It is generally understood that with time, humanity progresses or moves forward, but there are so many precedents to the contrary that this notion seems to have been inverted! While modern science and technology govern and improve our life on one side, the other side of the table mirrors a world that harks to very regressive notions. Regressive social and political structures are absolutely not acceptable to our modern minds and rightly so. The most viable way forward is to question the existing structures.
Religion is one of the most important markers of identity in a person’s life. While religion is one sphere where feeling and belief matters more, modern minds have systematically challenged those very sources of belief and feeling to a large extent. One such matter would be the role of women in religion. The Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai does not allow women’s entry into the sanctum sanctorum, the Lord Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala bars girls and women between 10 and 50 from entering the temple. The Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Kerala does not allow women to enter the temple vault to do inventory of the riches though they are allowed to pray in the temple. Some Jain temples, like one in northern Madhya Pradesh, also do not allow women to enter the temple on account of biological discrimination that includes menstruation as the cited reason. Also, in Greece, the Greek Orthodox monastery at Mount Athos dedicated to Virgin Mary ironically doesn’t grant permission to females to enter the monastery. The general argument across all religious groupings is that the issue of women not entering religious spaces is not a question of gender equality but of faith and belief.
The Jama Masjid in Delhi, India’s largest mosque and among the most well-known, is comfortable with women entering its premises but there are conditions attached to this permit, which includes the following: firstly a male should be accompanying the woman and the time should not exceed after maghrib. Most mosques in India, however, do not allow women, and while most durgahs (Sufi shrines) do allow them, they are often barred from entering the sanctum sanctorum. While we conventionally do have such illustrations of injustice, history and theology give a different insight into the existing dogma. The past has been encouraging.
Theoretically, nothing in Islam prevents women from worshipping in a mosque. Through the recorded past, one can see how women were allowed to enter the mosques. Two compilations of Hadiths [quotations of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)], Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, widely regarded as authentic, have, in quite clear terms, stated that there is no bar on women if they wish to pray in a mosque. The relevant Hadiths are as follows:
- And husbands were specifically told by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), “If the wife of any one of you asks permission (to go to the mosque) do not forbid her.” (Sahih Bukhari Volume 1, Book of Salaah, Chapter 80, Hadith No. 832)
- Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, ‘Do not prevent the female servants of Allah from going to the mosque of Allah.’ [Sahih Muslim, Vol.1, Chapter 177, Hadith No.886]
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) had himself recommended Umm Waraqh (R.A.), a woman, to be the imam of her own household. This speaks volumes about the tradition of gender equality and the distortion effected by the hegemonic patriarchal structures that slowly came into place.
It is also true that not only did mosques include separate zenanas (sections for women) but also for mosques exclusively for women did exist earlier in India. Bijapur’s Makka Masjid built by the Bahamani rulers in the 14th century, had a high-walled enclosure to safeguard women’s privacy and the absence of a mihrab ensured that there was no male imam required to lead the prayers. The Anda Masjid constructed during the reign of Adil Shah II of Bijapur also was built for women in the 15th century (1608). Ironically, women are no more allowed in the mosque, its ground floor serves as a madrasa for children while men pray in the upper portion. While there are a few mosques that belonged to women alone in the past, history speaks volumes about such mosques that catered to both the genders by way of the inclusion of separate zenanas in their construction. Delhi’s Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, Delhi’s first mosque, and Uttar Pradesh’s Atala Masjid have separate storeys reserved for women. The Jama Masjid near Baroda and the Adina Masjid in West Bengal also explicitly have a zenana meant for women. Looking at the mosques these days, it is difficult to ascertain when exactly did the practice of zenana cease. The heterogeneity that exists in the spatio-temporal domain suggests that the imposed restriction on women going to mosques is indeed largely arbitrary.
China also has interestingly had a long history dating back to the Qing dynasty period of allowing women to be imams at mosques run for women among the Hui ethnicity. These initiatives show that a long tradition of gender justice and gender equality had existed in various parts of the world. Islamic reformist and feminist readings have revealed the influence of subjective ideologies and cultural factors in the modern day version of Islamic laws. Even medieval scholars of Islam such as Ibn Arabi also considered that the optional prayers at least can be led by a female.
Some Muslims in Denmark and the UK have embarked upon reform regarding female imams in mosques with the Mariam mosque in Copenhagen being opened by Sherin Khankan. This mosque will allow both men and women to pray and all the imams would be women. While female imams have not been very common across the Islamic world, South Asia has, for some time, been more peculiar in barring female worshippers from mosques altogether, though Muslim women are allowed to join worship congregations (even if led inevitably by a male imam) in countries like Egypt and Turkey.
At the end of the day, every believer has a right to connect with the divinity he or she believes in in any civic manner he or she desires, and no one should be allowed to restrict someone’s freedom of worship, discriminating on the basis of gender.
(Image Courtesy: Flickr)