Open My Mosque!
You are a Muslim woman walking along Berwick street in Soho, Westminster, London. The call to prayer finds its way into your ears and you scan through the buildings for a mosque to observe your prayers. To your greatest relief, you find a five-floored grandiose building, large enough to house the entire community and you decide to go in for your brief spiritual retreat. A few minutes later, you get thrown out of the mosque for no other reason than your gender. You get told that there’s no place for you in the house of God and you’re left with two options; to observe your prayers on the street or to miss it entirely. Think this sounds bizarre? You might be in for a shocker. On 26th August 2021, two young women, Assia and Fadumo, were violently removed from Soho Islamic Centre in Westminster, London. A brief online search for the Soho Islamic Centre on the UK Mosque directory reveals that indeed, the mosque, just like many others, is gender-exclusive.
After this unfortunate incident, Assia and Fadumo made a formal complaint to the co-conveners of the Open My Mosque Initiative; Anna Nayyar and Julie Siddiqi, who founded Together We Thrive, an organisation that aims at working with women of all backgrounds to tackle inequalities. The following week, on 5th September 2021, the Open My Mosque campaign team, went to the Soho Islamic Centre, to speak, to take a stand, to show that this injustice is far from the Prophet (PBUH)’s way. It was a moment of reflection; a time to recall how kind and Inclusive the Prophet (PBUH) was with everyone. On that very day, another young couple went inside the mosque to observe their prayers, but while the man was admitted, the woman was asked to wait outside. The whole building of five floors was empty, and according to Julie Siddiqi, ‘the mindset that allows this to happen is way beyond London.’
The campaign went beyond the streets and found its way to social media via the hashtag #openmymosque. Many Muslim women shared similar awful experiences, all coming together to speak up against injustice. Initiatives such as My Mosque Story and Open My Mosque are recording the experiences of women within Britain’s mosques and fighting hard to give women what naturally belongs to them. To find out more about the factors responsible for the exclusion and politicisation of women’s participation in mosques, TMWT had a brief chat with Julie Siddiqui and here’s everything she had to say.
TMWT: Women’s presence and roles in contemporary mosques raise questions about equality, citizenship, governance, religious freedom and self-determination within and outside Muslim communities. What do you think is responsible for the politicisation of women’s participation in mosques and the categorisation of mosques as gendered spaces?
Julie Siddiqi: Sadly many of our mosques in the UK were set up by men who believe that women have no place at the mosque. Those ideas and that way of doing things have continued and not much has been done to challenge that or to make the change happen. As a result, the ideas and norms have become so embedded that the mindset is so strong and requires a lot of work to shift it. So you will get new mosques being built, yes they may have a physical space for women but there are very few women on Boards of mosques or in decision making roles at all. So the same issues continue. Even when space is provided, the mindset can remain the same, favouring men over women. Muslim women can also be part of the problem here, perpetuating the idea that men have priority over women, that women’s prayer is somehow less valued than men’s.
TMWT: In what ways do you think that mosques today are different from the Prophet (PBUH)’s mosques?
Julie Siddiqi: Honestly, I feel they are unrecognisable from the stories and teachings that I have read! In all of the Prophet (PBUH)’s mosques that he was ever part of, women were part of the fabric of the place, attended prayers including Fajr and Isha, listened to lectures, presented their issues. Their rows were behind the men’s, with no sign of a barrier or curtain at all. The idea that women and men must be kept separate is something that has been introduced afterwards and often in very damaging and harsh ways. I do not believe that the story we hear about the second door being introduced at that time for women to use was meant to be anything other than to relieve pressure because of numbers coming and to make things easier for everyone. It has been used now though as an example of what must happen and then becomes oppressive and discriminatory, rather than beautiful and merciful which is what I think the original idea was. When we have discussions or call out the bad behaviour now, people sometimes accuse us of somehow wanting to change the religion or of being ‘radical feminists’ causing trouble. We say, no, just take us back 1400 years ago to the time of the Prophet, we want the mosques to be like that!
TMWT: What spaces and roles should women occupy within mosques?
Julie Siddiqi: Shutting out half of our community is not helping anyone. We are missing out on talent and skills that can work alongside and complement those of the men involved. I think, in particular, that women should be given oversight and responsibility for issues around safeguarding, education, counselling, family matters, outreach, and other areas alongside male professionals and those with expertise to offer. We have so many complex issues that need urgent attention that is simply not being addressed in our communities. Mosques really can be so helpful and can become hubs of positivity and good and be seen as a positive force and something beautiful to have on your street, whether you are Muslim or not. I feel very strongly that we shouldn’t just have ‘sisters’ committees’ which are kept separate from the main decision-making Board. Women should be sitting with men and feeding into discussions and decisions that affect the whole community. And on that Board, people should be elected and chosen for the skills and expertise they bring. At the moment, we often have Mosques being run by men who quite frankly are there because they helped build the place 40 years ago or their relatives have always been involved. But they shouldn’t be making decisions by themselves about budgets, community issues because they are simply not qualified or capable to do a good enough job without the skills, expertise and mindset needed. Often, women have told us how they have donated to mosques being built but then feel shut out of the place and have no say in how money is used, or decisions being made.
TMWT: What does an inclusive, non-discriminatory mosque where women are valued, respected and involved look like?
Julie Siddiqi: Somewhere where everyone feels welcome, respected and valued, whatever gender, whether Muslim or not. A place where talent and skills are sought for specific reasons and used accordingly. Where families feel they can come together and be part of the place and gain their spiritual and other needs, together. When I read about how it was 1400 years ago, I would love to experience a bit of that!
TMWT: There’s the issue of safety, especially with regards to sexual and spiritual abuse against women, which takes place in mosques and Islamic community centres and are mostly perpetuated by religious leaders who have gained the trust of the people. How do you think mosques can be made safe for women? What structures do you think we need to put in place?
Julie Siddiqi: Yes, these are serious issues that I also feel very strongly about. Again, I think if we have transparent structures, men and women working together, good safeguarding policies and procedures in place, these kinds of issues can be lessened. Sadly, predators and abusers are there in every community. They are manipulative and find ways to gain access to young or maybe vulnerable people. It will not be possible to completely avoid things happening, but much more needs to be done to prevent the possibility of it happening and then when it does, victims need to be heard and believed, structures need to be in place to deal with things quickly and robustly and perpetrators dealt with accordingly. We need specialists and experts involved at every step of that. We also need to raise awareness and educate Muslims in general, not just in mosques and communal settings, to know what is happening, to be aware of the risks, to mitigate those risks and to be ready to really hear and believe victims when they come forward. We have seen what is unravelling in the Catholic Church where people were not heard, where clergy were quietly moved to other places like nothing had happened. Honestly, we are heading down that road too if something urgent is not done to address what we see emerging in Muslim communities.
TMWT: What strict measures do you think women can take to regain their rightful place in our mosques?
Julie Siddiqi: There are a number of strands of work that need to happen. Everyone can do something; men and women, young and old. This is not a ‘women’s issue’ that only women can and should solve. Men need to properly come on board as allies, think about how they can use the power and privilege they have in these settings, raise their voices and challenge the status quo. We need education, we need to financially invest in this work, we need direct action, we need to get the legal frameworks tightened up. If I was to go to a shop right now and be treated in an aggressive way and physically stopped from going in because I am a Muslim and/or a woman, there would be an uproar by Muslims calling it “Islamophobia” and the law would be on my side too. At the moment, this is not the case when it comes to Mosques. It needs to change. We are working with the Charity Commission and other bodies to look into all of this.
TMWT is an online media platform spotlighting the stories of Muslim women of the past and present. We aim to be one of the most authoritative and informative guides to what is happening in the world of Muslim women. We hope to cover key issues, spark debates, progressive ideas and provocative topics to get the Muslim world talking. We want to set agendas and explore ideas to improve the lives and wellbeing of Muslim Women.