"Do not stop the maid servants of Allah from going to the mosques of Allah" (Muwatta of Imam Malik).
"When the wife of one of you asks about going to the mosque, do not stop her" (Bukhari).
I recently took a trip with my family to the state of Colorado, and I was looking forward to visiting a different Muslim community. To my great dismay, when we went to an (unnamed) Colorado city to pray Jumu'ah in their Masjid [mosque], we were told that there were no women in that Masjid, and that I would be unable to pray there. With my children and (non-Muslim) mother in tow, I went off to a park while my husband prayed. As a Muslima, I felt humiliated and angry, and I was embarrassed for the Ummah that my non-Muslim mother should have to see Muslims barring me from Bait Ullah [house of God] for no reason other than my gender. Nothing like reinforcing negative stereotypes, is there? Later, the brothers there told my husband that it was nothing against me, there just "wasn't room" for women in this Masjid.
A few years ago, I visited a Masjid in New York, intending to make Asr prayer while I was out shopping for things for my new home with my daughter and a friend. Instead, the sister and I were greeted at the door by a very angry teenager, who railed at us to return to our homes, that women have no place in the Masjid, and that we were a Fitna [a trial, calamity or affliction] upon the brothers who were there (all three of them). Mind you, we were a group consisting of a small child, a sister in Hijab and Jilbab (a loose-fitting garment covering the entire body), and a sister in Niqab (face veil). Subhan'Allah, if a small child and two sisters in Hijab are a fitna upon these men, then whatever do they do as they walk around New York City and encounter women who cover nothing more than what they are legally required to cover (meaning the genitalia)? As we were leaving, one of the brothers caught up to us, and apologized for the incident. Then he said, "It's not that women aren't allowed, just that there isn't any room for you in this Masjid." I fail to see how a two bedroom apartment with a living room converted into a Masjid where there are only three brothers present at the time doesn't "have enough room."
I don't know. Maybe it's just me, but the "we don't have room for you" excuse is getting old. I visited a Masjid in Monterey, California that was about the size of my living room. If any Masjid had a valid reason to use this excuse was this place. However, the brothers here had the foresight to curtain off a corner in the back for women. If no women showed up, they would keep the curtain drawn to the side, and there would be more room for men. If a sister or two did show up, they would close the curtain, and the men would have to make do with the space they had left.
Yes, some spaces for masajid are very small, but to use that as an excuse to bar women from praying there is unacceptable. Proof of that is offered in the example of the Monterey Masjid. Because the Prophet, aleyhi salatu wa salaam, specifically forbade keeping women from the Masjid, no one is going to come right out and say that they bar women from entering. "We don't have room" becomes code for "We don't want you here. Go home." If people were really interested in keeping with the Sunnah of ar Rasul, aleyhi salatu wa salaam, they should make sure that their Masjid doesn't aid them in violating the Prophet's command, aleyhi salatu wa salaam.
People in these communities who speak out against this injustice are often labeled as "troublemakers." When I wrote a letter to that NY Masjid, giving reasons from Qur'an, Sunnah, and the writings of our esteemed scholars as to why it is Haram to block women from the Masjid, I was labeled a "radical feminist." Subhan'Allah. Is anti-feminism so ingrained in our community now that any speech for the rights of women should be dismissed, even when that speech comes directly from Allah and His Messenger?
Besides the inconvenience such Masajid pose to women who are traveling, or working, or in some other way unable to be at home or another Masjid to pray, these Masajid also detract from the community as a whole. There is a void in that community. n multitude of viewpoints, ideas, and energy have been eliminated. More than 50% of the local community is invisible and excluded. I say more than 50%, because it is almost always the case that when a Masjid excludes women, it automatically excludes children as well. Is this the face of our Da'wa? A face that is exclusively male? How can we tell non-Muslim women that Islam is a sheltering peace for them if we show them a community wherein women are virtually invisible?
It was not the face of the Da'wa of the Sahaba, and it was not the Sunnah of the Prophet, aleyhi salatu wa salaam, to exclude women. Not from the Masjid, and not from the community as a whole. Much is made of the Hadith wherein the Prophet, sallalahu aleyhi wa salaam, told a woman that prayer in her home is better than prayer in the Masjid. (Ustadh Abdullah Adhami has taught this Hadith from a common sense, traditional point of view, and discusses misinterpretations that people have made of this Hadith to justify banning women from the Masajid, and you can hear this on his tape set "Ibadah of Women," from Ihya Productions). The point that I am making here is that while the Prophet, aleyhi salatu wa salaam, told the woman that the prayer in her home is better for her, he did not forbid her from coming to the Masjid at all. In fact, we know that the contrary is true - that he forbade men from preventing women to go to the Masjid, as seen in the Ahadith cited at the top of the page. If you are in a Masjid that does not have a space for women, you are preventing them from entering this Masjid. If you stand by while another brother tells a woman to go home, you are preventing her from entering the Masjid. Do you really want to take that position?
If your Masjid space truly is very small, there are very easy ways for you to make it availalble to women who need to pray there, while opening up the entire space for the men when no women are present. Many home improvement and home decorating stores sell decorative screens (like the rice paper ones seen in Japan), for a relatively low price. They fold up and are easy to store when not in use. Office supply stores sell cubicle walls with wheels. They also fold up for easy storage. If your Masjid doesn't have enough of a budget for these items, take up a special collection. In the meantime, you can install an extended curtain rod across the intended space for women and put up floor length curtains. You can use a table or chairs to mark the space reserved for women. Or you can do as Masajid have done for hundreds of years, and just designate a space behind the men as women's space, without Hijab (barriers) or walls. However, be aware that some women (and men) might not be comfortable with this style, since they may need to breastfeed an infant or adjust their coverings in the course of a Jumu'ah khutba.
If you have been blessed by Allah subhannahu wa ta'ala to have a larger amount of space for your Masjid, then do the right thing by your sisters. Make sure that the space reserved for them is adequate. Make sure the floor is clean. Make sure it is heated in the winter, and has air in the summer. Make sure the roof doesn't leak when it rains. Are there shoe racks and coat hangers? Make sure copies of the Qur'an are on hand for them to read. Make sure that the women's bathroom has hooks for their hijabs (when they are making wudhu), paper towels for them to dry with, slippers to wear, and soap to wash with. Make sure the bathroom is clean. If you have the room, you should add a changing table. It is a fact of life that where there are Muslim women, there are bound to be Muslim children, and the smallest of those children will need to have their diapers changed. Should the mother change it on the musallah floor, or on a wet, dirty, bathroom floor?
When you ensure that women are included in the Masjid, you are ensuring that the entire community has access to the teachings of Islam. You are showing non-Muslims that Islam does not stand for the exclusion of women and children, that Islam is not a "man's religion." You are showing non-Muslims that a woman can be modest, can be religious, and can still participate in community life. You are showing the next generation of Muslims that cultural ideas about excluding women and keeping them in the home are not from Islam. And you are following the teachings and example of our beloved Prophet, aleyhi salatu wa salaam. It is time for us to start undoing the damage done to our communities by pre-Islamic cultural ideas about "women's places." It is time for us to erase the misconceptions and misunderstandings of the Diyn (religion) that many still cling to. The only way that we can be sure that the next generation understands Islam as it was truly taught by the Prophet, sallalahu aleyhi wa salaam, is to be sure that women and children are fully included in the Masjid.
An edited version of this essay appeared in 'Taking Back Islam,' ed. Michael Wolfe (Rodale / Beliefnet, 2002).
Photo Attribution: Mikhail Evstafiev - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Evstafiev-chechnya-women-pray.jpg