Remona Aly
Monday 19 February 2018 The Guardian

UK mosques must make space for women

On Sunday more than 200 mosques invited the public through their doors to boost community relations and diffuse tensions over a cuppa. It’s the fourth annual Visit My Mosque day, led by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), growing steadily in popularity and reach over the years. But less well known is the Open My Mosque campaign, a social media project led by British Muslim women who are challenging and encouraging mosques to open spaces to women.

Of the 1,975 mosques in Britain, 28% do not offer facilities for women, and up to 50% of all South Asian-run mosques do not accommodate them. When mosques do offer it, the access is restricted, and often does not even include a prayer space, but rather a teaching space, such as a girls’ madrasa.

The 36-year-old activist Anita Nayyar established the Open My Mosque initiative in 2015, which highlights how, if you’re a woman, it’s far less likely you’ll get a foot in the door, let alone munch a samosa with the imam. Nayyar has been documenting experiences of women across Britain who use words like “frustrated”, “isolated” and “humiliated”. Her team receives hundreds of calls, emails and social media messages from women (and men) who are grateful to have a platform to express their grievances.

“Women who feel excluded from the mosque face more exclusion than their non-Muslim counterparts,” says Nayyar. “If they cannot participate in religious life, then they can’t get involved in community life, and that increases the already existing lack of inclusion of Muslim women in public life.”

Being denied access to the mosque is an uncomfortably familiar experience for me, too. I once tried entering a mosque in Soho to perform the evening prayers, but out popped a man from a cupboard, shaking his head, and crying “No women!” I attempted theological reasoning but after a “computer says no” situation, I was forced to leave.

The “no women” remark has been hurled at me before, and it’s hauntingly reminiscent of “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs”. And even when there is space for women, it’s often cramped, fails health and safety regulations, or involves descending flights of stairs into a dodgy basement – which also ignores the needs of elderly and disabled people.

One response to the woeful lack of women’s prayer spaces came out of Bradford, when the UK’s first women-run mosque was established in 2015. Bana Gora, chief executive of the Muslim Women’s Council, sought to cater to local needs for a spiritual sanctuary open to all, as well as challenge the patriarchy that was stifling women’s religious growth. This is not new-age feminism, but age-old rights. Women-run mosques have been part of Muslim communities in China for centuries. Moreover, 1,435 years ago, Muslim women were intrinsic to Prophet Muhammad’s first mosque and to the dynamic community. But in 21st-century Britain, many mosques tell a less inclusive story. In this case, regression would be a good thing.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom, there are shining examples that tell me things can and have to be better. The Masjid Khadijah (Khadijah mosque) in Peterborough prides itself for having women on the committee board and for being an open, flourishing hub catering for all; in Cambridge, women have been heavily involved in the design of the UK’s first eco-mosque. And East London Mosque has a building dedicated to the increasing number of female worshippers, as well as offering sermons in British Sign Language for deaf Muslims. Then there is the welcome move by the MCB, which has launched a nationwide consultation on how to create better mosques.

Imam Qari Asim of Leeds Makkah Mosque welcomes the changes, but says more must be done. “Women shouldn’t only participate in prayer, but we also need to create spaces where they are driving the activities and life of the mosque. It’s not even a theological issue, what we need is a cultural shift. When mosques offer space for women, they should see it as a right, not a favour.”

Asim is spot on, I don’t want to be grateful there’s a facility for women, I want it to be religiously constitutional. In fact it’s already Islamically forbidden to ban women from the mosque.

“My right as a religious minority is protected in the workplace,” says Nayyar, “but how is my right as a woman protected when mosques are turning me away? We need bodies like the Charity Commission and the Equality and Human Rights Commission to challenge how these mosques govern their spaces. As British Muslims, the only way for us to move forward is by a commitment to equal rights.”

This is why Open My Mosque is so important to women like me.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 19 February 2018. To view it, click here.