We packed markers and paper to occupy my children at the janaza prayer for their father. Taking in the new masjid, struggling to absorb the magnitude of her sudden loss, trying to adjust to a wildly over-stimulating atmosphere, our five year old immediately claimed a small corner of the women’s section. In carefully drawn letters, she scripted a sign that read “Kid’s Club” and taped it to the wall, pushing a little bench underneath it. There, she and the other children played and drew quietly as the rest of us carried out traditional and religious procedure. I was relieved. She seemed to be handling things well. One calm thing in the midst of pandemonium and crashing hearts.
Until the uncles invaded.
“All women clear the area immediately for the funeral prayer!” they barked as they wove their way through the group. “Quickly, quickly, the prayer is about to begin! The men are coming! Out, sisters, out!”
Bewildered, the women began to stand up and move uncertainly toward the door. With no instruction as to where they might go instead, they gathered awkwardly in the hallway outside. Which, needless to say, had neither a loudspeaker, nor any suitable place to pray.
Myself, I was spinning in a riptide of politesse and suppressed indignation emanating from those around me, struggling not to think of how much my husband would have despaired at this turn of events. Far too swept up to even be aware of where my children might be, much less to know that at that very moment, one of the Masjid Uncles was growling at our daughter as he sidled past.
“It’s not Kid’s Club! It’s Qur’an Club!”
My daughter never uttered a word about the Masjid Uncle who tried to redirect her apparently errant attempt to claim space in the mosque at her own father’s funeral. But today, on the way home from school five months later, she asked me out of the blue why the women and the men had prayed in different rooms. I was silent for a long moment before I replied.
“Some Muslims, a lot of Muslims, believe that women and men should pray separately.” I said carefully. “But there are others who believe things should be set up differently.”
“Do you believe they should pray separately?” She asked.
Again, I was quiet. Do I want to pray shoulder to shoulder with Masjid Uncle? As they mature, do I want my daughters praying in front of some perv who sincerely believes that the very sight of them, let alone their proximity, soils his ablutions? Not so much. On the other hand, if my masjid experience weren’t always so alienated and tense with gender pressure, wouldn’t I be more likely to attend?
More than anything, wouldn’t I like to actually see and hear the Imam? Perhaps ask a couple of questions? Well, heavens, yes. Might that not alleviate my grief, consolidate my faith?
So rumour has it, but then I wouldn’t know. And I’m not the only one.
Earlier this year, “Unmosqued” became a buzzword in Muslim intellectual circles when a youtube teaser for an upcoming documentary of the same name went viral. The video features a spectrum of Muslim voices commenting critically on the dwindling state of masjid attendance and dynamics in the US. The film itself is scheduled for release at the end of the year, but everything from the accuracy of the statistics quoted and the regional representation of the voices featured, to the apparent absence of a gendered analysis, has already been analyzed. Bloggers have weighed in online and in some cases, even organized their own roundtables to delve deeper into the heart of the matter. The discussion that has been sparked is encouraging.
Meanwhile, back in 2011, American Muslim architect Maryam Eskandari undertook a study examining women’s spaces in American mosques. In her analysis, mosque spaces in the West have been designed to invoke a kind of cultural nostalgia for the homelands of Muslim immigrants, rather than aiming to meet the needs of future generations in North America. In collaboration with non-profit Women in Islam, Inc., she developed several architectural criteria for mosques to meet the needs of American Muslim women. They include: equal space for both genders; clear visual and physical access to the imam and mihrab for both genders; and no continuous barrier dividing the spaces. Now a partner and architect at MIIM Designs LLC, Eskandari will be keynote speaker at the upcoming Islamic Architecture in America conference in Houston. Will Muslim communities in North America hear her recommendations and incorporate them into new mosque developments across the region?
On our frequent strolls through our neighbourhood, my husband and I often walked past a soon-to-be-condemned building that housed an art supplies store. Every time we passed the building, my husband would fantasize about buying it and transforming it into a Muslim community centre with an interfaith library and a women-only sports complex. He tweaked the idea a little every time, but in the end it always spoke to the same chasm we both felt in our lives: a profound alienation in the absence of any Muslim community space where we could truly explore our spirituality and humanity.
When I finally responded to my now six year old daughter it was with hesitation and a heavy heart.
By which I meant to say no, I do not believe that a masjid, or any Muslim community space, should be so dominated by gender-related anxiety that congregants are unable to access or focus on spiritual communion. Can shifting the architecture of those spaces begin a process of shifting that anxiety? Will the Masjid Uncles back off the kids’ clubs and the rest of us? It’s a tall order. But maybe an essential start.
My daughter shared none of my agonizing.
“Oh, good!” She replied brightly and simply. “Neither do I.”
In that moment, I felt a sudden rush of sukun, or peace, in my heart. And somewhere nearby, I’m sure I also felt my daughter’s father smiling.
photo credit Stephan Geyer