This post is an adapted version of a piece written for The Independent, which can be found by clicking here.
The Channel 4 presenter Cathy Newman went to the South London Islamic Centre mosque in Streatham at the weekend, as part of the Muslim Council of Britain’s Visit My Mosque day. But she was ‘ushered’ out. She tweeted her surprise, and later reported how she received a warm welcome at the Hyderi Islamic centre nearby.
Allegations of sexism were made across social media, and countered by those claiming it to be a misunderstanding. According to the Hyderi Islamic Centre, it was just a mix up. Newman was always scheduled to go to Hyderi; the South London Islamic Centre wasn’t expecting any guests that day.
However, regardless of whether it was a mix up or not, the incident sparked debate in the Muslim community, especially among women who have experienced very real, unambiguous discrimination.
Ever since I can remember, I continue to hear Muslim women’s countless stories of sadness and humiliation they have felt for simply wishing to offer prayers to God in a mosque. Those cases sadly are sexism.
Take Masuma Rahim who passionately wrote about her treatment at West End Mosque and Islamic Centre in Soho where one Saturday, “accosted” by the imam she was told she was not allowed to pray there. That oh so familiar reason of there being no facilities was provided, despite the fact that the mosque had four floors and very few Muslims were using the mosque at that time. The mosque management had decided, just like that, that women would now no longer be able to pray at their mosque and that they should pray elsewhere. Having prayed in hospitals, parks and even churches with no problem, ironically it was a mosque that was barring her from praying and violating her rights enshrined in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, denying her the ability and freedom to practice her faith.
This is a story I have head over and over again. The sound of doors being slammed in one’s face, women being forced to pray outside in the rain, women literally being shouted at for even daring to pray in the mosque; it has been going on for decades with little action to resolve. And it isn’t just about entry in mosques. It’s a far wider issue which also includes poor space and facilities for women and unsurprisingly the lack of women on mosque committees and the complete side lining of women to even participate in mosque committee elections. Perhaps this is the intended consequence; if women are out of sight, they are out of mind. Their needs will inevitably not be catered for.
Not all mosques act like men’s only clubs however. The Hyderi Centre which Cathy visited has women sitting on the mosque committee and women praying in the main hall; Leeds mosque also has women serving on the committee. East London Mosque has a full centre providing a wide range of services but as Muslim women activists will tell you, these mosques are the exception, not the norm.
Mosques are there to serve the local community which of course include both men and women. Yet it is remarkable that in the 21st century, where equality legislation permeates throughout all aspects of British life, too many of our mosques continue to exclude women with no accountability being held. Having become normalised practice, what exists among many British Muslims is a dreadful combination of desensitivity and feelings of hopelessness that little will change. Mosque committees are known to be notorious to change. Yet it is inevitable that both men and women will challenge the status quo and in particular challenge those who uphold such discriminatory and unjust policies. It is already happening.
While recognising the value of initiatives like Visit My Mosque day and encouraging non-Muslims to visit, the organisers should not be surprised by the cynicism of many Muslim women who find it remarkable that such projects can be organised while continuing to ignore the elephant in the room. We too would like to “visit our mosque,” to be welcomed and to be treated with dignity. It really doesn’t require that much effort to treat others how you would wish to be treated yourself.