a space of humiliation that we run from. A recent experience at a local mosque brought a renewed appreciation for Side Entrance, a project that showcases women’s prayer spaces in mosques around the world with the aim to bring attention to the often inadequate and unwelcoming spaces allotted to women. Hind Makki, the convener of the project, rightfully points out that often “mosques seem to be built to cater only to the male experience.” As a fellow Muslim woman I share her experiences and frustrations on the inadequacy, and at times complete absence, of prayer spaces for us in the mosque. The project has not only my support but I am also very grateful to Hind for initiating the endeavor and to the many people who have contributed pictures from around the world. It is my hope and prayer that these images will achieve their intended purpose! However, while focusing on the spatial elements of women’s prayer spaces in the mosque is important, I think we also need to take to task a communal discourse that privileges male religious experiences. This discourse presents “religious practice” as a universal standard that is supposedly achievable by all. Yet women, we are told, must and do fall short of it, particularly in their roles as mothers, as menstruating individuals and as the embodiment of fitnah, to be policed at all times, especially in the mosque. To me, the unequal allocation of female prayer spaces is only symptomatic of a larger communal attitude that devalues the lived religious experiences of women.

What do I mean by this? Let me offer an example: Ramzan/Ramadan is around the corner and I’ve already begun to hear the voices of women expressing their frustrations about not being able to make it to Tarawih or not being able to take much time to concentrate on their spiritual development and nourishment during this blessed month due to their responsibilities as mothers. This month is a time of tremendous spiritual growth and reward we are told, a spiritual boot camp you might say and it’s emotionally crushing if you are not able to partake in it both communally (through long hours of tarwih and tahajjud at the masjid) as well as in your own personal practice. As myself and my female friends and family members hit our menstrual cycle I will also begin to hear them recount (as I myself feel) a disconnect not only from Ramzan/Ramadan, from fasting, from prayer, from the Quran, but from the very space of sacredness itself (the mosque) as menstruating women cannot enter spaces designated for prayer. I feel their pain: when one is engaged in night after night of intimate commune with the Divine, it is painful to be cut off so instantly. The blood that flows from my vagina comes to mark not only the promise of life but also a spiritual death.

Unfortunately, our communal response to these frustrations expressed by women is nothing beyond empty rhetoric. Imams and Shuyukh extol the reward that mothers receive for their years of toil and sacrifice in the face of reduced prayer and opportunities for ritual worship. Women are also rewarded, we are told, for desisting from prayer, fasting and recitation of the Quran while menstruating out of obedience to Allah. That mothers, in our current gender dynamics of parenting, are breaking their back day and night out of devotion to their family is beyond a doubt. That they will be rewarded for their efforts is also what our beloved Prophet (saw) has told us time and time again. That is not the issue. The issue is a religious discourse that does not speak of women’s religious experiences except as peripheral conversations. There is a reason why year after year I hear women express the same emotions and year after year I hear the same empty rhetoric glorifying and valorizing maternal self-sacrifice in the interest of maintaining patriarchal gender norms. The responses don’t address the very fundamental issue: we are all deeply socialized into male normative conceptions of religious piety and righteousness, but then there are those of us (i.e. half of humanity) who are unable to fulfill it!

This is how this religious discourse works: growing up we emphasize prayer, reading Quran, and involvement in the masjid as fundamental acts of piety. If we are dedicated to our faith, we are told again and again, then we must pray on a daily basis (and more if you wish to increase your piety), read Quran regularly and keep the company of pious people (hence the emphasis on communal prayer and frequenting the mosque). We teach this to little girls as well as little boys. But here’s the thing: that little girl hits puberty and is no longer able to fulfill this male-centered model of piety: this idea of a pious person that assumes that we will always be able to pray without bodily processes interrupting us for significant periods of time, that we will not only have full access to the masjid but that it will be a space that caters to our needs, and that we will, in terms of time constraints as well as our responsibilities, be able to engage in communal prayer at all times, anytime and anywhere. If you’re a man, you can pray every prayer, every day. You can fast throughout Ramzan/Ramadan without interruption, no “days off” is going to spoil your groove. You can go to the masjid and have access to the most aesthetically pleasing sections of the masjid as well as comfortable access to the beautiful recitation of the Imam (not through TVs and speakers that might stop working in the middle of prayer). You can come and go from the masjid as you please, at any time (for tahajjud, fajr, late night tarawih) without having to worry about having a man escort you and you can be certain that I‘tekaf arrangements will be made for you at the mosque so that you can spend the last ten days of Ramzan/Ramadan in intense worship without much discussion on whether it is required for you or not, whether you need to, whether you will cause fitnah by your presence, whether you have a mahram with you or not or even whether leaving your children for days at a time will be possible because who will care for them in your absence? Our standards of piety and ritual worship work for you perfectly, they are, in fact, meant to work for you!

As women we find our ways of remaining spiritually connected by taking time out to make zikr, using technology to read the Quran on our period without “touching” it. But many of us also feel that it’s not quite the same. There is something absolutely intimate about prayer, brief moments throughout the day to commune with Allah (swt) that are hard to experience through other forms of worship. Not fasting during Ramzan/Ramadan we try to mimic fasting by not eating and still attend tarawih sitting to the side (not in the prayer area of course, because we would not want to pollute it with our menstruating presence) and yet the “fasting” feels like starvation, and the experience of standing for long periods in prayer and listening to the words of Allah (swt) resound in your head, punctuated with moments of humbling oneself in prostration, cannot be felt as you sit to the side following along. We have been deeply socialized into a piety defined by prayer, fasting and reading Quran and being cut off from it due to our biological processes as women feels like a handicap, it feels like our piety is thwarted.

So, while working to ensure that women have decent prayer spaces in the masjid and a welcoming atmosphere is certainly a worthy endeavor, it is only the beginning of the battle. We must also create a religious discourse that defines piety in a way that takes women’s religious experiences seriously. The problem of prayer spaces for women in the masjid is not only spatial but is also symptomatic of a larger communal attitude that discounts and demeans women as faithful believers.

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