Photo credit: Flickr / Gwenaël Piaser

Are women welcome at Paris Mosque?

I sat with my 14 year old daughter in the women’s prayer area of the Grand Mosque of Paris. Everything seemed different; but somehow yet the same. The issues that plagued me in the United States also plagued me in Paris: the easily accessible and large prayer area for the men, compared with the narrow access to a small prayer room for women; the men, who were free to wear what they wished, and yet were in charge of women’s dress; the rigidity in the separation and segregation of men and women – which is claimed to instil and uphold modesty, and prevent the sexual stimulation of men and the objectification of women.

I had told my daughter it would be different in Paris. I told her it would be modern and more inclusive of women. I was wrong. Even in Paris, it seemed that God was not welcoming to women in mosques, and that he had chosen the men to enforce his wishes. It was hot in the centre of Paris that August afternoon. As we stepped gingerly into the mosque, we felt the cool air greet us. In the mosque, a familiar apprehension gnawed into me. What was it like inside? Would we be welcomed? Were we dressed modestly enough for the men in charge?

As we stood there, a man approached us hurriedly, pointing his finger towards a counter where I saw a stack of well-folded clothes. He said we had to fully cover our heads and bodies. I didn’t want to make a scene, so I obeyed his order, despite knowing that I had the right to enter the mosque without a veil.  I didn’t want my daughter to have the traumatic experience she had the last time she attended the mosque back in the United States, where a woman walked up to her and tucked her hair inside her scarf. The man handed us four pieces of cloth. One to cover our hair; the other to cover our bodies.

I quickly draped the larger cloth as a skirt around my daughter’s waist and covered her hair with the smaller cloth. I then unfolded my two pieces of cloth and hurriedly draped myself. The mosque was large. The beautiful courtyard was filled with light, whilst the trees provided shade.  Having dressed ourselves, we locked hands and started to look for the women’s prayer area.

As we walked, we noticed some larger rooms empty and others with closed doors. There it was: the space I was looking for, the larger hall. We approached hurriedly to offer our prayers, only to be told that this was the Men’s Prayer Room, with little help to locate the women’s area. As we wandered around, we asked another man where the women’s prayer area was. He showed us a narrow flight of steps to the side of the main building. He said, ‘Go that way and you will see.’

I tugged on the cloth wrapped round my waist, as I carefully went down the narrow steps. I had difficulty reconciling these stairs with the huge mosque that stood, magnificently, in the heart of Paris. My daughter followed expressing her frustration, ‘Mummy this is not fair. Why do they always give women a small place in the mosques?’ I didn’t tell her that the size of the space is not the issue: the real issue is the overall control and treatment of Muslim women within mosques.

I tried to convince her that mosques had to maintain rules, and that it was necessary that we dress modestly: as if jeans and shirt were not modest enough. In Paris, my words seemed hollow even to me. Imaan did not agree with me. She said, ‘This is why I don’t like to go to the mosque. There are too many rules, and people don’t even smile or talk.’ I agreed with her that she was dressed very modestly in the first place. And for the hundredth time, I personally felt violated because I firmly believe that other than in the prayer area, it is not mandatory that we cover our hair. Mainstream religious leaders around the world, even in the United States, have hijacked the conversation on modesty for women. They passionately convey their interpretation of Allah’s stance on modesty. They repeat ‘Accept the Quran as guidance, Allah knows best.’ Some have even gone as far as to state that ‘Not wearing the hijab is a symptom; the disease is inside.’

The narrow path that led to the prayer area for women was dreary, in stark contrast to the main access to the men’s prayer hall which was wide and well lit, with the walls laid with beautiful tiles and sunshine flowing through. I quickly performed a ritual prayer and sat with my daughter on the floor in the women’s area. We felt very alone. No one spoke to us. No one welcomed us. They were busy preparing the place to please God. A few women were cleaning up the place for the afternoon prayer. The carpets were clean, but the walls were peeling.

In a desperate effort to feel I belonged, I said hello and smiled every time someone looked in our direction. My daughter sat there, disappointed and somewhat frustrated, ‘How much longer Mum, look?’

Here I was, with a member of the next generation of Muslim women. A global citizen, who is taught every day to think for herself and act independently. Is she still a minority in the Muslim world? To her, this aggressive process of Islamization feels like it’s transporting her to the dark ages. Controlling women has always been the forte of the men in the Muslim community. At this pace, what does the future of Islam look like? Can we continue to ignore the fact that political Islam is thriving in our communities? Can we speak about Islam’s foundational values in terms of justice and dignity for women when our actions fail to represent them?