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The women’s circle

In a prayer room at an Islamic Centre in Downtown Manhattan, 20 women sit in a circle. They’re a mix of housewives, high school teachers, graduate students, mothers. Some wear headscarves and some don’t. Some are recent converts; others were born into Muslim households. Some are second-generation Americans; others have only recently begun to call America their home.  Their circle is open, inclusive, embracing.

‘Members of my family don’t believe in depression,’ one of the women says. ‘They attribute it to not being close to Allah – to not praying.’

Among them is Venus Mahmoodi. Mahmoodi is a young Muslim psychologist from Fremont, California, currently working at the Seleni Institute in Manhattan. She specialises in reproductive mental health, focusing on the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and postpartum issues, infertility and menopause.

‘They (men) say that depression is a punishment from God,’ another woman pipes up. ‘They say it is a way for us to repent for our sins.’ I find myself wondering why Muslim women tend to feature as silent subjects in traditional Islamic narratives, handed down codes of conduct by men. Why do they continue to bear the brunt of patriarchal discourse and stigmas? Why are they forced into the role of the dutiful wife, mother and daughter?

I was born and brought up in Karachi, Pakistan, where it wasn’t unusual to witness women around me being chided for seeking support for mental illnesses. They were often left undiagnosed, labelled as ‘crazy’. A phrase I heard often was ‘You’re letting someone into your home,’ when going to a therapist for help was brought up. Or: ‘Why do you need a stranger to tell you what to do or how to think? Just read the Qur’an, or listen to so-and-so, the religious scholar.’

At their next meeting, it is almost as though Mona Haydar – the discussant that evening – is reading my mind. ‘Discourse has been weaponized,’ she says. ‘Do you ever hear legal opinions from scholars who are women?’ she asks. The room is silent.

This group of young women is attempting to understand faith on their own terms. They begin, of course, with small steps: by talking about matters that concern and affect them in their regular lives. These matters have, more often than not, been interpreted otherwise by male Muslim scholars for Muslim women.

‘Experience is also a valid source of knowledge. If somebody hasn’t experienced something, they probably shouldn’t speak on behalf of it,’ Haydar says, on menstruation. Typically, menstruating Muslim women have been regarded as unclean or impure. They’re often barred from entering mosques or touching scripture – treated as though they’re tainted and should be ashamed of bleeding.

‘They (men) use it (your period) against you…because you can’t pray,’ Haydar says, ‘because you’re not fasting and not praying and not reading the Quran, you’re made to feel as if you’re lacking one part of a whole.’

Haydar has been leading their discussions this year – colloquially called ‘Straight Talk with Sisters’ (STWS). She is an Associate Chaplain at NYU and has recently turned into a pop-icon of sorts ever since the release of her first rap song, Wrap my Hijab, in 2017. Not only was the song featured on the Billboard website amongst the top 25 protest songs for the year 2017, it earned nearly four million views on YouTube. It also led to a slew of hateful comments from Muslims themselves who chastised her for singing on camera whilst wearing the hijab, for being un-Islamic and for tempting men with her body. One of the comments on Youtube reads, ‘This goes against everything that the hijab represents and stands for.’ And a comment on Facebook claimed that Haydar was ‘affecting millions of girls and women.’ ‘If you want to swag your hijab then just do it,’ the commenter claimed, ‘but please do not affect our young girls’ minds.’ These comments are the tip of the iceberg: there are several that were too inappropriate to be quoted.

Founded in 2013, STWS is the product of Shireen Elnaggar’s longing for a community of sisters in a big, bad and isolating city. She labels herself an ‘import’ because she grew up in a close-knit community in Texas and moved to New York City after marrying a native New Yorker. She says the primary aim behind STWS is to build connections.

‘You know, you get by,’ she says, after a pause. ‘But later, you realise that you’re not the only person going through this. And in order to build friendships and trust, you have to socialise. You have to meet each other and eat and laugh and cry with each other.’

Muslim families are often communal and close-knit; particularly in countries where they’re part of a minority group. They gravitate towards mosques or community-centres. Because Muslims are tied closely to their communities, seeking out help for a mental illness often becomes associated with shame. A Midwestern study of Arab Muslim Americans found significant levels of self-reported shame related to utilising formal mental health services.

And while Islamic teachings are not expressly against seeking out support or treatment for mental illness, women often find themselves stigmatised in Muslim households for wanting to seek out support or psychological help.

Mahmoodi compares this to carrying around baggage. ‘We all have issues that we carry around. When you feel safe and are asked to open the suitcases one by one, you’re willing to, despite knowing it’s difficult. This is what it’s like to talk about taboo topics,’ she says. ‘Muslim households are not conducive to these discussions because women don’t feel safe at times.’

There aren’t enough outlets or resource centres for women to turn towards either. ‘There are too few mental health counsellors who are culturally sensitive and able to provide services in multiple languages for Muslim women, many of whom are immigrants whose first language is not English,’ says Farzana Karim. Karim is a Youth Empowerment Program Advocate at Sakhi for South Asian Woman. Sakhi has been working closely with women from South Asian diaspora communities since 1989 focussing upon violence against women.

‘Traditions, patriarchal values, domestic violence, mental health stigma, financial dependence, and accessibility are a few of many barriers’ which prevent women from seeking help, Karim says. ‘Even when, and if, stigma is reduced and there is more mental health awareness, there are multiple layers that need to be addressed after that, one being the availability and access to care. Though a few awareness campaigns exist, we don’t believe there are enough culturally and linguistically appropriate campaigns which will draw attention to this population.’

While women such as Ayisha, Khadija, and Fatima played an integral role in the advent and propagation of Islam, women in Muslim societies today find themselves subjected to patriarchal manifestations of Islam that are expressly meant to subdue them into becoming silent subjects. These patriarchal manifestations of Islam are often enforced as an aspect of ‘Islamisation’, driven by an impulse to ‘reform’ or ‘correct’ an immoral society. I witnessed this process first-hand in Pakistan. In 1979, General Ziaul Haq’s military regime promulgated a series of supposedly Islamic laws. These laws, the Hudood Ordinances, manipulated scripture in order to rob women of their integral rights.

The Quran, time and again, emphasises equality between men and women and calls upon both men and women to be righteous and fulfil their duties to God. Muslim societies have often overlooked this, as a consequence of patriarchal influences in Islamic discourse.

Of course, there is nothing Islamic about sexual inequality and discrimination. Discrimination often has a lot to do with culture, Mahmoodi claims. ‘In our countries of origin, women weren’t treated badly because they adhered to the rules of Islam, it was because of cultural standards,’ she says. Asma Barlas echoes Mahmoodi’s claim in her book, Believing Women in Islam, ‘Women’s status and roles in Muslim societies…are a function of multiple factors, most of which have nothing to do with religion. The history of Western civilisation should tell us that there is nothing innately Islamic about misogyny, inequality or patriarchy. And yet, all three often are justified by Muslim states and clerics in the name of Islam.’

Slowly and gradually, Muslim women are beginning to fight back. The first amongst these trailblazers is Amina Wadud: a Muslim-American academic who became the first woman to lead British Muslims in mixed congregational prayers in 2005. This met with criticism from within the Muslim community. A comment posted on a BBC News debate forum stated, ‘I think she is totally taking this equality issue out of hand. Some things are only performed by a man in Islam.’ I reached out to Wadud to ask her why women haven’t been authorities on their own mental health in Islam.

‘The inability to reference women as their own reference point speaks to a bias in the traditional learning and (reflects) the privileges that have been given to men, as overseers of every aspect of what Islam is. They are not experts when it comes to the lives of women,’Wadud said. ‘Women’s voices have been underrepresented historically – not because their voice didn’t exist, nor because women did not themselves embrace their own Islam and establish a relationship with Allah, but because they weren’t given the same opportunity to develop in detail, the same way that men’s experiences were given. And now we are trying to correct that by increasing our attention towards women and women’s experiences as a marker in their own right, for what it means to be Muslim, what it means to experience Islam and what it means to arrive at a place of well-being.’

At one of the STWS meetings, Haydar sits in the centre of the room. The space is otherwise used as a mixed gender prayer room with a temporary flimsy partition separating the women’s section from the men’s, covering about one-third of the room’s width. The partition is pushed back and the women spread out, occupying most of the available space.

‘Have you ever heard Sheikha so-and-so give a legal ruling about menstruation?’ Haydar then talks about Fatima Al-Baghdadia: a scholar from the time of Ibn Taymiyyah, the legendary 13th century orthodox Muslim intellectual. All Muslim scholars today are men. Fatima is obscure: a Google search reveals nothing. She has lived on only in biographies and footnotes, mentioned only in passing in broader discussions conducted by men for matters concerning women.

For her time though, Fatima was revolutionary: issuing legal rulings and conducting public lectures for men and women. During a public gathering, she declared – in the presence of other scholars – that her legal ruling on menstruation was better than theirs. ‘Fatima asked, “Have you ever bled? Do you have experiential knowledge?” And the scholars shut up real quick,’ Haydar laughs as she says this. The women in the room also laugh.

‘Imagine if we had a book of her legal rulings.’ And the room is silent as we imagine that world.

‘I think we live in a global patriarchy,’ Haydar says, as the meeting comes to a close and the women in the room begin to gather their things. ‘The stories we often hear are the stories of men, or the stories that men tell.’

In my hometown of Karachi, it’s not unusual to see mosques that don’t grant admission to women, or which relegate women’s sections to dingy attics or back-rooms. The mosque at my university in Lahore didn’t allow women into its main hall. Halaqas or dars – discussions held in the presence of scholars, always male, of course – were conducted in the men’s section, with the audio live-streamed into the women’s section on the top floor.

While the path ahead isn’t without challenges, Mahmoodi is hopeful. ‘I’m not trying to be naive or idealistic…Yes, there are patriarchal masajid and men who will push women out…[and] some crazy masajid, where the men are controlling and patriarchal,’ she says. But she adds that there are also multiple centres that are willing to give women a platform.

One such place is the Khalil Center – a mental health clinic advertised as a community psychological and spiritual wellness centre that serves Muslims and offers ‘spiritually integrated interventions [that] draw from psychological literature.’ They’re battling deep rooted stigmatisation of mental health within Islamic communities by engaging with community members through events, town halls, and youth events. ‘Monthly topics (are) offered and after the discussion…mental health professionals (sit) at every table to help further facilitate the discussion,’ Mahmoodi adds.

The fact that Muslim mental health professionals are beginning to bring mosques and mental health resources closer together will support more people. ‘Our experiences (as women) haven’t been considered legitimate demonstrations of what it means to be well, you know, within Islam,’ Wadud adds. ‘We have to add and augment to our tradition by including the lived realities of women.’

Groups such as STWS have been working towards bridging these gaps, by bringing Muslim women closer to the resources they need in an environment that they feel comfortable in, and by giving them a support group – people to rely on and turn towards when things take a turn for the worse. More than anything else, this group builds a sense of community, of belonging, and of sisterhood.

‘We’re all at different stages of our lives,’ Elnaggar tells me, as she talks about the different age groups that are drawn towards these meetings. Some women are older, some are young graduate students that have recently moved to New York City, and some women bring their mothers along. ‘And yet, we all find something to take away from these gatherings. It’s beautiful.’