When praying becomes act of protest

If we can’t see the division and indignity caused by barring women from mosques, then we don’t understand the role of mosques in Islam, writes Shaeera Kalla.

Salaah is perhaps the most personal experience we have as Muslims. It is in a mosque that prayer and community come together – the individual and the collective – in a perfect balance between oneness and togetherness.

Last weekend a group of Muslim women called ‘Women of Waqf’ arranged a Ladies Iftar which they advertised on social media. Their plan was simple, a beautiful gesture of unity and inclusivity in accordance with the traditions of this holy month of Ramadan. They were to meet at Masjid Siraatul Jannah in Ormonde to break their fast and pray taraweeh together. But when the mosque management got ahold of the social media post advertising for the iftar, they sent out a public announcement labeling it an “unapproved event” which was “unauthorized”.

In a Whatsapp text to one of the organisers, Shameela Khan, he argued that women gathering for iftar is a “bidah”. What is it that would drive a Moulana to refer to women praying in the house of Allah as an offensive act that goes against Quraan and Sunnah, an act of “bidah” – innovation.

For these men, Allah’s house is theirs – they have the authority to grant permission and approval to Muslim women who dare think of breaking their fasts and praying taraweeh together in the mosque.

For these men, women should be confined to their homes, out of sight and out of mind, while they alone enjoy the recitation of Quraan and prayer alongside fellow Muslims.

The thought of women having the autonomy to choose when they want to pray at home and when they want to pray at the mosque is a threat to them in their mosques.

Not Allah’s house, their mosque. Is this entitlement and ownership of a public space not the biggest act of bidah?
The women went ahead with their iftar in a brave refusal to bow to the tired antics of patriarchy in the Muslim South African community.

And then again this weekend, a video of women being verbally abused by a man in the Gold mosque in Ormonde made its way around. Sumayya Hendricks and the women who were praying with her were called ‘morons’ and were told to go home because the mosque is not for women because they distract the men.

Seeing these two incidents unfold, my mind goes back to 1994 when the brave Shamima Shaikh, an anti apartheid activist, sparked a gender jihad in South Africa.

I quote from a Mail and Guardian article written when she passed away titled: ‘Death of a Muslim Joan of Arc’
“In an event that drew widespread controversy in the Muslim community, Shamima led a rebellion of Muslim women worshippers at the 23rd Street mosque in Fietas in 1994. Throughout the month of Ramadan she and a number of other women prayed upstairs in the mosque.

On the 27th night, the most spiritually significant one for Muslims, when she arrived, the upstairs section was occupied by men and a tent was set up outside for women.

Braving numerous angry offended men with tiny egos, she led a group of women to re-occupy their space. By then she had acquired the well-deserved description of “that mad Shaikh woman”. Yet to friend and foe, Shaikh was the epitomy of gentleness and politeness.”

Shamima herself reflected on the many Muslim women in South Africa who played an active role in the struggle against apartheid; their involvement was in inverse proportion to their role in the mosques and public institutions of Islam.

This has not really changed much today, but women are resisting their erasure and this is a powerful act, a symbolic and a necessary one.

The epitome of hypocrisy is not in wanting to control where women pray by limiting their access to mosques when mosques belong to all but to do this while also arguing that Islam liberated women 1400 years ago, the thinking and practices within Muslim society simply does not reflect this.

I grew up going to the Abubakr Siddique mosque in Erasmia with my parents. It instilled in me a love for hearing the recitation of the Quraan and a love for community. Some of my best childhood memories are at this mosque.

Eight Ramadan’s ago, Quraysha Sooliman, Farhaana Ismail, Safiyyah Surtee amongst other Muslim women dealt with the view that women could not attend Eid Salaah – and providing evidence to show how misguided and false these claims by some clergy were.

The attendance at Eid salaah has since then increased. Their voices really made a difference as they were based on Quraanic research and Islamic tradition.

To be speaking about women being able to pray taraweeh in the compounds of the mosque feels like we have regressed. But with the resistance women in these situations have shown, I hope, more women become aware of the rights we have and the roles we can play in society.

Perhaps the attendance of women at mosques which previously did not allow them there will spark something beyond just physically being present, because at the heart of this is a question of dignity.

If we cannot see the division and indignity caused by excluding women from mosques then we do not understand the role that mosques are meant to play in Islam, and this is the greatest injustice of all.

* Shaeera Kalla was one of the leaders of the #FeesMustFall movement. She is now working on inclusive innovation in this new elusive digital age. She will soon be reading for her Masters in African Studies at Oxford University.

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