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Are women’s prayers worth the same as men’s?

Did you hear the story about the Muslim man that wanted to pray and was turned away from the mosque?!

No, neither did I.

My son and i were recently denied entry (one can be forgiven for thinking these words sound stinkingly like Trump’s Muslim ban) into a renowned mosque in London. A mosque that has 4.5/5 on Tripadvisor and has been described by contributors as a ‘wonderful place’, that has an ‘amazing atmosphere, especially during Friday prayers’.

This was the Bear’s (my son who once upon a time looked like a bear, you know the baby with the chubbiest of cheeks, folds in the arms and legs, hence the nickname) first time in London, and we had spent a few awesome days eating pizza in bed, mastering the tube system and doing the tourist attractions. I had meticulously made a point of planning in Jumah prayers at a mosque which i knew had a women’s area, wanting to demonstrate to the Bear that prayer wasn’t incompatible with travels or whilst on holiday.

As we walked and spoke about how to find the mosque, we laughed that we need to put our ‘Muslim radars’ on, to scope out the uncle jees in their salwar kameez, women in their abayas rushing to prayer who will certainly lead us there. And guess what? we spotted a guy hurriedly parking his car, jumping out, fixing his kameez and topi, shoes half on, and followed him right to an entrance of the mosque. Bingo! Ahem! I mean Allah Akbar!

The dome was glistening from amongst the trees, and i told the Bear how much i loved exploring new mosques. At the entrance i asked the attendant where the women’s area was, to which he ignored me. I asked again and he gave me a cold stare before grunting and looking the other way. Slightly perturbed, i walked on and noticed the colorful scarves in the distance, ebbing and flowing inclining towards what i suspected would be the women’s prayer area.

We started taking off our shoes and a woman approached us with let’s just say in an amplified voice, speaking Arabic, clearly trying to tell me something. I proceeded to tell her i didn’t understand Arabic and that seemed to annoy her even more. She ushered me out of the building and stated in English that i have to go to the ‘other part’. I clarified that where we were was indeed the women’s area, to which she confirmed. To clear up any confusion, just in case she hadn’t guessed from my hijab, or me giving her salam, or the taking off of my shoes, i stated that we were here to pray. She went on to insist that i have to go to the other door, pointing out that i had a child, and there was no space upstairs for women with children; or that i could send him to the men’s area and access the women’s area.

There was absolutely no way i was sending the Bear to the men’s area. Quite disheartened, we walked towards the other door. My heart couldn’t have sank any further – it was indeed the community hall. As we walked in, i looked around and could see elderly women seated on fold away chairs, and toddlers running around, or napping by their mums’.

As we sat down, the imam started the khutba. To my utter disbelief he spoke about how our youth are disenfranchised; that we must engage them, talk to them with respect, show them the faith in action. Where we even in the same mosque?! Just about 5 minutes ago my son just witnessed both of us not being allowed access to the dedicated prayer area, and a man that refused to tell us where the prayer area was! This was his lived experience of praying whilst on holiday! I can not tell you how aggrieved, how outraged i felt.

To add injury to insult, after prayers, we went to the mosque cafe, only to find the man behind the counter saying that anything we wanted to order was out of stock and to come back after 4pm. I could see that there was perhaps not the culture of women attending the cafe after Jumah prayers, as men dominated the room, with full plates of food – which just conveniently ran out for the woman and her child who dared to venture to the cafe at the ‘wrong time’.

So let’s bring it back closer to home, long story short, the Bride (a friend) and i make our way to the prayer area to perform Isha salat. As we walk towards the door marked ‘ladies area’, which sits at one end of a corridor that leads to the men’s prayer area, an uncle jee coming up the corridor stops me, and rudely asks whether i can’t see the sign, pointing at a strip on the floor which reads ‘no shoes beyond this point’. Now admittedly, i did notice the strip but felt for my own dignity i have to take approx 5-6 more steps and i’ll be in the ladies area, and can hold on to the wall or sit on the floor as i prise my heels off.

That night i kept thinking, what if that was my mum that had been spoken to like that? How dare men like that uncle jee think they can speak to women in that manner, and the stupidity of the placement of the strip, which for the record, of my 30 something years, never existed before – and no doubt was a man’s idea, who never thought about women’s access or how degrading it might be for some women to easily remove their shoes at that indicated point, whilst men are coming and going into the men’s area – which no doubt further would aggrieve the uncle jees!

Over the coming weeks i’ve noted the changes in this mosque, including the internal door which leads to the women’s area no longer being a designated door, rather it’s become ‘authorised personnel only’. The women have now got a larger door! Yes! It’s outside, it’s green and metal and you’ve guessed it, it’s the fire exit! and if you come when it’s not prayer time, you can hover around outside, until a man attends and unlocks it for you. Oh and be careful to watch you don’t catch your fingers on it, as it doesn’t have handles on the outside either. What an utter disgrace.

Let me be clear, there is a crisis of women’s access and spaces at mosques. I think to the wonderful stories i’ve learned and heard about mosques at the Prophet’s (PBUH) time. They were at the heart of the community; they were a place where women could see and hear the beloved Prophet (PBUH); they were spaces where people belonged and thrived. There is evidence to suggest that there was no separation of gender in the mosques, and men and women used the same entrance.

Are men more entitled to pray in a mosque? in fact i’ll go further to say are they more entitled to pray in a lavish prayer hall, with decent ablution facilities? It’s a fact that 9 out 10 times the women will have babies and young children under their care when attending the mosque, yet are afforded less space, poorer prayer hall conditions, having to lug prams up the stairs because there’s no lift, or have to go along a dingy side entrance. Our women elders, just like my gran, and other women with physical disability, just like my mum struggle to get up the stairs, and have no choice, especially if they want to participate in a nikah ceremony or funeral prayer of a beloved one. In fact, imagine being a women that’s reconnecting with her faith, or in a new area, or a new Muslim, the alienation you would feel due to these regressive practices. Where is the kindness and compassion? Where is the thought about women’s access, for them too to connect with their Lord and others in the community? How many hearts have been turned away because of the mosque situation we find ourselves in?

Women are being ousted time and time again from OUR mosques (with their kids i’ll add); mosques are being run in a way that portrays Islam is just for men. So given all of this, it’s no surprise at all that women only mosques are being set up. This somewhat saddens me, though i completely see the benefits and reasons for women only mosques. I want to attend the mosque with my son and that won’t work for me.

A revolution is needed and we must all speak up about mosque spaces if we genuinely are committed to our youth and building the resilience of our communities. I don’t want to hear about another mosque being refurbished or built unless women and other groups such as disability groups are also consulted.

The Bear and i did return to the London mosque later on that same day, and we prayed Maghrib in the dedicated women’s area. As we left, my feminist and beautiful son said, ‘It’s not all about the men, why should they have a bigger space’. We high fived. Change starts at home.