Photo courtesy of Gaspard Winckler/Flickr.
The second time I prayed at a mosque as a convert I was scolded for my “inappropriate” outfit. I had chosen a dress my recently deceased mother had given me, thinking that in some way she would be there with me at the mosque, supporting me. After the prayer, a sister came up to me and told me that I was not properly dressed, my prayers would not be valid, and I should never ever come back wearing this outfit. I thought it was odd, because there was an Egyptian woman, always at the mosque, who routinely wore Western skirts, but she never seemed to get scolded. I went home in tears, vowing to my husband I would never return. He said, “You want them to win?” I realized that the issues we discuss in relation to women in the mosque culture are far deeper than just lack of adequate woman’s spaces for prayer. It’s a deeper clash of culture between old traditional values and new. This is a fictional account based on my personal observations at different mosques.
How could the girl be so stupid? She was wearing gold anklets, with bells on them no less- in the mosque. Hadn’t she ever read the ayah condemning women who stamped their feet to draw attention to themselves? Umm Abed sighed heavily, she would have to speak to the girl after the prayer. The weight of the reprimand weighed heavily upon Umm Abed. She found it hard to concentrate on the khutbah, or sermon.
Umm Abed was used to the flux of people within her masjid, or mosque. Some people were regulars, but others came, stayed a few months, and then disappeared never to be seen in the masjid again. It was hard to judge who would stay and who would move on. This anklet girl was from a new family. They may have moved into the area in the winter, but it was only in the summer that the girl gained Umm Abed’s attention. In winter, everyone typically kept their coats on because the women’s section got rather chilly. With the advent of summer and warmer temperatures, the women’s section tended to become somewhat stuffy and the young girls consistently demonstrated their lack of knowledge and respect for modest Islamic dress during communal prayer. Umm Abed would take the offenders aside after the congregational prayer and alert them to the deficiencies in their attire. She reminded them of how important it was to dress properly at the masjid. After all, they were at the masjid to pray, not to flirt with boys or distract the men. It did help that the womens’ section had a curtained partition that separated the women from the men, but it was best to start educating the girls early so they would be properly trained by the time they went to college. One day they might find themselves in the unfortunate situation of having to pray in a masjid that lacked partitions. If the girls did not have a sense of modest dress and manners they would be tempted to show themselves and flirt with boys in the parking lot outside. They had to learn humility as soon as possible.
This particular girl, who was wearing the gold anklets was a real problem. The girl reminded Umm Abed of someone else, with long dark eyelashes and hazel eyes, but Umm Abed couldn’t think of who it could be. But this girl was always doing something wrong. Once Umm Abed told her the fault in her wardrobe, the girl never made the same mistake again. The problem was she was always coming up with new mistakes! Headscarf too see-through, too much hair showing, headscarf too short, dress too short, pants too tight, nail polish, toe nail polish, torn socks, see through socks. The list went on and on. Umm Abed felt summer was getting to be very long indeed with this stupid girl- and now the anklets. It was wearing on Umm Abed. She made up her mind: her husband must talk to the imam again and demand that he make another khutbah about modest dress.
As soon as the girl had finished her sunnah, or supplimentary prayers, Umm Abed tapped her on the shoulder. The girl turned around.
“Yes Aunty?” she fluttered her long eyelashes.
“You are wearing anklets. Anklets are haram (forbidden) in the masjid.”
“But Aunty” she said in a low voice, “I thought jewelry was permitted to women. Men may not wear gold, but jewelry is halal. You have many beautiful gold and diamond rings on your hands.”
Umm Abed heaved a long sigh and folded her hands together. This girl was so dense. “Of course rings are permitted, it is permitted for our hands to show. But you are wearing anklets, with bells, and those bells are distracting in the prayer. You are not allowed to wear ankle jewelry, it is haram!”
“Yes Aunty, thank you.” The girl made a small bow and then quickly retreated to the door to catch up with her young friends. Umm Abed sensed she was a popular girl, and if so, it was that much the better for the scolding. This Queen Bee could educate her followers about proper Islamic dress.
Umm Abed was quite surprised when someone gently tapped on her shoulder. She turned around and saw a middle aged South Asian woman wearing a drab shawl.
“Excuse me,” the small women said apologetically. “As-salamu Alai’kum. Are you Umm Abed?”
Umm Abed squinted her eyes and stared down at the woman. Was it possible she didn’t know who she was? Umm Abed did not recognize her from the halaqa (discussion) group or the women’s Qur’an class, or the Masjid Board Meetings, or even the Sunday School. Another come and go newcomer? Umm Abed looked her down from head to toe, then she said “Wa’laikum as-salam wa barakatu. I am Umm Abed, and who are you?”
The woman’s face flushed for a moment, then she said, “I’m Hafsa’s mother.”
“The girl you were just speaking to a moment ago. Hafsa” Umm Abed looked incredulous. The woman continued stared at her, “You’ve been speaking to her nearly every jummah (Friday congregational) prayer, and you didn’t know her name?”
Umm Abed shrugged her shoulders. If she had a daughter that stupid, she wouldn’t want people to know the girl’s name.
Hafsa’s mother cleared her throat, “Did you notice there was a group of them there, staring at you, while you were talking to Hafsa?”
Umm Abed was growing impatient, why wasn’t this woman getting to the point. “What group? What are you talking about sister?”
“There was a group of teenagers watching you scold Hafsa. They were taking pictures of you with their cell phones.”
Umm Abed rolled her eyes, “Why should I care about teenage girls?”
Hafsa’s mother started wringing her hands and looked at the floor, “There is something you need to know. Perhaps I should have spoken to you earlier, but, I really didn’t think that it would escalate this far.”
Umm Abed interrupted her, “What are you talking about?”
She looked up at Umm Abed and said, “My daughter has a website dedicated to your scolding, about her appearance. She calls you the Masjid Fashion Police and she has been deliberately wearing clothes that she thinks will irritate you. Every time you scold her, she writes on her website about the scolding, the offending item. They have a tally sheet of what they think you will notice and how soon you will scold her.”
Umm Abed eyed the woman suspiciously, then she said, “Why should I care what silly teenage girls think? This is my masjid, a place of prayer. It is not for jokes or immodest dress.”
The woman shook her head, then pressed a folded piece of paper into her hands. Umm Abed unfolded the paper, it had a web address. When Umm Abed looked up, the woman had disappeared.
That afternoon, Umm Abed sat down at her laptop and typed in the address to the girl’s website in the internet browser. The website was just as her mother had described. The girl had documented each and every time Umm Abed had reprimanded her. There was a picture of the item, or the girl got someone to take a picture of her wearing immodest dress. Each picture was followed by a written report, often using verbatim the words that Umm Abed had used in the scolding. There were many comments from the website followers. Most of the people took the girl’s side, saying Umm Abed’s behavior was outrageous, unfair, and unkind. Many commenters told stories of their own scoldings by other Aunties. Some of the women said they no longer went to the masjid, they had been too humiliated and would never venture out again. But Hafsa would always try to encourage them to go back to the masjid. She wrote, “Do you want to go to a masjid and be surrounded by bullies who intimidate you or do you want to go to a masjid where you are surrounded with friends who share your joys and sorrows? It is your masjid, have the strength to stand up to the bullies.”
Umm Abed clicked on the “About Me” tab at the top of the page. She read:
“My name is Hafsa and I love my religion. When we moved to our new city and started going to Friday prayer, Khalla Umm Abed started critiquing everything I wore. At first I was ashamed, I ran to my father in tears saying I never wanted to go to the masjid again. But he told me that anyone who bars someone from coming to a place of worship is committing a sin. He told me I had to be strong, and just like that woman that used to throw garbage on the Prophet (pbuh) every day when he went to the masjid, I had to be firm and put up with the nonsense this Aunty was tossing out. I spoke to other girls, and learned that she had scolded them too. Then I read this quote by Ghandhi, “You assist an evil system most effectively by obeying its orders and decrees” Ghandhi’s goal was never merely to undermine the system, but also to change the hearts and minds of the opponents, to make them human again. So I will continue to wear ‘immodest clothing’ until the day when Aunty speaks to me in such a way that I no longer feel pain and humiliation in my heart. Until that time, I will continue to be the thorn in her side. “
Umm Abed closed the laptop. This had to stop. Ramadan was coming up. Things had to change before the holy month. Umm Abed suddenly remembered who this girl reminded her of.
At the next Friday prayer, Umm Abed tapped Hafsa’s shoulder. The girl turned around and was surprised to see Umm Abed smiling at her and holding a pile of pale blue cloth.
“As-salamu Alai’kum Hafsa.”
The girl gulped, “Wa’laikum As-salam Aunty.”
Umm Abed cleared her throat, “I have been going through some closets, and I came across this prayer dress, it is my daughter’s. She is doing charity work in Bangladesh this year and I miss her very much. When she was your age, she wore this dress. It is embroidered with the pattern from my mother’s family’s village in Jordan. Please, look at it.”
Hafsa gingerly took the sleeve and felt the fine stitching.
“Hafsa, it would be a very great for me if you wore this robe next Friday. If you wear it, then I can recognize you immediately and we can stand together when we pray, shoulder to shoulder. This would make me very happy. Would you mind honoring an old woman’s request?”
Hafsa brushed the tears off her long eyelashes and nodded.
The next week, Hafsa wore the light blue prayer robe and stood shoulder to shoulder in prayer next to Umm Abed.
On the website, a final picture was posted. Hafsa and Umm Abed had their arms draped around each other’s shoulders. They were smiling. The caption underneath read, “My new best friend”.