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No Room for Women at Mosques?

A Tale of Three Mosques

Umm Humayd told the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH): “O Messenger of Allaah, I love to pray with you.” He (PBUH) said: “I know that you love to pray with me, but praying in your house is better for you than praying in your courtyard, and praying in your courtyard is better for you than praying in the mosque of your people, and praying in the mosque of your people is better for you than praying in my mosque.”

So she ordered that a prayer-place be built for her in the furthest and darkest part of her house, and she always prayed there until she met Allaah (Ahmed).

If you are a woman whose heart is tied to the mosque, you have probably had some version of this hadith quoted to you at some point. You have probably questioned why it is that you are shunned from the mosque simply because of your sex. You might even have felt resentful for it. I and many other women have been there.

This hadith is quoted over and over again and is usually narrated as, “the best place for a women to pray is in the innermost part of her home”. But few know the context in which the hadith was narrated. Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan explains that this hadith was only for one sister (Umm Humayd) who was in a troubled marriage. This one woman was told to pray in the innermost part of her home in order to remove herself from her husband’s distracting behaviors while she prayed.

But since this hadith is used out of context, it is widely thought that a woman’s place to pray is at home. And because of this lack of understanding many mosques neglect women’s space or simply flat out refuse admittance to women. This has been my experience in many mosques, and two in particular:

The women’s (not enough) room- Mobile, AL

A stray cockroach crawls quickly across the room. A shriek is heard, but there is no room to turn and see what is wrong. There is only enough room for me to expand my ribs to breath. Children begin to cry and women push and shove as the insects approaches. It is Ramadan and iftar has just been served in a room that holds well over a hundred people but is only big enough to hold 35.

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I am told, as the overcrowded room makes me feverish in January, that the men’s section has been expanded two times while the women’s room remains the same tiny size. One sister chimes in that the women’s room did get new carpeting, as if in defense of the “oversight”.

Another lady, straining to carry two sweating children to the singular bathroom, overhears our conversation about the lack of space. She lets it be known that the men just had extra bathrooms with a wudu’ area installed.

Still another sister squeezes through the sea of women and children, as if a contortionist of sorts, asking if anyone can give money in order to buy a new vacuum to clean the carpet in the women’s room. I look over at the cockroach that has made its way to my side and wonder how the mosque can afford two expansions for the brothers but can’t supply the sisters with a vacuum.

Istanbul, Turkey-- At the Suleymaniye mosque in Istanbul, the women's sections are at the back of the enormous open prayer area but divided by wooden screens. Vice-deputy Kadriye Avci Erdemli, a woman, has spearheaded a project aimed at improving the women's prayer experience at nearly 3,000 mosques within the city. PHOTO BY JODI HILTON

No girls allowed somewhere in Louisiana

I am refused entrance to this mosque because I happen to have two X chromosomes. But I wonder what is inside. I imagine it is a dark place where men go to frown at each other and make little rascal-style signs that say, “He-man woman haters club. No girls allowed”.

I know that this is just my imagination, and tell myself to give them excuses. But as I sit in the sisters’ halaqa of my local mosque, the imam’s wife tells of her treatment upon arrival for asr prayer at the no girls allowed mosque.

“We were out and time for prayer came. So we looked for a place to pray and found this mosque. When I went to go pray, a big man came out and told me I wasn’t allowed in the mosque, even though I was fully covered and only my hands, feet, and face shown.”

I shook my head in disbelief as she continued to say that she, an elderly woman, had to ask for a prayer rug so she could pray on the side of the road while her husband was welcomed inside.

But being neglected or shunned has not always been my experience:

All are welcome- Memphis, Tn

Sweet smells welcome one and all, as smiling people greet each other on their way to make wudu’  or enter the prayer area. To the left are the sounds of children playing in the two babysitting rooms. To the right, in the prayer area, there is one big, open, airy space speckled with support columns.

Large, flat televisions hang on the walls of the prayer space every 25 feet to broadcast the lecture for all to see and feed a sound system that invites everyone to listen and gain knowledge. Women take off their shoes as they enter the half of the room designated for them in full view of the mimbar.

I am transported to a different time. A time I have only read about in narrations of what the Prophet’s (PBUH) mosque was like. Where women were welcomed. Where women prayed in the same room as men, and were not shoved to a small, darkly lit and dirty closet. Where women felt safe to ask questions, study, and participate in their own community.

There are mosques that completely ignore the needs of half of their community. Then there are mosques where women are not allowed at all, or are made to feel like their mere existence is burdensome. Then there are the communities that realize the mosque belongs to women as much as it belongs to men.

But the former two approaches are far more frequently the case than is the latter. It is my hope that with the efforts of people like Hind Makki and her Side Entrance project, MasjidforALL community , and supporters for women’s space like Dawah Addict , and Nouman Ali Khan, that we can reeducate those who believe that women don’t belong at the mosque, that we can bring to light the situation sisters face when going to the mosque, and that with knowledge will come change.

It is my hope that the stellar examples of the mosques who already have opened their doors to women and included them on their board of directors will not just be the exception but will become the rule.

“The believing men and women are protectors and helpers of each other. They (collaborate) to promote all that is good and oppose all that is evil; establish prayers and give charity, and obey Allah and his Messenger. Those are the people whom Allah would grant mercy. Indeed Allah is Exalted and Wise.“ (Al-Tawbah 9:71)

Let us not forget that we are helpers to one another. Let us build better mosques together as believing women and men, and earn Allah’s mercy.

If you are a woman whose heart is tied to the mosque, you have probably questioned why it is that you are shunned from it simply because of your sex.

First published: January 2016

About Theresa Corbin
Theresa Corbin is the author of The Islamic, Adult Coloring Book and co-author of The New Muslim’s Field Guide. Corbin is a French-creole American and Muslimah who converted in 2001. She holds a BA in English Lit and is a writer, editor, and graphic artist who focuses on themes of conversion to Islam, Islamophobia, women's issues, and bridging gaps between peoples of different faiths and cultures. She is a regular contributor for and Al Jumuah magazine. Her work has also been featured on CNN and Washington Post, among other publications. Visit her blog, islamwich, where she discusses the intersection of culture and religion.