By Farhana Ismail
Social media posts detailing hostility towards female musallees and humiliating treatment of them, at a masjid in Ormonde in the South of Johannesburg, has gone viral.
In the latest footage and with the caption, “He insulted us and called us morons”, a video taken on the 19th night of Ramadan shows an elderly man yelling at women, as they attempt to participate in the taraweeh salaah.
“We can’t do what we have to do here, watching you people….why don’t you go you big shot… go in front. You the big Alim”, he told the women, pointing at them.
“Don’t ask my name and go viral man. You didn’t give me your name. I’m not your brother or your father”, he yelled.
Women calling themselves Women of Waqf (WOW) had accessed the ladies section of Masjid Siraatul Jannah on the first night of Ramadaan. But the “tiny room far away from the mosque” did not have a sound system and hence they could not participate in the congregational prayer.
WOW organiser, Shameelah Khan said: “We then went topray in the main section close to the stairs. A little boy informed us that that the muezzin was asking us to move back to the women’s room because he had organised a temporary receiver. It was still very difficult to hear properly because it kept cutting,”
Tempers flared when, in an attempt to network with other women in their community, WOW sent out an invite via social media for iftaar in the women’s section on Friday the 16th night of Ramadaan. The idea was to “create a space in the South of Johannesburg for women to meet and share one night of iftaar, maghrib and taraweeh together.”
After numerous attempts to contact a representative of the mosque both telephonically and via whatsapp, another WOW representative Noorjan Allie received a “harsh and autocratic” whatsapp response stating that permission for such a gathering had not been acquired and hence it was banned.
“They did not officially acknowledge our grievances about the space or the sound system, nor did they attempt to meet with us and negotiate about the iftaar” she said.
“It’s difficult to engage with the masjid representatives, because there is no email address or contact numbers on both their website or on their Facebook page.”
WOW responded to the ban saying, “this is not an event, but merely ritualistic iftaar and congregational prayer which…is exactly what our male counterparts are undertaking in the male section .and in no way transgresses the bounds of Islam. A masjid is a place to gather, pray and connect….and requires neither an imam nor a board’s permission.”
After the iftaar, the women posted a five part narrative on the WOW Facebook page detailing their experiences in the mosque. Harrowing accounts of being subjected to verbal abuse and physical aggression, of being locked out of the salaah room and forced to pray in an outside courtyard in mid winter, including dehumanising treatment, were revealed.
“Some men who passed by the courtyard pressed their foreheads against the glass staring at us as if we were monkeys in a zoo. Some of the younger teenagers were even taking photos.”
Allie who comes from Cape Town told Al Qalam, “I have never experienced men looking at me like that, especially in a mosque. There was a sub-human feel to this”.
Finally, on the morning after the iftaar, an elderly committee member who refused to share his name provided the women with a masjid email address. In their letterrequesting a meeting and detailing their grievances WOW stated: “…going forward these [men] must be rebuked for their actions. Also a clear request from the women in our community is that a female space be provided for in the masjid premises so that we are able to follow the congregational prayer. Until then, we will occupy any space necessary (within the bounds of Islamic jurisprudence) in order to pray”.
WOW said that despite their correspondence and verbal discussions at the masjid with individual committee members, the taunts and aggressive antics of male congregants as portrayed in the video footage mentioned above, continued.
In a show of sisterhood and solidarity, and in a separate email, the MPL network a national network of Muslim women activists, attorneys and academics whose mandate is to achieve justice and respect within the Muslim family and by extension the broader Muslim community also urged the masjid committee to attend to the concerns of WOW, “in the interests of community building and in the spirit of conducting our matters through the processes of shura”.
The network, many of whom were involved in the ‘women’s access to the masjid’ initiatives of the nineties,stated that the Facebook posts exposed a mindset of male pietistic privilege, unhealthy attitudes towards women’s bodies, verbal abuse, and a lack of ukhuwa. They stated: “Given that we are working against a backdrop of increasing intolerance towards racism, sexism and class privilege within South Africa, and against rising worldwide anti-Muslim sentiment…we urge you to take immediate, responsible and positive measures to provide a safe and inclusive prayer space …and to conscientise male congregants on attitudes towards Muslim sisters, who are to be treated like spiritual and moral equals. “
Neither WOW nor the MPL Network have thus far received a response. Instead Khan said that random male musallleesacting as proxys, managed to secure at least three separate meetings with both the Imam and various masjid representatives.
WOW says that it will continue to encourage women to participate in the taraweeh prayer at Masjid Siraatul Jannahthis Ramadaan and for other salaahs including Eid and Jumuah. “We want a viable inclusive prayer space that forms part of the mosque, in which women partake in the beauty of a masjid space that isn’t a room in the back.”