The Place of Women in Mosques Today

The Mosque in Islam today can be much more than a place reserved exclusively for worship. In some cities and towns (although they are still too few), it is also a centre for neighbourhood events, civic gatherings, teaching, counseling and lifelong learning. It can be a library and information centre as well, acting as a storehouse of accessible knowledge for people of all ages. Its function in both local and national Muslim communities should be to provide all of the resources and services necessary to the well-being of its whole spiritual family.

During the era of the Prophet — may God’s peace and blessings be upon him — the Mosque was also a seat of local government and its legislative assembly enacted major decisions or policies affecting the entire community. Thus Islam was an early pioneer among world religions in making its centres of worship truly multi-functional and holistic.

The first comprehensive Mosque university in history, for example, was Al Azher in Cairo, Egypt. Since its founding more than 1,000 years ago, students have learned about the physical sciences, social sciences, mathematics and medicine, alongside their core religious subjects.

Unfortunately, with the passage of centuries and other historical disruptions, many Muslim congregations became disconnected from their mosques as focal points of community life. Gradually, some mosques lost their holistic function and became places reserved only for worship; and wherever this was allowed to happen, Muslims inevitably suffered.

In Canada today very few mosques offer anything close to the variety of services and functions available during the Prophet’s time. Few of them, for example, can provide full-time educational programs ranging from kindergarten to secondary school.

And Canadian Muslims have no religious university of their own in which to train and graduate Imams, much less any access to undergraduate or graduate programs designed specifically for faith-based post-secondary learning.

As well, there are far too few mosques that can share sports facilities with the community at large, or offer family counseling, day care, and Islamic medical services.

But with all the urgent needs mentioned so far, there is no issue more pressing right now than for Canada’s mosque communities to encourage and nurture a more welcoming atmosphere for the women in their midst.

At the time of the Prophet, and during the period of the first four Khalifs, women were full participants in the life of their local Mosques. Many women at that time routinely performed their five daily prayers, the Friday Juma prayer, Ramadan Taraweeh prayers and Eid prayers, as part of their mosque congregation. They also took on full roles in educating and defending their communities. Many were teachers, nurses, business professionals, community leaders and political activists.

But today in North America, the physical space available to women in our mosques is all too often symbolic of the ground they have lost through the neglect of history. This physical space can be one of five types:

1. No space is allocated for women at all.

2. The women’s space is made completely separate from that allocated for men, either in a separate room, on a second-level mezzanine, or in the basement.

3. The women’s space is partially enclosed through the use of a movable partition.

4. Women share a space equal in area and parallel to that allocated for the men, but without any physical barriers between them.

5. Women occupy space at the rear which is equal to that of the men, also without any physical separation between their areas.

Fortunately, the first type of Mosque is very rare in Canada. Advocates of the "no-women" mosque argue that females are better off worshipping at home. They base this argument on a single Hadith, narrated by Ibn Khazema, that the Prophet said the prayer a woman makes at home is better than one she makes at the Mosque. But that Hadith was rejected as Gha’reeb (invalid), because it contradicts actual practice during the time of the Prophet and the first four Khalifs when, in fact, women attended Mosque services without restriction or opposition.

The other four types of Mosques do try to offer women a specific place, keeping in mind a recorded practice during the time of the Prophet, when a cluster of men, followed by clusters of children and women, would come to worship as a congregation with him.

It should be noted that at the time of the Prophet, there were no physical barriers at all between men and women within the mosques. Even today, at Mecca’s most sacred Mosque, groups of women and men can join together in congregational prayers, just as they have since the time of the Prophet.

Therefore, in keeping with Islamic history, Muslims in Canada must work to develop more welcoming and accessible spaces for the women in their congregations. Their spaces in mosque buildings must be inviting, well-lit and shared with men in the same physical area. As long as all Muslim adults respect the Islamic rules for proper dress, greetings and conversation, there is no reason why women and men should not share the same physical space in a mosque.

Similarly, women of the congregation must be given equal opportunity to hear and see the Imam, or any other speaker, during weekly Khotba talks, or seminars.

Only when women are encouraged, invited and welcomed as full participants in our mosques, will Canadian Muslims be able to claim that they are truly living the values of their Islamic faith in this country.

Encouraging more "user-friendly" spaces and programs in our mosques could then lead to women being more fully accepted as wholistic participants in the life and leadership of their congregations.

With that goal in mind, The Canadian Islamic Congress established seven years ago the "User-Friendly Canadian Mosque Award," and every year the award is given to encourage Canadian mosques to follow in the Prophet’s footsteps.