Thursday, January 12, 2012

Not My Mosque


WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world.  As a woman who wears the hijab (owns several abayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non.
There is a mosque on a popular downtown street corner. A nondescript red brick building with blueish trim on the windows. Upon closer inspection, you might see Islamic calligraphy in the form of “Allah,” “Bismillah,” or the mosque’s name etched into glass frosting — giving just a hint that this former bank property is now a place of worship for Muslims.
I am not a part of this community — in more ways than one.
I have never attended a Jummah Friday prayer, a lecture or an event here. I’ve never been to their fundraisers, BBQs, bake sales or open houses. I’ve never been to their sessions for converts, Arabic lessons, or Qur’anic recitation 101 for women. I don’t even know if they hold these types of events or services. I cannot, with any certainty, speak to the experience of women who see this mosque as central to their community and faith.
Yet I pray here all the time.
In convert years, I am older than this mosque — but we grew up together. For 10 years this mosque has been a resource for Muslims in the downtown core, travelers, and people like myself who just need a place to pray.
Whether because it’s conveniently located to my place of work, or because it’s right next to the Toronto bus terminal — I’m here with surprising frequency.
But I could never make it my home.

I am reluctant to hate upon this particular mosque because I recognise and value the service it provides as a place of prayer. But because I am not involved, that’s all it is to me. I might as well pray in my cubicle at work.
In ten years of praying at this mosque I have never been able to find the light switch. So unless I’ve lucked out and someone has turned on the lights — I’m praying in the dark.
Women pray upstairs and follow the imam by watching him on television. The room is quite large — but the musallah (place of prayer) is in one small area, sectioned off from the large space and windows overlooking the street, by a room divider and a hastily draped scarf hanging from the entrance doorway.
We face the television and the bathroom wall. I still don’t know why the bathroom was placed in the direction of prayer. Why couldn’t we use the rest of the room beyond the divider? I’m sure there is a valid, logistical reason — but as an outside I’ll never know.
Being sent up two flights of stairs with a heavy toddler is also annoying and incredibly exclusionary for anyone with mobility restrictions.
There is however, a very nice library with low-set, Arab-styled couches for people to relax or store their luggage while touring the city for the day.
I never gave these annoyances much thought until Eryn made a particularly heart breaking observation. You see, I’ve always thought of this mosque as a convenience. And so while I noted my issues and disliked the prayer situation — it was always temporary and I could return home to enjoy the peace found in my mosque. And when I unfortunately moved away from my mosque — I just stopped going to mosques altogether and preferred to find God elsewhere … because no other mosque could compare.
This past weekend we were in the downtown core for the afternoon prayer and stopped at this mosque for a quick prayer break. As always, Eryn became very excited and started singing “Upsy-daisy now don’t be lazy, it’s time to go to the masjid!“
She loves going to the mosque and running in-between the sections — sharing hugs after we’ve finished praying. And we always attend the few mosques that have a shared prayer space.
We sang all the way into the main entrance.
We sang up both flights of stairs.
We sang when we saw the prayer rugs.
We stopped singing when a very confused Eryn said, “Where’s Baba?”
I explained he was downstairs but that we could see him on the television. We had to pray upstairs, and Baba downstairs. I had ashes in my mouth — and hated every word. Especially when she almost started crying.
I listened to “Baba… where’s baba?” while I prayed. My heart broke and I resented our situation. So I took her to the men’s section.
Maybe sometimes the men’s section is used for women’s educational circles. Maybe the men pray upstairs on Thursdays. Maybe this is an amazing mosque with amazing programming with super-involved women who are proud to be a part of this great initiative (very likely). But I’ll never know.
In ten years I have never felt welcome enough to make this mosque, my mosque.
Katherine Wilson has written a wonderfully enlightening piece on altMuslimah regarding emancipating gender. Her beautiful words echo my feelings and experiences in places of communal worship — and sum-up precisely how I feel about the majority of our prayer spaces:
When I walk into my community mosque, I resent that I must demonstrate my authenticity as a Muslim—I must not make eye contact with anyone, give proper greetings to the matriarchs, and sprinkle my sentences with the words like Insha’Allah and Mash ‘Allah. I must enter the “sisters only area,” complete with signs reminding me that the rowdy behavior of my children reflects my poor parenting skills. The garments that cover this body are checked to make sure that I am abiding by the strictest rules of modesty. I sit and listen to the Imam over a loud speaker; to be in his presence is to crack the wall of sexual exaggeration that gender segregation has created through programming men and women to believe that we have nothing to offer each other apart from sex. And when I leave, I am resentful. I am angry. I have missed my time with my Creator. I pledge to not return because I do not feel the presence of the Most Merciful within these four walls and their confining rules that single out my gender. I am not emancipated.
It is not good enough to *just* give women space, a shelf for our shoes, nice carpeting, a flat-screen television, or small couches to recline on. These material items won’t make women who feel excluded (or maybe just me) feel better about praying upstairs behind a digital image — incapable of asking questions, correcting the imam, raising concerns integral to community and personal spirituality and participating in the public, communal worship that’s integral to Islam.