By Ayesha Desai

Ramadaan 1414 will forever be remembered as the year we had to stay apart in order to be protected. It was a time of trial and challenges, but for many Muslim women it was also a time of reawakening and a realization of the benefits and spiritual fulfilment in terms of congregational prayer. Many women exclaimed joy and sukoon (peace, tranquility) at being able to pray taraweeh behind their husbands’ and sons. One particularly poignant post on social media was by an elderly woman who explained that for the first time in her 58 years of life, she got an opportunity to pray behind her son and grandson, keeping in mind that she was the one who drove her son to and from every single hifz lesson well over 25 years ago!

This then, naturally led to a reopening of the discussion on a woman’s right to a communal prayer space in the musjid.

As recently evidenced by a series of polls on Irtiqa’s Instagram account, the majority of South African women have experienced salaah in a musjid, but this is mainly confined to overseas facilities or the two holy mosques (Masjid-al-Haram and Masjid-un-Nabawi). Many too, exclaimed a sadness at being deprived of this in their hometowns. Others shared stories and trials of when they were travelling and their husbands were warmly welcomed into the musjid but they were forced to pray salaah in parking lots.

There has always been the opposing view that the best place for a women is to pray in her home and that the men should convey to their wives, sisters, daughters and mothers, the lessons learned in the musjid. Whilst I fully appreciate the convenience and ease of this, the recent discussions have brought to the forefront other circumstances to be considered too. What about those homes where there are no men- divorced women, widowed women, women with absentee fathers, or women who are trying to reconnect with their faith and their male counterparts have no interest in doing so?

This leads to more questions such as, where do revert Muslim women go for knowledge other than a madressa? Take into consideration that a revert sister may not have all the information at her disposal and that she may come from a Christian or Jewish background where attending Church or a Synagogue is very much a normal occurrence.  A (non-Muslim) female colleague once mentioned that she had wanted to learn more about Islam, but when she tried entering a mosque to do so, she was asked to leave. That moment had completely ended her interest in Islam and no matter how much I tried to explain and discuss my faith with her, her heart was turned away from it for good.

I am by no means advocating that women should perform every salaah in the musjid, nor do I want to start a debate or argument, but I think it is necessary for us to address the lack of access to communal spaces for Muslim women in particular. Many will immediately fire back and mention the numerous home-based taalim groups, but the reality is this; unless you know the person hosting it, it’s unlikely you will feel comfortable attending such a gathering in someone’s home, even if you are fortunate enough to be invited. Many musjids do have smaller classrooms, and office areas too. Can these not be cordoned off as an option for women to use?

A revival of musjids as community centres where faith is nurtured would be, in my opinion, for the betterment of all. Sheikha Maryam Amir, in a recent lecture, mentioned: “In attempting to avoid one kind of fitnah, we have perhaps created a bigger one.” This comment was in response to being asked about the lack of current female scholarship. She elaborated and explained how Muslim girls start to feel disenfranchised because of a lack of communal religious activity once they reach puberty. Naturally, as social beings, these young girls will look to other avenues for acceptance and belonging and many a time, this unfortunately leads to unislamic pursuits.

When we consider the ripple effect thereof, and the long-held ideology that indeed the lap of the mother is the first school of every child, it’s no stretch of the imagination then to surmise that the state of our youth showing no interest in deen is directly linked to women who have been purposely excluded from a sense of fellowship.

Almost 20 years ago, at a lecture by Sheikh Abdullah Hakim Quick, I recall the analogy that he used of a bird trying to fly, but with 1 wing tied back. The bird kept plummeting to the ground because of this restriction. That one wing tied back was used to describe the state of our sisters in Islam. We come from a history of accomplished Muslim women- Maryam (as), the Prophet’s (pbuh) wives- and are so proud to stand tall and proclaim, ‘Did you know the first university in the world was established by a Muslim woman, Fatima Al-fihri?’ yet that same voice denies a believing woman access to prayer space?

I reiterate that I am not an Islamic scholar, but even I know of incidents where Nabi(saw) allowed women into the musjid and more than that, he forbade others from barring women to attend the congregation. The sahaba too, upheld this ruling. It is even well-known that Ibn Taiymiyah allowed his female student, Fatimah, to sit on the mimbar in the musjid of Damascus and teach lessons and whilst I am by no means advocating for women-run masjids, women giving khutbahs to men, or anything of that nature, I am questioning why women are so expressly denied any access to so many masajid. For the first time ever, with the musjid closures due to lockdown, the male half of our community felt that deprivation too and perhaps with this new-found awareness and understanding, certain places might become more accommodating.

On a personal note, the joy and connection that I experience when I do get the opportunity to perform salaah in jama’ah is quite incomparable. The soul smiles differently when you are joined, shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart, united in takbeer, united in rukooh, united in sujood. May Allah accept our every prostration and illuminate our path towards a better connection and understanding of deen in every way. Ameen