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Fighting for space in God’s house
The Ka’bah is enclosed within the Masjid Al-Haram in Makkah. Originally believed to have been built by the Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael as a testament to the belief in One God, the Ka’bah was later incorporated into the religions of the pre-Islamic Arabs who practiced a form of polytheism. The Ka’bah was later reclaimed by Islam as a symbol of monotheism, and the Masjid Al-Haram was built around it. The Masjid Al-Haram at present can hold upwards of three million worshippers in total across four expansive floors. Like most mosques, it has separate sections for men and women to worship.
Any woman who has experienced being ushered into ‘the women’s section’ of most mosques will be familiar with what usually ensues. She is shown into a smaller room, either set behind the men’s (read: ‘main’) section, or on an entirely different floor; more often than not, it is not easily accessible. This room is often overcrowded, with women being afforded less floor space per person than their male counterparts. Nevertheless, she will be expected to share this space with children – because although the Qur’an stipulates the requirement of prayer from both men and women, the men cannot be distracted from worship by attending the needs of their own offspring. Women’s spirituality, however, is entirely expendable. Sometimes audio speakers are provided in the rooms so that women can hear what’s going on, and follow the prayers being conducted by the imam. The khutba (sermon) is often addressed directly to the male congregants to the exclusion of the women. This lack of acknowledgement is undoubtedly fuelled by the absence of any tangible female physical presence in the mosque. If they cannot be seen or heard, are they really even there? If they are not there, are they really worth affording attention to?
Like so many other Muslim women, this was my experience for the majority of my formative years. I grew up in a community in a small northern town in England where women did not attend mosque at all – there was no room, small and inaccessible or otherwise, reserved for our use. But although I am used to fighting for space in mosques (and in boardrooms and classrooms and even on public transport…) I never imagined I would experience the level of exclusion and devaluation that I have as a female pilgrim here in Makkah. Perhaps naively, I thought that in God’s House it would be different. I was soon reminded that while I was in God’s House, so too were the misogynists.
‘No sexy ladies here’
It was our second day of umrah and we – my mother, father, sister and I – had made our way to the mosque for the late afternoon prayer, Asr. By the time we arrived it was already crowded, the limited space of the women’s sections, as always, being the first to fill up. My father motioned us to a space where two other women were already praying and indicated that we should join them. It was outside the golden barriers of the women’s prayer areas and adjacent to, but not within, the men’s (un-barricaded) section. We began to pray. Within about thirty seconds of us kneeling there, a large middle-aged man angrily thundered over to us. This isn’t for women. Go and pray over there with the other women. He gestured with his arms towards the overcrowded women’s section.
My mother and sister looking through the barrier between the women’s and men’s prayer sections. The women’s section was windowless and had no decoration – the men’s area had beautiful stained glass windows and natural light.
We were mid-prayer, so we ignored him. Besides, there was no room ‘over there with the other women’ – worshippers were spilling out of the barriers already, spreading their prayer mats in the aisles to try and find space. Enraged by our refusal to engage with him, the man shouted some more before grabbing all our bags – including those of the women who had already been praying in that spot when we joined them – marching across the room and flinging them into a heap in the corner. We remained kneeling, bewildered by this outburst of aggression, but refusing to give up our space. But where one man fails, it’s never too long before another male, dizzied by the heady stench of his own testosterone, takes up the baton. This contender was a younger specimen who radiated glee at the prospect of not only having an excuse to interact with women, but to chastise them! He sauntered over to us. No women here. We continued to ignore him. He tried again. No sexy ladies here. He smirked. It took a moment for me to absorb what he had just said – my sister and I both exploded. Astaghfirullah. Shame on you! Haram alaik! We made no effort to keep our voices down. His smirk wavered as other congregants turned around to witness the commotion. Holding up his hands as if motioning us to quieten down, he slunk away.
His comment hurt for so many reasons. We were in a place which we believed to be God’s House and a man had felt that he had the right to demean us – simply because we were women. It was clear that he had been so conditioned by a culture and religious interpretation that essentialised women as ‘temptresses’ that this was the only adjective he could find to describe women. Not ‘honoured’ or ‘respected’ as Muslim women are so often told they are (despite lived experiences often pointing to the contrary) but ‘sexy’. To him, all women symbolised sex and sin, and had the power to corrupt and destroy men, simply by their very existence. The vehemence of his objection to the presence of women praying anywhere near the vicinity of other men proved that he could not even conceive of them as intellectual or spiritual beings.
This obsession with women-as-sexual-beings is basically at the heart of the repressive religious doctrine that Saudi follows and informs how the state operates, even with regards to female pilgrims, as we so harshly learned. That same day, we were all downstairs in the mosque in a small open space opposite the Ka’bah, the central focus of the entire pilgrimage. As we were sitting with my father, a guard came and clicked and shouted at the women to get them to move out to the back: Men first, women second. When we didn’t respond, he kicked our prayer mats. Furious that we were being physically pushed from our place in front of the Ka’bah to make room for men, we made our way to the women’s section that we were motioned towards, only to find that it was – once again – full. We joined a group of women who had gathered to pray in the atrium between the designated men’s and women’s sections. Before long, a female guard, cloaked in black with a full veil and gloves barked at us to move. We were supposedly blocking the (very wide and very unobstructed) pathway. Once again, my sister argued with the guard in Arabic, declaring that this was a mosque for men and for women – where was she supposed to pray, outside? The other women looked on, waiting to see whether they would be herded off again elsewhere, but thanks to my sister’s resistance we were finally allowed to stay – once the guards had physically barricaded us into the area with plastic bollards so that we were penned in like animals.
State sanctioned oppression
It’s hardly surprising that a society that is founded on the basis of extreme segregation results in warped attitudes towards women. In marking distinct areas for the exclusive use of women, such as a ‘ladies’ counter’ at a fast food restaurant or limited women’s prayer areas that are unfit for purpose, the message that is communicated is that Everything Else is for Men. Women are effectively confined to a few designated spaces where their presence is tolerated, but on strict conditions: women may be present but only at certain times, in certain places, and only if they are covered up.
The masjid gives out free materials. One leaflet, entitled ‘My Beloved Sister’, was handed out to women. It was from ‘the brothers of the Department of Commanding Good and Forbidding Evil’, which it turns out is a real government department and not something from a dystopian novel. My new brothers at the Department were so considerate that they made the leaflet pink, which was imperative in holding the attention of my flighty Girl Brain. It contained a helpful photograph of what is and is not considered to be ‘hijab’ (the stipulation of modesty that is mentioned in the Qur’an for both men and women, although regrettably in practice, it is exclusively considered to be a female obligation).
Imagine my surprise when I learnt that my long floral printed dress with full sleeves and a light-coloured headscarf were not ‘legislated hijab’! By contrast, I had seen men in the mosque wearing jeans and band t-shirts and clothes with slogans on, with no reprimand. It’s no exaggeration to state that the clerical and governmental efforts to encourage women to dress exclusively in black points to the desire to gradually erase women from public spaces entirely. If women must be present, they should at least be as invisible as possible.
A flyer given out to female pilgrims at the Masjid al-Haram in Makkah. Note the soft pink hue to make it especially attractive to brainless women.
An ideology that damages family bonds
My family came on pilgrimage as a unit – my father, mother, younger sister and myself – in search of a spiritual connection. I can count on one hand the number of times were we able to pray together in God’s house. Upon one of those occasions, we were verbally abused, and our belongings were physically seized. While Islam is supposed to place great importance on kinship and family ties, the religious ideology that Saudi Arabia follows actively damages these bonds, by placing supposed ideals of ‘modesty’ over and above family relationships. It is also remarkably short-sighted: a woman who is widowed and has only sons is unable to bring her sons with her to worship once they are adolescents. She has to rely on the religious instruction given by other men in the mosque: instruction that is unscrutinised and is distinctly lacking in input from women. Furthermore, in maintaining a society that is so preoccupied with keeping the sexes apart, women are so ‘otherised’ by men that basic aspects of respectful conduct and politeness are dissolved and replaced by dismissal and outright harassment.
My heart broke in particular when I saw elderly pilgrims who had travelled great distances to get to Makkah. Often, they had been travelling in small mixed groups – many of the ones I encountered were from Pakistan – and this trip has been their first visit out of their village, let alone abroad. I witnessed so many cases of guards breaking up these groups, prising apart anxious elderly couples who only knew one another, and who would be utterly disorientated without each other, forcing them to pray separately. Often these groups sought to avoid the attentions of the guards by praying outside the mosque, huddling together as men and women, but even there they were ushered apart by zealous uniformed officials. I was heartened to see one group of two men and two women remain kneeling in prayer outside while a guard barked at them.
Unable to make them move, he eventually strutted off, leaving the worshippers to offer their devotions outside God’s House – for there was no space for them within.
Shahnaz Ahsan is an award winning writer of short stories and is currently working on her debut novel due for publication in 2019. Exploring immigration and identity, the novel is set in Britain and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) during the 1960s and 1970s.