Having lately moved to a new Muslim community, the subject of women in mosques has been giving me some thought. My recent post, A Mosque for Women Too, brought up a few of the issues on my mind, especially after reading another article discussing one facet of the problem, behavior and treatment of women in mosques, examining a cause and effect relationship. (I.e., the treatment resulting in the behavior.)
But lately it seems I have taken for granted the obvious reasons for women to be at the mosque in the first place. Or, in other words, it seems other people take for granted the need and benefit to involving women in mosques, and are oblivious to the damage resulting from their absence.
Allow me one disclaimer: I am not referring herein to societies in Muslim-majority countries, where a Muslimah is likely surrounded by other Muslims and Islamic resources. I'm more specifically discussing the situation occurring in Western non-Muslim countries, like the USA.
Inside our communities, there are basically four categories of women who I say should be attending mosques, either because they can directly benefit from attending, can provide benefit others, or might get lost in the unIslamic dunya. Moreover, the involvement that various women need might fulfill educational, social, financial, or emotional needs, but I think every woman has educational and social needs the mosque should meet.
Among the women, the categories I mentioned are as follows:
- Non-Muslim women
- Muslim women who practice a little or none at all
- Practicing Muslim women with some knowledge and some weaknesses in practice
- Muslim women who are strong in knowledge and practice
1. Non-Muslim Women
Firstly, I start with non-Muslim women, and make that a category, because it is not a rare occurrence for a non-Muslim woman to visit a mosque seeking information about Islam because she is considering embracing the faith of Islam. There are other reasons non-Muslims visit mosques, like school projects and to interview Muslimahs, but perhaps the most pivotal visits are for those women who are considering embracing Islam. Because she is considering becoming a Muslim, she'll want to ask questions and make observations, so is looking for both education and social interaction with Muslim women. These integral steps help her seek more information about Islam to determine whether she is being guided to convert.
Having spoken to many women in that position, and having been there myself, I know how critical this stage is. What if the woman finds no women at the mosque to help her? What if she is turned away, or even insulted by the men who are there? Do you think she is likely to ever return?
A couple weeks ago a woman visited a local mosque around the time for Friday prayers--she didn't know where to find any women, where to go, how to dress, whom she could speak to or what to say. She found brothers who were willing only to take her number to pass on to some sister who could follow-up later. A precious opportunity could have been lost! Alhamdulillah, this woman encountered another Muslimah while she was leaving, who invited her inside to listen to the khutbah and observe the prayers, and who continued the da'wah with her from that point on. Had that not been the case, the woman might have been turned off of Islam forever, and disinterested when she finally got a phone call or email. And the only reason this woman was able to meet that Muslimah in the first place is because women were allowed to come to the mosque, and had a place (though not ideal) to listen to the khutbah and pray.
The mosque is a should be a central pillar of the community, and a key location where someone considering Islam should feel safe to visit, either to observe, meet Muslims, or have their questions answered. If the prospective convert is a woman, she will need other women to talk to, and there should be classes and social events, not to mention regular services, which women can and do attend. These are the needs of a non-Muslim woman at the mosque.
2. Non-Observant Muslimahs
In addition to being open to non-Muslims, the mosque should be a welcoming place for Muslims who are not yet knowledgeable or observant in the practice of Islam. Suppose a young Muslim woman, who has been spending her weekends going to bars and partying, takes a step to improve her spiritual condition by and deciding to forego the club, and visit the mosque instead. In her mind she is doing a righteous thing--visiting the mosque--though she might not know the expectations regarding her dress and behavior while she is there. What would be said to a young Muslim woman walking into the front door of a mosque, dressed like she is going to a party? She might find someone yelling in her face, directing her to leave immediately.
Even though she came to the mosque looking for guidance, for help from the Muslims, she was rebuked, probably insulted, and essentially kicked out. She is looking for more knowledge about Islam to get on the right path, and to make friends with Muslimahs who can help her in practicing Islam, as her old friends were steering her astray. She had two primary needs, educational and social, for which she visited the mosque, assuming it to be the natural place to fulfill these needs. And if she is turned away, where will she go? More than likely, she'll be going back to the bar without any interest in returning to the mosque, and with less guilt about her behavior, thanks to how she was treated.
3. Observant Muslimahs
The third case pertains to women who might have once been in a previous category, but who now, maashaaAllaah, are learning about Islam and practicing what they learn. They already have some Muslim friends who they can socialize with, so do they still need to go to the mosque for social interaction? They already know the basics about Islam, so do they still need to go to the mosque for education? The answer in both cases is yes, and doing so will strengthen their connection to the mosque and to the Muslim community. They should be trying to constantly improve themselves in knowledge, and develop ongoing relationships with other Muslimahs in the community, offering support when needed.
The Qur'an is not silent on the importance of seeking knowledge:
Is one who is devoutly obedient during periods of the night, prostrating and standing [in prayer], fearing the Hereafter and hoping for the mercy of his Lord, [like one who does not]? Say, "Are those who know equal to those who do not know?" Only they will remember [who are] people of understanding. [39:9]
And among people and moving creatures and grazing livestock are various colors similarly. Only those fear Allah , from among His servants, who have knowledge. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Forgiving. [35:28]
In fact, if a person is struggling with weakness in iman, a common prescription is that they should increase their knowledge, and with knowledge comes taqwa. A person cannot simply arrive at a level of knowledge and assume that it is sufficient for the rest of their lives--rather, we should all spend our lives trying to improve ourselves. Women have even fewer opportunities to go study Islam full-time than men do, but the best option for them is ongoing education through classes and halaqaat with local 'ulama--and where else should these take place but in the House of Allah, the masjid? So the mosque should serve as a school and a source for the women to learn more about Islam even as their lives are busy with other responsibilities.
As for the social aspect, these women should still try to socialize with other Muslimahs on a regular basis, learning from those better than them, and helping those who are not. In particular, it is important for these women to form a connection with the mosque to cement their connection with Islam, and to protect them against diversions. While it is possible to socialize at places other than the mosque, meeting at the mosque strengthens the bonds of the community, establishing the mosque as a pillar of the community, uniting rather than dividing it.
4. Knowledgeable & Observant Muslimahs
The last category of women are those who have been blessed with knowledge and iman. Maybe classes at the mosque have little to offer them in the way of fresh knowledge--but at least they can be a reminder. But the greater reason women in this category need to attend the mosques is in the benefits they can offer to their sisters, as a good example. They can perhaps teach or just lead with their actions, and they can offer support to other Muslimahs. In this way, a community is not left with the blind leading the blind. With her knowledge, a woman becomes responsible for helping others (by teaching, volunteering, etc.), and doing so also benefits herself, by improving her own knowledge and as she does righteous actions which will benefit her in the Hereafter.
Children and the Mosques
After talking about the immediate reasons why women should attend mosques, it's important to mention children as well. I constantly hear Muslims wondering why their "youth" are not attached to the mosque--is it any wonder when they and their mothers, the people most directly responsible for raising them, are not welcome at the mosque in the first place?
If women are not attending mosques, then it stands to reason that children won't be attending either, at any age. That is, unless or until they begin going with their father. And in that case, if women are not welcome, it's likely that sons will benefit from the mosques but any daughters will be left behind with no incentive to attend. And if a girl doesn't attend as a child, why would she start attending as an adult?
On the other hand, if a child's mother does attend the mosque--for any reason--it offers him (or her, as I am talking about boys and girls here) an opportunity to socialize with other young Muslims, forging bonds with Muslims that will serve him as he ages. He also has the opportunity to observe how adult Muslims behave, to learn the etiquette of the mosque (more), to learn respect for the salah and the reading of Qur'an. And if children are coming to the mosque, it's likely their parents will try to have classes established for them to learn the Qur'an, Arabic, and Islamic studies with other children their age.
So with a mother attending the mosque, her children are already getting a foundation in Islam, and making a connection with the mosque that will support them throughout their lives. Because children grow up to be the men and women of our communities in years to come, we can't ignore them when they are young, unless we want them to ignore us in their maturity.
In this way, women's presence at mosques benefits not only themselves but the entire community, while their absence harms not just themselves but also the entire community. It is not sufficient, especially in Western non-Muslim societies, for women to seclude themselves from society in general, content to let others speak for them. That French people want to ban face veils, thinking that Muslim women are forced to wear them (rather than that they choose to do so) shows what can happen when Muslim women are silent and not active in their larger communities. And how can we as Muslims expect an entire nation to listen to a voice that is not heard, not even present in the mosques? If women are kept out of the mosques, kept from learning about Islam, then they are kept silent, and have no recourse against the oppression which will inevitably befall them.