She Speaks We Hear

Bringing women's voices together, unaltered, unadulterated


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Muslim and Jewish Women come together for International Women’s Day

On the grey morning of Sunday 5th March 2017 I left my family still snuggled in their beds to attend the inaugural Nisa-Nashim Muslim Jewish Women’s Network event at the university of Westminster. I made the solitary walk up to the station in the drizzling rain and wondered whether this was a conference relevant to me. Did I belong amongst this group of women? What would the day entail? I went with no expectations other than the hope it would be a valuable experience for me. I felt the desire to be surprised, to be challenged, to gain an insight into the flowering of a movement of diverse individuals uniting to develop a positive narrative for their communities in Britain.

I arrived and found myself drawn to the beaming faces of the attendees lining up to register for the day’s activities. I instantly felt this was going to be a day of welcome from all the women attending towards one another. Over a quick coffee I saw the room fill with women of both faiths engaged in conversations – a loud gathering of passionate women ready for a day of interfaith engagement.

The Nisa-Nashim network was created by Laura Marks and Julie Siddiqi with the aim of promoting dialogue between the British Jewish and Muslim communities. The emphasis is on Muslim and Jewish women coming to the forefront of their communities and bridging divisions armed with friendship. It was a pleasure and inspiring to listen to the personal stories of both Julie and Laura. We were urged to think of the 2017 international women’s day motto “be bold for change” as we seek to break the mistrust perpetuated by an often negative cycle of information spread across the general media landscape permeating into our daily lives. The words of Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin were a great addition and uplifting “…my story is your story…and your story is mine…”.

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We heard from the representatives of CST and Tell MAMA who illustrated the increasing level of hate crimes and the often debilitating impact on the victims. The discussion highlighted interesting points such as the majority of hate crimes seem to be committed by white males which opens up many more questions and concerns. The message of “be upstanders not bystanders” was a very powerful and emotive one. This was a sobering and serious discussion about the challenges to personal security Jewish, Muslim and many other fellow minority communities face.

A host of talented women and organisations had put together a diverse programme of workshops such as community organising, yoga/self awareness, and faith in the media. I chose the workshop about interfaith marriage and human sexuality. A lively, illuminating, strong discussion occurred in which I found myself opening up and sharing my experiences too. This was a brilliant workshop and I am grateful to the stories, wisdom shared by women of both faiths. I was intrigued by the title ‘Scriptural Reasoning’ and found myself reading through corresponding passages from the Torah and the Quran with instructors to guide us along. It was fascinating finding the Jewish perspective enhancing the Islamic perspective of the story of Prophet Moses and vice versa. An interest in the sacred texts of the Abrahamic religions was rekindled for me and I look forward to meeting up for further reflections.

I went to the Nisa-Nashim inaugural event not knowing what to expect. It turned out to be a revelatory experience. I was inspired by the passion the speakers displayed for the work they do in their communities to promote peace. I was delighted by the strength of the friendships that exist between the women who are behind the project but also the new relationships that were forged that day. Many like me went with tentative, shy voices but left further  emboldened to believe in a vision of strength in solidarity between our communities.

By Nazia

@25Nazia

Nazia is  a mother of three children. She has a degree in History (focus on modern Europe, Russia, Ottoman Empire, Origins of Islam, Mughal Empire, Middle East) from School of Oriental and African Studies London.

Image courtesy of @NisaNashim

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.

 


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Hate

by Nazia

@25nazia

Encountered while walking along Saint Denis and alleys

Encountered while walking along Saint Denis and alleys

Last week* I felt like my back had broken. Every night I slept in pain. Feeling stiff, disjointed, sore and disillusioned I would awaken. I tried not to be a recluse and hibernate my way through this agony and began surfing social media because its entertainment as well as educational, right?

I love the power of information spreading easily, fast, aimlessly and possibly mostly with a real purpose in mind. The internet is a bubble that sucks me in with its wonderful libraries, cinemas and shopping malls but I am weary now and this makes me actually sad.

I know to expect nastiness from trolls, buffoons and criminals to exploit the perception of anonymity of the internet but something akin to a movement of hate is not only reflected but propagated, celebrated online. I have come to wonder that an orchestrated movement is attempting to sow seeds of hate through the medium of the internet. It is not a unique attempt, many individuals, groups engage in nefarious behaviour but this particular movement has left me extremely shaken and concerned for the efforts of those of us who wish for cooperation, restraint, peace.

I grow tired of the need to shield my senses from the hate.

Just like many I have pondered the question of censorship and I am aware acutely of the raging debates surrounding freedom of speech. I fall into the camp of turning the other cheek. This is incredibly important even more now as the ‘movement’ of hate and provocation is becoming ever shameless and bold in its attempts to cause offense. The hate machine is churning out words, images, ideas, insidious, destructive and callous in their intent. Freedom of speech is sacred but I can’t help but feel a bunch of immature, bruised, cynical opportunist lunatics (of many shades of creed) have hijacked the original lofty, decent freedom for an evil enterprise. The creation of division, fear and hatred between neighbours, friends, family in the real physical world.

I must pause. I take a moment to settle the mist of gloom that is rising within me overbearing and cold. 

In all honesty I feel embarrassed that I have reacted this way to the hate campaign online against an entire community of people of the world. This community shares the values of justice, rule of law, fairness, the sanctity of life and liberty. That is the community that I belong to.

Those who prefer hate come from all corners of our planet but I believe those who wish for harmony outnumber these individuals. Perhaps our voices are drowned out by the greater noise of the hate machine. Perhaps wanting peace is not the cool option anymore and maybe as a species on this planet we are becoming broken and afraid of the ‘unknown known’?

The unknown known fear mongering.

I have seen many awful things online but a blog post broke my heart and caused me to realize I had read something incredibly dangerous. I could share the details of the blogger and readers may make their own minds up but I abstain from the sharing of evil. Suffice it to say I was shocked and in awe of the beauty of the prose. The well thought out depiction of Arab/Muslim men as the sexual menace from an alien backward religion who race to reach our European lands as invaders…….and on it goes. A female ‘activist’ shared this blog piece on twitter claiming it to be the truth and illuminating about the nature of the men seeking to make new homes in Europe. I can only sigh at such thoughtless acceptance of stereotyping, hate, and judgement of random individuals. This attitude is in itself anti- European and undermines the aspirations of those who lived and fought for a fairer, kinder, civilized Europe.

I say again I have stumbled across such cold nastiness before but this piece was too much. The talented writer had chosen to use his skill to pen words of calculated demonization. I could not stop the feeling of utter despair.

The pen is mightier than the sword. But where will such words lead? What impact in the world of action? On our streets? In school playgrounds? In hospitals, cinemas, restaurants? On public transport? Will we live in fear of one another? Am I alone in asking such questions?

I will not succumb to hate. Alluring as it is after having watched children broken and dying with adults screaming horrific farewell epithets such as “Die you son of a whore” – yes, hate can become alluring. But thank goodness I have lived, I have understood. I know from the deepest realm of my soul that hate is unacceptable. It will destroy the individual as well as society as a whole. With that strength of conviction and fortitude I can breathe and say that I will remain true to my belief in the power of reconciliation over retribution. I stand with all the individuals outraged at the violence and the glorification of division in Israel and Palestine and of course, beyond.

And it’s not just the holy land in trouble is it? Our minds are on the line. The inhabitants of Planet earth are at stake, how healthy will our world be with the legacy of bombs, bullets and mines? And hate talk?

The spectators must judge with fairness and compassion, resisting the urge to take sides in an unholy war. I see patterns of connection between social media output (even from parts of the online scrapbook ‘Pinterest’), the wider hate movement and increased divisions between various peoples.

I realize I must walk away when such places online which connect deeply with the mind begin to send messages that seek to make a person weep in despair. I will not let the combined barrage of ugly words from the likes of charlatans with the gravitas of a mob following break my resolve to live among my neighbours with love and respect.

I stop

I disengage from these thoughts and notice my elderly neighbour navigating the path to her door. I know she is blissfully oblivious to the noise of the battle for hearts and minds between humans who stake claims on glory be it through God, pens or guns.

I watch the children, parents, commuters pass by my home and I think of the good luck we share in our peaceful neighbourhood. I recall the celebrations we enjoy each returning year. Like clockwork we decorate our homes and greet each other with peace in our hearts for one another. We are blessed to be free to engage in an array of festivals – Halloween, Eid, Christmas, Hanukkah, Guru Nanak’s birthday and most recently I added Diwali to the great list of opportunities to be joyful. Being British, being European has given us the right to make choices about how we live our lives.

*This post was originally written before the horrendous Paris Attacks on the 13th of January 2015, and the subsequent increase in anti-Muslim hate crime.

Nazia is  a mother of three children. She has a degree in History (focus on modern Europe, Russia, Ottoman Empire, Origins of Islam, Mughal Empire, Middle East) from School of Oriental and African Studies London.

Image courtesy of Andre Vandal; ‘Stop the Hate’ posted on Flickr

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.


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The Call to Love, with Deep Courage

by Revd Bonnie Evans-Hills

@EvansHills

Image courtesy of Revd Bonnie Evans-Hills

Image courtesy of Revd Bonnie Evans-Hills

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. – The words of Paul in the Letter to the Ephesians.

Love, Peace, Humility, Gentleness – lovely sounding words, and because they are words of that to which each of us, each and every human being seeks to attain, thirsts for as the deer pants for the water, we want them to be easy. But we now they are not easily won – they are won through tremendous courage, the kind of courage that only Love can bear, the kind of courage that takes a man to a cross for the sake of the ones he loves. Love bears all things.

This past week I went to a conference at the University of Lancaster on Faith, Communities and Radicalisation. Astounded to be introduced as one of the Church of England’s experts on confronting the far right, I eventually realised that what I consider to be humble experiences, on the ground, at grassroots level, were actually valuable first-hand knowledge the those I shared the platform with viewed as indispensable.

“It is easy to now find a scapegoat in Muslims or immigrants or Eastern Europeans.”

The common theme of the day was one of preventing our younger generation in particular from seeking to fulfil their hopes in the arms of the likes of extremism – whether it is with ISIS, or groups such as the EDL, Britain First or neo-Nazi groups such as New Dawn. We have a global context in which employment and housing opportunities are almost non-existent for a generation of young people. In the 14 years since 9/11, a generation of young Muslims have received a daily onslaught from media telling them they are terrorists. And other young people, struggling to find jobs – have also been on the receiving end of that onslaught. It is easy to now find a scapegoat in Muslims or immigrants or Eastern Europeans. What each of us concurred upon, academics, religious leaders, sociologists, criminologists, community workers, was that young people need to be given hope, hope for a future in which they might have employment, feel valued, and have a place in this world. If we don’t, as a nation, give it to them – someone else will.

ISIS is the extreme manifestation of those seeking to benefit from a disaffected  generation. It is said that from their fruits you shall know them – and their fruits are that of organised crime. They are involved in trafficking of human beings, in arms and antiquities sales, sale of oil, in drugs. They terrorise just as organised crime uses terror to control swathes of communities.

One of the things that was said is a feeling that this is a new phenomenon – how do we stop it? But we have been here before. Much of the patterns we know of from groups in Northern Ireland are followed in the patterns of behaviour here in the UK with regard to the EDL and Britain First – mapping almost exactly in the Orange parades and organised drug crime. Tommy Robinson, founder of the EDL, has been convicted of a number of crimes which include drug charges and assault.

What we have with both groups such as the EDL and with ISIS are a pattern of terror, illicit financial gain, and grooming of the vulnerable for the purposes of forming a voluntary army – whether it is on a small scale here in Britain, or the horrific events in Syria and Iraq. The pattern is the same.

This sounds a bleak picture – but I want to assure that it is not. The solution is not more bombing campaigns, the solution is not a 1950’s McCarthy-era style of thought police. Truly, the first solution, the solution that will make a real difference in the world, is Love.

Rick Love (yes, that is his name!) of the World Evangelical Alliance, has challenged the Christian world to wage Love. He is challenging to follow the words of Jesus Christ that we love our enemies, that we love ISIS. Not their ideology – of course not, not their actions. But individual by individual, person by person, cup of tea by cup of tea – that we sit down and listen to people, value them as human beings, that we give hope through love.

I have worked enough on the street to see how things ratchet up, and keep on ratcheting up. The more attention you give to the violence, to the anger, things ratchet up. Before we can even listen to one another – we have to stop, love, provide hope.

I was on the train to London at rush hour when the last budget was announced, and I listened to what I discerned were two social workers heatedly discussing the results. Young people between the ages of 18-25 will not be entitled to minimum wage. It is considered appropriate that they should seek help from their families. But these social workers were asking what about the young people in care who are expected to be independent when they are 18, no longer entitled to housing or benefits. Their only choice at this point is to return to a household where they were abused or neglected. It is a choice forced upon them. It will be that or the streets.

This nation which in its compassion saw the establishment of the NHS and a benefit system that feeds and houses the vulnerable, and that our Prime Minister is asking to return to British values, is at risk of losing the best of those values. We who pay in to a system of taxes that is supposed to protect us when we need it most, are seeing that slowly eroding away.

This past week, a dentist in America received global disapproval of something he considered a sport. He shot a lion in Africa – and the world went crazy with accusations. And then there were the counter accusations – that people, and the media, care more about a lion being shoe than….well, you name it; a Palestinian child burned to death, a black woman beaten to death by police in the US, or nameless migrants killed in the Channel Tunnel from Calais.

Jesus is calling us, calling us to love, to peace, to gentleness, to humility. It is a radical calling. It is a loud calling – and it is getting louder and louder!

When my children were small and had nightmares, I used a Native American technique with them. I told them the next time something chased them in their dream, they were to turn around and ask what gift it was the monster was trying to give them. You see, the thinking behind this is that our nightmares are really something in our psyche that is trying to get our attention – and that if we turn around and listen to what it is, we will find that it is a valuable gift we need to receive.

We are at a crossroads of humanity as a nation. We are being called to love, to compassion, to hope. Several people have died in the middle of a dark tunnel, crushed by lorries and God knows what. We are not provided with their names – they remain dehumanised, nameless, faceless, termed part of a swarm and like cockroaches.

Calais immigrants, courtesy of  Tom Jervis

Calais immigrants, courtesy of Tom Jervis

What is happening in Calais has been happening for years, but is currently part of a sharp increase of refugees worldwide. What some media term to be a huge swathe is in reality on a minute portion of those seeking sanctuary worldwide. Other European countries take in hundreds of thousands rather than the thousands Britain receive. That a small portion of refugees seek to make it to the UK is no surprise. There is a global pressure of people seeking to escape unthinkable violence in their home countries, and by far the greater majority are finding refuge in countries closer to where they are coming from. They are not coming to the UK because they are under the impression we have a great system they can exploit. Those who are trying to come here either have some kind of connection through relatives, or have some knowledge of English which they believe will help them find a job.

I have worked with refugees when I was living in Sussex. Many of them were highly skilled but prevented from working, from earning their way and paying taxes because while awaiting the lengthy process of seeking asylum, they have little or no recourse to public funds or to employment.

But as hard as things are for them here and in Europe – there is at least hope, at least no one is going to shoot them just for being who they are.

I was a trustee for Brighton Voices in Exile, a Christian charity which provided for those seeking asylum who were falling through the cracks – left with no food, shelter or recourse to clothing – even for families with children, the charity provided what little they could.

What love, commitment, courage, humility and gentleness it takes to provide hope for the hopeless. It is not a case that if we opened our borders there would be hordes of refugees coming in. We are at the edge of Europe, and an island. Those who come this far are the most desperate. Rather than put up walls in fear, we need to work closely with the whole of Europe to find a means of providing for the needy – those in need of saving their own lives.

A Daily Mail headline from 1938 draws comparisons with those we are now seeing with regard to Calais: ‘The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port in this country is becoming an outrage. In intend to enforce the law to its fullest.’ – quoting a London magistrate. It goes on to makes claims about problems surrounding unemployment issues – there not being enough jobs, etc.

At this end of history, I would rather be perceived as the one who provided sanctuary for those escaping oppression, than the one turning them away.

The bread of life Jesus speaks of is the love for God and for one another each and every one of us is called to. That love would never see another go hungry or thirsty, in fear for their life or without shelter. The bread of Life is Love – courageous, humble, gentle, patient Love. It is not easy, it is not hearts and flowers and romance – but it is full of light and grace and blessing.

From Sunday’s sermon, 2 August 2015, using the following readings:

Ephesians  4.1-16

John 6.24-35

Bonnie Evans-Hills has considerable experience in interfaith dialogue, serving on the national Church of England Presence & Engagement task group, and working with the World Council of Churches. With the Anglican Communion, Bonnie took part in a theological exchange at al-Azhar University in Cairo. Bonnie is Inter Faith Adviser in the Diocese of St Albans, and a parish priest. You can read more of her work at https://bonnieevanshills.wordpress.com/,  academia.eduhttps://heythrop.academia.edu/BonnieEvansHills

Images credit: Revd Bonnie Evans-Hills and Calais immigrants from Tom Jervis

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.


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A British Muslim’s Message to Extremists

by Nazia

@25nazia

Image credit: My Eyes Are Set On Freedom #Iranelection from harrystaab

Image credit: My Eyes Are Set On Freedom #Iranelection from harrystaab

Freedom is all important to me. I say that freedom is all important to me as I know what it feels like to live in a restricted life. I was born a Londoner and as the years go by I feel that is the label closest to defining me. Being a Londoner was a gift. I was able to explore my identity as an individual more freely than if my parents had never left Pakistan. I was obsessed with identity as a child – I felt my difference to other children acutely but it never stopped me from playing with any of my school friends. I struggled with my curly hair, brown skin and felt deep pain when the same friends would turn on me with the easiest insult during a game

“You’re just a Paki, go home!”

I couldn’t fight back as the initial shock of learning I did not belong just hurt too much. The routine began of going home stinging from the rejection (we always forgave each other the next day!) and crying to my parents

“Why did you come to this country?!”

My parents would joke back at me that we could leave for Pakistan and my answer was always a resounding

“Nooooo!”

The struggles of being a good Muslim/Pakistani girl and fitting in with being a Londoner caused mayhem in my teen years. I drifted towards alternatives – Buddhism, Grunge/Punk Rock, Atheism, anything that took hold of my curious mind. I came across Political Islam by accident (my mum thought I was too Western so sent me for a weekend to see cousins – she did not know they were coming under the influence of a newer politically charged Islam). At school I decided to challenge my teachers and the sensibilities of everyone by donning a scarf. This act was a rebellion. My teachers were excellent and whilst questioning this change actually challenged me to explore and explain my new found identity. I am grateful they realized by allowing me to educate myself with all the ideas that I could possibly be exposed to – I would find a path right for me and society.

As an adult I have thrown off the shackles of cultural/religious expectations whether they come from my Pakistani/Muslim heritage or British media/wider society. The sad reality of life post 9/11 is that I shudder whenever an act of terrorism occurs as I fear a backlash on the Muslim community. When I read extreme comments made by “experts” such as Ayan al-Hirsi or Douglas Murray who at one gathering proclaimed life should be made extremely difficult for Muslims in Europe as a strategy – I become afraid, afraid for my entire community. I try to reassure myself that such words will never gather momentum – they are not targeted at Muslims like me but I always remember the history lessons at school. Hateful, angry rhetoric from politicians, career academics…or rather, bogus experts competing for the hearts, minds, votes,  of the weary masses could be heard in another place called Nazi Germany. My parents often talked of their fear of being thrown out one day and I would argue against them but I am scared for my children. What difference does it make if I am not a practicing Muslim? Hate blocks out the capacity to reason.

On a brighter note I believe the majority of Britain is not blinded and easily led down the path of division – that applies to the Muslim community too.  But it is difficult in a climate in which discussion about Islam can seem polarized. Sadly, I do not always feel comfortable expressing myself among my fellow Muslims in fear of backlash from a lone hyper individual.

Image of London from cuellar, Flickr.

Image of London from cuellar, Flickr.

The political fire storm over accusations of radicalization is counter- productive and seeks only to gain votes for politicians cynically exploiting the fear of terrorism. On the other hand rogue Muslim “leaders” also exploit the fears of Muslims who have bought into the narrative of victimhood. Communities who are in the processes of settlement or generations born in Britain but undergoing the trials of balancing multiple identities as well as the worries of education, employment, life are vulnerable. These communities are exposed by political/media hysteria about extremism, sex scandals, honour killings, Sharia to those who advocate rejection of Britain as a country that accepts them.

I try to walk on an alternative path carved through reason and knowledge. I have my children and I have devoted my life to giving them the understanding of how crucial free will is – even the Pakistani poet Iqbal reminds Pakistanis that God has given humans free will.

My message to extremists on both sides is that they are not reflecting my vision of what London is. My life has shown me I must embrace my freedom and I try to celebrate being a Londoner in my consciousness everyday (because getting to this point in my life was a fight!).

Nazia is  a mother of three children. She has a degree in History (focus on modern Europe, Russia, Ottoman Empire, Origins of Islam, Mughal Empire, Middle East) from School of Oriental and African Studies London.

Images credit: My Eyes Are Set On Freedom #Iranelection from harrystaab and  London from cuellar.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.


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Lessons learnt: why don’t more women feel welcome in the mosque?

“Woman is a delicate creature with strong emotions who has been created by the Almighty God to shoulder responsibility for educating society and moving toward perfection. God created woman as symbol of His own beauty and to give solace to her partner and her family.”
Hazrat Ali ibn Abu-Talib A.S

barriers-to-faith-flickrLast month, Islamic centres around the UK joined forces to take part in the MCB’s VisitMyMosque initiative. Mosques taking part opened their doors to the general public and served tea and delicious cakes. However, rather than positive stories of communities getting to know one another, the initiative was overshadowed by Cathy Newman’s claims that she was ushered out of a mosque in South London. Through CCTV footage obtained, it is now apparent that Cathy turned up to the wrong mosque, and that the incident of ushering is at best, questionable, and at worse, probably not true at all.

Cathy has now apologised for “tweets sent in haste”; she’s now taken a break from Twitter. There’s no doubt in my mind that there was a serious error of judgement on her part, and if there’s one thing we can learn from all this, it’s the all-too familiar modern-day adage “think before you tweet”.

But what else could the Muslim community could learn from this incident? Perhaps we need to scratch beneath the surface and ask why Cathy was so quick to assume the worst.

When there are any negative stories about Muslims in the mainstream media, it’s only natural that Muslims will jump on the defensive. That’s because the mainstream media paints an overwhelmingly negative image of Muslim behaviour, which is arguably grossly unfair. However, we also need to be insightful and self-reflective in order to move forward and improve our own internal problems within the Muslim community.

There’s no justifying what Cathy did, but perhaps she wouldn’t have assumed the worst, if the idea of a mosque being unfriendly to women was completely ludicrous. In this case, the incident was due to a mix-up, not sexism, but the fact is, many mosques could definitely do more to make women feel more welcome.

Sometimes it does feel as though some mosques are made for men. The men’s rooms are always bigger, and they always seem to get fed first, while women have to contend with not only waiting to feed hungry children, but also perhaps not getting any of the dessert. 😉

I can only think back to some of my own experiences of trying to visit unfamiliar mosques around London. I remember being pretty excited to find a local mosque close to my university and eagerly printing off Streetmap instructions for how to get there (Google Maps wasn’t around then – I am officially old). Then being turned away hurriedly at the door with the words “Brothers only, brothers only!”

As a working woman, I also felt it was quite difficult to visit mosques in the vicinity of my workplace in order to pray during the day. When I did muster up the courage to visit a local mosque in the City, I found that I was the only woman in the entire building. Moreover, there were no separate washrooms for women, so the Imam had to stand outside the bathroom to prevent men from coming in while I performed the wudu or ritual ablution. While a separate room was unlocked for me, in the end, I felt extremely uncomfortable being a lone woman in a mosque entirely filled with men, so decided I would be better off praying in peace in my own home at a later time during the day.

The imam did well to accommodate me as well as he could, but it seems that a working woman praying in a mosque in the city is perhaps a rare thing.

You could argue that these couple of incidents are one-off experiences that I’ve been unlucky to have faced. However, there is plenty of evidence to show that many Muslim women aren’t accommodated that well. In an article for The Independent, Sara Khan of Inspire argues that despite the Cathy Newman incident being a mix-up, many Muslim women have faced “very real, unambiguous discrimination.”

There’s a strikingly similar account to mine in an article for the Telegraph and Argus. The author, Nabeelah Hafeez, conveys her own terrible experience of trying to visit a mosque while at university.

And, in a piece for The Muslim News, Masuma Rahim recounts the time she tried to offer salat at the West End Mosque, but was told by the imam that she was “not allowed to pray there”. This, despite having prayed there previously, and the mosque having four floors of empty space.

It seems ridiculous that some imams are putting up barriers to offering prayers; these are people who are going out of their way to pray on time. Surely the role of the mosque is to make it easier to worship God.

There are similar accounts of women facing discrimination in the OpenMyMosque initiative. The campaign aims to highlight good and bad experiences of visiting UK mosques, via Facebook and Twitter:

Open-my-mosque

Posts from Open My Mosque on Facebook – click to expand in a new window

Check out the following tweet by the writer and activist, Raquel Evita Saraswati. It seems that in some mosques, men are often granted bigger areas to sit by default, regardless of numbers:

What about children in the mosque?

woman with child in the mosqueEase of access to the mosque seems to become even more difficult once you have kids, and this seems to be true regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman. I’ve spoken to many mums who don’t feel comfortable bringing young children to the mosque because elders say they dislike the noisiness or complain of being distracted.

Furthermore, the lack of baby changing facilities or just a separate, private room to take your children if they need a nappy change, a feed, or just a handy time out can make many parents left feeling unwelcome or reluctant to visit the mosque.

This feels very strange to me. Surely, we should be making it as easy as possible to bring children to the mosque from a very early age, because undoubtedly, the next generation are the future of the faith. And it’s only when they become accustomed to sitting in the mosque from an early age, that they will want to visit of their own accord when they are older. Moreover, visiting the mosque regularly will allow children to socialise and make friends within their own community. Surely, that can only be a good thing.

Even with a separate children’s room, it would be better if some mosques allowed parents to make their own choices about allowing their offspring to sit in the main hall. Putting children in separate rooms often creates pandemonium, whereas in the main hall, children will eventually learn how to behave and sit quietly without distracting others. But, we need fellow Muslims to be understanding and sympathetic in order to allow this to happen.

There’s a good post which explores the importance of bringing children to the mosque in more detail by Aman Ali on Facebook. In this post, Ali recalls his own happy childhood experiences of running freely through the mosque and how this contrasts with what he sees as an adult.

The mosque he talks about had the sign “”NO CHILDREN ALLOWED IN THE PRAYER AREA”, though one father chose to ignore this sign and insist on taking his four-year-old son to prayers.  The dad in question said he often receives complaints and gets shouted at for bringing his child to the mosque.

This is just so sad. We have to ask ourselves what is all this for, if not to allow for the continuity of the faith. How can we expect the next generation to practice the faith, when they are discouraged from visiting the centres of worship?

Is change on the horizon?

Having said all this, it’s not all bad news, however. Mosques such as Hyderi, where Cathy Newman ended up visiting have women on their committees and women are welcomed to pray in the main hall.

Some women have decided to start doing it for themselves and are setting up their own women-only organisations to counter the discrimination they face. Earlier this year, the US’s first women-only mosque opened its doors in LA.

One mosque I frequently visit, Bustan-e-Zehra, has its own women’s section where programmes are organised by a ladies committee. Though more can always be done, it works pretty well, because the women have their own programmes with female speakers and everything is organised impeccably.

While it’s good that women are empowering themselves, the ideal situation is for mosques to improve conditions, to reduce discrimination and to welcome women openly so they don’t have to set up separate organisations for the basic right to worship the Almighty.

I’m pretty optimistic and excited about the opening of the new Salaam Centre. It certainly feels like a new type of mosque, as the project will grant Muslims from all walks of life a much needed community centre. The mosque will provide worshippers not only a place to pray, but also a means for Muslims to educate themselves, socialise, keep fit and much more besides.

The Salaam Centre offers a unique shared space for the community. Open to all, it aims to fulfil the physical, intellectual and spiritual needs of people from all walks of life, age and gender. Beyond the bricks and mortar, we seek to foster an environment of warmth, thought and creativity through the open interaction of users at the Centre, be it during a workout at the gym, a book club in the library or over coffee at the cafeteria. The Salaam Centre can become a place to enjoy with friends and family, a resource for work on projects and shared dreams, and ultimately a space to develop oneself and the community.

The Salaam Centre website

The opening of these new mosques and committees is definitely a positive step forward, but there’s still a long way to go. I’m reminded of the recent HeForShe campaign, because to really change things, we need to recognise that this isn’t a “women’s problem”. We need solidarity, with men and women coming together to implement change, because allowing access to the mosque regardless of gender, race, disability or anything else, truly benefits us all.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website. 

Image credits: Barriers to faith, Farrukh via Flickr, Woman with child in a mosque, jankie via Flickr