Whilst most mosques I’ve been to do not have a woman’s section we embarked on a journey in Ramadan to visit diverse mosques for evening prayers to experience the rich tapestry of nationalities, denominations and mosque structures that make up Islam in London today.
Of the 1,975 mosques in the UK, 28% do not offer facilities for women.
The Islamic Centre for England opened in 1998 in the grade II listed building previously known as the Maida Vale Picture House. The centre has Iranian roots but wishes to cater to the needs of the multi-cultural community in the local area. The front entrance gives access to the beautifully decorated main hall, which hosts prayers for men and women.
A few weeks into planning our mosque tour, I learnt that most Shia communities do not host taraweeh prayers so instead we decided to pray Isha in a Shia mosque. Just a few days before going to our chosen mosque, I realised Shias combine their Maghrib and Isha prayers. Again, my Sunni privilege and sheer ignorance was astounding. I had planned the whole evening wrong!
I desperately wanted to respect the traditions of the mosque and was concerned that I would get things wrong and make a fool of myself. With a bit of searching and asking, I found that Maghrib would be at 9.32pm and Isha would follow almost immediately after. I packed a bottle of water and some dates into my bag, still unsure as to when exactly we would eat, and headed to the mosque. The pristine white building with its 2 green domes was another marvel to behold.
We walked to the front entrance and again hesitated outside, unsure of where the women’s entrance was. A woman walked past us, gave us a half-smile, and walked into the main entrance. We followed her in and I was surprised by what I saw: the men and the women were in the main hall together, side-by-side, separated only by a thin grey room divider. This to me was a symbolically brilliant solution! The women were not behind the men, they were not hidden away, they were on an equal footing, sharing the space in the main hall, in all its splendour.I was shocked that not only could we see the young imam who was preaching from the front, but he was also making equal eye contact with the men and the women! It may seem ridiculous that I was so pleasantly surprised, but unfortunately, this was just not why my usual mosque experience had been. The imam was speaking in Arabic or Farsi, I wasn’t sure which.
As we were quietly chatting to ourselves, a woman sat in front of us asked if this was our first time in the mosque. We said it was and she pointed us in the direction of where the turbahs were kept – small stone tablets which Shi’is use to touch their foreheads to during prostration, serving as a reminder that we come from the earth and will one day return to it. I was hesitant to use a turbah but nevertheless, I got up to collect two for us.
Soon the Maghrib adhan was called but I waited until I saw others breaking their fast before I reached for my water and took the first precious sips of the day. A little girl walked around offering digestive biscuits to the congregation and I gratefully took one.
We then prayed Maghrib following Shia customs. Again, the differences were subtle but enough to keep me alert and concentrating. I was making a conscious effort to follow the movements of the crowd – keeping my hands by my side where I would otherwise put them over my chest, holding my hands up palms upwards at certain moments, prostrating my forehead on the turbah. Once completed, I was left feeling a little disorientated, still unaccustomed to the abrupt end of the prayer (without the usual turning to say salaam to the right and to the left).
Women snatched a few more bites to eat whilst we waited a few moments for Isha to begin. I could feel the old lady to the right of me staring at me intently. She eventually tapped me on the shoulder.
“Are you Indian?” she asked.
“No, I’m Pakistani,” I answered with an awkward smile.
She nodded and then stroked the 2 inches of the visible skin of my forearm down to my wrist, “This should be down to here.”
This took me by genuine surprise. Even before Mamataj and I had left for the mosque, we discussed how I had intentionally dressed in the most modest way possible so as to avoid any criticism and yet my failures were made apparent again. I felt my cheeks go bright red as I blushed with embarrassment but she persisted.
“Can you not cover it with your scarf?” she asked.
“It’s too short,” I apologised. “I’ll know for next time.”
She started pulling at the sleeves of my abaya but it stubbornly stayed put. The imam began Isha, but she continued; now binding my wrists with the bottom of my abaya.
“You have to try because this is the way we are taught,” she said.
“It’s really restrictive but I’ll try,” I responded, trying to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. This was ridiculous – there was no way that I could perform prayer with the bottom of my abaya wrapped around my wrists!
I joined Isha prayer and instinctively my hands folded to my chest; all my good intentions about following Shia customs went out the window as my body instinctively returned to the familiar. As I followed the movements of prayer my mind was disturbed and elsewhere – I felt the hot flush of anger, embarrassment and sheer incredulity at the resolve of this sister whose concern for my forearms delayed our prayers. I was uncomfortable, I was hungry, and I was admittedly not engaging in prayer the way I should have been.
Once the prayer was over, Mamataj and I waited to see what would happen next. It seemed that people were leaving so we also made our way to the entrance. On our way out I saw plenty of other women wearing cardigans with visible forearms and couldn’t help think of my misfortune to be put next to the one zealot in the mosque. Still, at least I learnt that for some it’s very important to cover to your wrists for prayers!
As we turned back to take one last look at the mosque, we saw rolls of catering paper being laid out for a community iftar. How lovely!
Despite my negative experience with one sister, I was impressed with the way the mosque’s beautiful facilities and how women were given equal footing in the main hall itself. I wish this solution would be used more often in other mosques. Women should not be relegated as afterthoughts to annexes but are equally valuable members of the community and we need far more mosques who treat them as such.
I was most nervous about entering this mosque. After feeling so disorientated during prayer at the Inclusive Mosque Initiative I was much more aware of my body and its movements during prayer. I had passed this mosque quite often and admired it from afar. While we entered slowly, looking for a woman we could follow into our entrance, we hovered in the courtyard.
We were spotted by a lovely woman who asked us if it was our first time visiting, showed us the entrance and where we should put our shoes. Both men and women used the grand front doors to go into the mosque. The first thing we noticed was the women’s space was almost half of the entire mosque. All that separated the genders was a makeshift wall, just tall enough to not see the other side. In a previous life, this mosque was a cinema, and you could tell. The ceiling was grand and ornate. Where there was a screen, we read inscriptions in Arabic. Hirra and I made our way closer to the front to listen to the imam’s sermon. To our surprise, the wall had been shaped so that women, closer to the front, could see the imam. The sermon was not in English, and it was only then that we realised all the other mosques had introduced prayers in English and another language.
While we waited for Maghrib to begin, I looked around to see a wave of colourful hijabs, clothing, to see children weaving their way in and out of rows. I felt quite uneasy but I couldn’t put my finger on why. Maybe I was making it worse for myself by focussing on how out of my comfort zone I was. The athaan began and women took to their feet. A woman stood up and raised her arms up, pointing to the ceiling while it was recited. I was taken aback by how expressive everyone was during the prayers. We prayed beside each other, with plenty of space, while I was careful to be slow so I could follow those around me.
Maghrib was prayed and we waited for Isha. During this time dates and water was passed around. We broke our fast and waited for Isha to begin. A young girl started sharing biscuits. After Isha was prayed, the mosque moved pretty quickly to lay out paper and start sharing food. In retrospect, this was the mosque I’d felt the least comfortable in. But for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that I entered a community I previously had misconceptions and prejudices about, I was visibly different and was not used to their customs.
During this Tour, we underestimated how hard it would be to visit, explore and experience different mosques during Ramadan. There was little time between Iftar and the beginning of Isha to make it to prayers, driving there and back (thanks to Hirra) making sure to catch Suhoor and then work in the morning.
Not to mention, how short-sighted we were to not realise we were three women who would sometimes be exempt from prayer. Stupidly, this went over our heads when we initially planned this (not that this is something in our power to change). I loved the mosques we visited, to experience a little of the diversity Islam has to offer during Ramadan was an incredible experience and one I’d do again.
Hirra is currently Project Manager at New Horizons in British Islam and a fellow of the Muslim Institute. She graduated from King's College London and used to manage events for Amnesty International UK. Hirra is passionate about gender justice, human rights and all things Muslamic. She is excited about initiating real change in the way British Muslims are perceived and how British Muslims perceive others. Follow her on Instagram @hirr4