Are Women Only Masajid the Answer?

I’d like to be very clear on what I’m writing. I’m not here to bash on the efforts of others. I’m not here to tell you what’s right or wrong and I’m definitely not here to give a rant on fiqh rulings as is the case in numerous social media comment-wars.

I’d like to ask everyone to step back for a second and question the idea with an open mind.

Firstly, for those who would like a legal perspective on this matter, please refer to this article written by Ustadha Muslema Purmal on ‘Guarding the Validity of Prayer’. Please keep in mind that the article only focuses on the fiqh of Jummah Salah and not the overall function of a women only masjid. I’d also like to advise our dear comment warriors to re-think if this is our place to speak on the validity or invalidity of these issues. Alhamdulillah, we’re blessed with incredible scholarship around the globe that have studied our religion for decades. Let us not disrespect their place while exhausting our intellect in the little understanding we do have.

For some, the concept of a women only masjid is a radical, bizarre, feminist-driven idea that is advocating for us to change our religion. I think it’s a little simpler than that. First, we can all agree on the fundamental issue that our North American masajid do NOT have adequate accommodations for women. Whether it’s the basement, storage space or broom closet, it’s disgraceful to see how far we’ve strayed from the Prophetic way of ihsan to provide simple, beautifully designed prayer spaces for women. Why is that though? I doubt that there was a meeting of male-leaders in the community who decided that this is how we’ll be structuring our masajid in the future.

Islam in North America came from Muslims in North America. The expression and practice of Islam in North America draws from the societal backgrounds of the many Muslims who migrated from elsewhere. These Muslims will probably tell you that there was no concept of women spaces in the masjid ‘back home’. I lived in Pakistan for 6 years down the street from a masjid. Hundreds came for prayer and thousands for Jummah, but we never had a women presence. It wasn’t sexist. It was simply not a need for the community. So when our fathers got together to build their masajid here, they simply followed suit. Another reality we need to understand is that when this generation came here, there were no prayer spaces or resources. They had to work extremely hard to find some basement, storefront, barn or warehouse where they could now start performing fardh Jummah prayers. It wasn’t easy. According to a survey done for over 1000 masajid in the mid-1990s, less than 100 had actually been designed and built as masajid.

However, our community grew and realized that women spaces are necessary in our masajid. So the small converted-warehouse opened a back door as a women entrance. The unfinished basement space could now be used as a separate space. Keep in mind our community and masajid didn’t have the capital to completely redevelop the masajid as well. They did what they could with what they had.

Now fast-forward to today. Reality check for men – our sisters outnumber us… by A LOT, and their presence, usage, and contribution to the masjid is just as integral as is their male counterparts. That basement or storage is looking even more pathetic now. The truth of the matter (again) is that we’ve ignored this crucial issue for way too long. The efforts for women-only masajid should give us an idea of how frustrating our lack of improvements, as a community,  in this regard (both in terms of physical space and the attitude towards the place of women in the masjid) has been in the past couple of decades. It’s time for people running our masajid to wake-up to the actual issues of our community and take steps to properly address them. (Thank you to the masajid who already have!)

I’d like to stop here and address a question that some have asked in these discussions. There is an opinion that women shouldn’t be in the masjid. Again, since this is a fiqh related question I’m going to refer to this article by Ustadha Noura Shamma on SeekersHub.

Clearly, there are problems that need to be solved. My question is, does a women only masjid solve it? As we should have done decades ago, I’d like our community organizers and leaders to think about where our efforts will take us 10 or 20 years from now. What is the long-term vision? And more importantly, how are these efforts going to solve the existing problems in the masjid?

My concerns are three-fold:

1. What perception does this create of us as a community in the wider North American society?
2. Does this not divide our community further; does this not diminish those organizations that have been working to advance women in fields of scholarship, administration and professional development in our community?
3. The idea of a women only space is completely fine; but if this is in response to the terrible conditions of our masjid, how does it solve the existing root problem?

Tad bit of a rant now. If we want to solve the root problem, let’s talk about the root of that root. Our community has worked long and hard to establish over 2000 masajid in NA, it’s time we move on and work on community development projects. As a community we’ve always been reactive, something happens, and we have to respond. Let’s focus our efforts on proactive and preventative work. Let’s put our efforts towards programs that work on making our future generations better Muslims; creating individuals that are grounded in the Quran and Sunnah. Do that, and we won’t have to worry about un-inclusive masajid. Do that, and we won’t have to worry about rising numbers of youth leaving the religion. Do that, and we won’t have to worry about the lack of female scholarship at all levels.

I feel that once again, our community wants to address the issues on a superficial level only without properly thinking them through.

I also disagree with having great conversations, discussions, and comment-wars online but then not doing anything about it. If anyone here is serious about solving these issues, at least in the GTA based masajid, leave your comments below and let’s engage in conversation.

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