The Islamic Center was never meant to be a "boys' club" as it has become in a number of Muslim communities.
In the best of scenarios, sisters are given a clean, large space, and contribute to the Islamic Center's upkeep and decision-making. In the worst scenarios, there are those who would deny women the right Allah and Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) have given women to go to the mosque. And in between, there are those mosques which have small, cramped quarters for sisters and no possibility for a say in decision-making. This of course stands in direct contradiction to what we know of the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the active role the female companions played in the masjid. There are countless hadith where the participation of women is clear. Furthermore, the Prophet (PBUH) in the following hadith sahih expressly stated that women should not be forbidden from going to the masjid.
The Prophet (PBUH) said: If the wife of any one of you asks permission (to go to the masjid) do not forbid her." (Bukhari)
Given these scenarios, what are some practical things sisters can do for their local Islamic Center.
Here are some ideas:
1. Do it for the sake of Allah
What other reason to do this than for the sake of Allah? None. Make your intention clear, then assess what you can do. Insha Allah (if Allah wills) you'll be rewarded for your sincerity and dedication.
2. Fight for your right
Do you know that you even have a right to go to the mosque? Request the masjid board to provide the reference from the Quran or hadith for denying women to go to the masjid. Provide the board with textual references from the Quran and Sunnah indicating otherwise. This may be presented by way of a letter or a presentation at a board meeting. Identify brothers on the board and other community leaders who believe women should not be denied access. These brothers will be important allies in your struggle. Don't make your struggle be seen as a sister vs. brother problem. It is important to stress to the board that the participation of women in the masjid is a God-given right. If space is seen as a problem, provide suggestions as to how the masjid can become more sister-friendly. Remind these brothers that while their wives go shopping, or some cases work, by denying them the right to go to the mosque, they are being denied the change to gain Allah's blessings through praying and learning in the mosque. Denying women their God-given right to attend the masjid is a form of zulm (oppression).
3. Clean up the Islamic Center
When was the last time you visited the Islamic Center? What was the condition of the place? What was the condition of the women's section? Of the women's bathroom?
Keep your area neat and tidy. Make the sisters' place spotless. Take out the trash, wipe the counters in the washrooms, spray air freshener, flush the toilets, do all that is necessary to keep the house of Allah sparkling. We should be taking care of the mosques better than our own homes.
Even better, get a sisters' cleaning crew in once a week to do the dirty work for the sake of Allah. This will almost surely bring relief to the brothers, who may shy away from the very thought of entering the women's bathroom to take out the trash, for instance.
4. Food is power
When was the last time you cooked for lots of people? If your answer is so long ago you can't find your large cooking pots, then dig them out so you can cook for the Islamic Center.
Cook for the Islamic Center dinner or the Sunday school kids. Not only will you be rewarded, Insha Allah (if Allah wills), but you will also become an almost indispensable member of the mosque. Cooking is one area where women are still in the lead in most communities.
5. Insist on Friday sermon topics of interest to sisters
Whether you know it or not, Imams can run out of ideas or topics to cover in the weekly sermons. If you want to bring sisters' issues to the forefront, what better way than to have a person in an authority figure (e.g. the Imam) speak about it.
6. Raise funds for the Islamic Center
Alhamdu lillah (Praise be to Allah), the Muslim population in North America is growing, and by extension, so is the need for larger spaces in the mosques. Mobilize the sisters to do their own fundraising. Whether that's through bake sales, collections amongst sisters' circles, having a jewelry drive, etc. Choose the method, and once you've gotten a significant amount don't just drop it off. Write a letter explaining exactly who collected the money, why and how it was done. This will build community solidarity between brothers and sisters for a common cause.
7. Hold study circles in the Mosque
Knowledge, in Islam, is not the reserve of men. Neither is the mosque. Learning in the Islamic Center takes on a different meaning for moms who are at home 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with little to no interaction with other women their age.
Establish study circles in the mosque, and if possible, arrange for babysitting. It's hard to concentrate on learning when you've got kids running and screaming at the same time.
8. Set up a phone tree
Set up a telephone tree so sisters can tell sisters who can tell sisters. This is a great halal use of the telephone for a good cause. This phone tree can be used for informing sisters of an event or mobilizing them for a cause.
9. Hold seminars for women in the Islamic center
This can be of an Islamic or of general nature. For instance, have a seminar on breast cancer for women, or children's nutrition, or wife abuse. Establish what the needs and concerns of Muslim women are and discuss these. Try to enable women to access information and resources that will help them address their needs.
10. Invite women from the neighborhood to the Islamic Center
Invite other women from the neighborhood to participate in programs of general interest in the Islamic Center. Pay special attention that women get invited in your Islamic Center open house.
11. Participate in the Islamic Center organization
It's bad enough that sisters are excluded from decision-making processes in some Islamic Centers, but they should not let slide their ability to vote for board members. While sisters should insist on participating in masjid boards, they should use their votes to elect members who will work for the best interest of the entire community and not just certain sectors.
Hold an Islamic Center election awareness drive amongst the sisters of your community and invite them to attend not only elections but the annual general body meetings. Share your ideas and comments, even if it means writing it on a slip of paper and sending it to the men's side if you feel too shy speaking up. Better yet, delegate more outspoken sisters to speak on behalf of those sisters who are to shy to speak publicly.
12. Volunteer for the Islamic Center library
Work to establish sisters' hours at the mosque library and contribute to its upkeep by arranging the books. This will also give you the power to suggest books which talk about the position of women in Islam or any other topic, which some Islamic Centers may not even carry.
13. Be there for funerals
A number of Islamic Centers have facilities to wash the bodies of the dead (Ghusl) before burial. While relatives and friends are usually the ones who do this, there are always those whose relatives are abroad or who cannot undertake this responsibility.
Form a committee of sisters to do this for women in need of this. Not only will you learn about this aspect of Islam, you will be contributing in a practical and very necessary way to the community.
14. Establish a sisters' welcoming committee
Get together with a group of sisters and form a sisters' welcoming committee. The job of this committee is to make sure that when a new Muslim sister or a group of non-Muslim women are coming to visit the mosque, the atmosphere is open and warm, and they are made comfortable.
15. What is the budget for the sister's committee?
Make sure that the sisters' committee in your Islamic center is properly funded. Develop a plan and a budget. Lobby the board and push for budget approval.
16. Can you edit the newsletter of the Islamic center?
Newsletters are not a strong point in the Islamic centers of America. Are you willing to take up this assignment? If you become the editor, you will be well-placed to involve other sisters not only in the newsletter but also in other activities at the Islamic center. Communication is power. Control it. Even if you are not the editor, make sure that the news, reports, and announcements of sisters activities in present in the newsletter.
17. Get on the media committee
If your Islamic center has a media committee, become part of it. If they don't have a committee, make a committee yourself. Sisters can handle media in a far better way that brothers.
18. Women visiting your Islamic Center
Inform your Islamic center leadership to contact you whenever they are expecting women visiting the center, they should contact sisters so they can come and welcome them.
Photo Attribution: Saleh M. Sbenaty - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Islamic_Center_of_Murfreesboro_with_flag.JPG