The Importance of Making a Good Space for Women in the Masjid

Muslim students praying at CSU Sacramento

Imam Umar Aboul Sharif
Adilah S. Sharif

Challenges of Women Space in Masjids

Last Friday, I was all set to give a Khutba about the need for Muslims to plan ahead on an individual and community level. My notes were ready and I was in full “Khutba mode”. But before sermon time, I decided to change the topic completely — to talk about the exclusion of Muslim women from the mosque and community life.

It wasn’t an earth-shattering event that made me change the topic. It was an email. And it proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. It was one of five emails I received last week about Islamic events with a clear “brothers only” statement. One notice for a regional conference even stated categorically that there was no space for women and children under 15 at the event.

But the emails were only part of the story. A week before, I had given a Khutba in another, brand-new mosque in the heart of Chicago. After the prayer, while in the elevator, I overheard four Muslim sisters speaking angrily about their experience in the Masjid.

“If I wanted to watch TV, I’d stay home,” said one of the women, disgusted. I asked them what was wrong, and they told me how they could only see the Imam through a TV system set up in the women’s section. Moreover, the space was inconvenient, uncomfortable and was changed twice that day. This was despite the fact that months ago, the leadership of this mosque had promised me that they would involve sisters in decision-making about how the women’s space would be set up.

The Khutba

I was speaking in Chicago’s oldest mosque where the main prayer hall accommodates about a thousand people. It has a small, curtained off space in the corner for about 40 or so women. Due to the sensitive nature of my topic, it did occur to me before the Khutba that I might not be invited to give a Friday sermon there in the future. Nonetheless, I made the following points and asked these questions:

Who decides how women’s space in the mosque is allocated and organized?

How many women sit on the Board of Directors of our mosques?

If women are part of the Board of Directors, are they elected, chosen by women, selected by both men and women or are they simply the wives of male board members?

I also reminded the audience that in the Prophet’s mosque, women could hear and see the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings are upon him, and later, the leaders of the Muslims (Khulafa) when they spoke from the pulpit. Actually there are reports of interaction with the Prophet when women raised questions. Caliph Omar even went back to give another sermon to withdraw his opinion when a women from the audience gave him critical feedback after his Khutba.

Moreover, when the Prophet felt that the women were too far away to hear or he had specific points to make, he would walk over to their section and present a Khutba for them.

Examples from Islamic history

Women in early Islamic history were active not just as “mothers and wives” but contributed as individual Muslim women in all aspects of the community.

On a scholarly level, there was Aisha, may God be pleased with her. She is credited with disseminating the knowledge of Islam and information about almost all aspects of Islamic life. Today, nearly half of the Islamic jurisprudence of the Hanafi school of thought (which is followed by about 70 percent of the Muslim world) comes through the students of Aisha alone.

On a political level, there was Umm Salama. During the signing of the Treaty of Hudaibiya, when none of the Muslim men agreed to forego Hajj due to the demands of the pagan Meccans, the Prophet consulted Umm Salama. Her advice to him was to perform the rituals indicating that they would not be performing the pilgrimage, and the Muslims would follow. He heeded her advice, and as she suggested, the Muslims accepted this.

After the death of the Prophet, one major issue was how to preserve the authenticity of the Quran. Although the Quran had always been committed to memory and writing, the written pages were scattered. When a master copy was put together at the time of the first Khalifa, Abu Bakr, that copy was not kept with him or any other Muslim man. It was kept with a woman — Hafsa (may God be pleased with her).

Finally, in Madina during the leadership of Omar (may God be pleased with him) Al Shifa Bint Abdullah was made in charge of trade and commerce in the city.

These are just a few examples of the dynamic role women played in early Islamic history. But they are of no use if the inclusion of Muslim women in the mosque and community is reflected only in theory.

“Men’s Islam” or Islam for All

While sisters are a full part of the community, many mosques are run as though Islam is just for men. This is evident by looking at women’s spaces, their decoration, their uncomfortable size and design, the absence of women from the Board of Directors of most mosques and the relegation of their activism and ideas to a “women’s committee”.

Muslim women in North America are as professional as Muslim men and contribute as generously. I remember fundraising in a New Jersey Masjid. Five Muslim women contributed $25,000 each within the first 12 minutes. It inspired me to ask the audience: is there a man who can match these donations?

And that’s how women’s participation is. They know they will not get to Jannah because of the good deeds of their husbands. Each man and women has to find his or her own way to success in this world and next, knowing that God’s promise is this:

“I will deny no man or woman among you the reward of their labors. You are the offspring of one another.” (Quran 3:195).

“Each person shall reap the fruits of his/her own deeds: no soul shall bear another’s burden.” (Quran 6:164)

The Reaction to the Khutba

Normally, two or three people will approach me after a Khutba to thank and compliment me for it. This time, ten times more people came over, appreciating what I had said, Alhamdu lillah. That’s one of the most positive instances of feedback I’ve ever gotten in years of giving Khutbas! Although I have yet to hear the response from the leadership of the Masjid, this gives me hope that the community is ready for change.

A few board members also spoke very positively about the points I raised, including one of the founding members. The question is, who is stopping the change?

Current Chicago Masjid Spaces for Women

In Chicago, I estimate that in about ten percent of the Friday prayer locations, there is proper space for sisters’ participation. In these places men and women are in the same location without a curtain or wall separating them. In terms of the remaining 80 percent of mosques that do have a space for women, these are often cramped and inconvenient. By inconvenient, I mean that women cannot see the Imam or do not know what is happening in the congregational prayer. In about 10 percent of the Chicago-area mosques there are no spaces for women.

One Muslim sister in the city related to me her experience after visiting one of the largest mosques in Chicago that had an inconvenient room for women. When she entered the women’s area, a group of sisters was standing in line, thinking prayer had started because the recitation of the Quran could be heard. Taking Quran recitation as a cue for congregational prayer, the sister joined the others in line. After several minutes, when the man ended his recitation without calling for the next step of prayer, Ruku, the women learned that it was not a prayer. Needless to say, the women were humiliated and upset about this confusing situation. This is just an example of the practical problems this segregation in prayer places causes.

An additional problem in mosques where women cannot see the Imam is the fact that the noise level often becomes unacceptable. This tends to be because most men dump the responsibility for taking care of their active children on their wives when they go to the men’s section of mosque. Also, since women can’t see what’s going on, they end up talking to each other. This leads to the Imam asking women to “be quiet please,” furthering tension and exclusion.

When women are out of sight, it’s also more likely that they will be out of mind. That means their discourse and participation are ignored on a Masjid and community level. Moreover, few women have easy access to the Imam, which worsens the problem, since the Imam is the one man who can make a significant difference in bringing women’s issues and problems to the attention of other Muslim men in the community. This perhaps explains why you don’t normally hear many Khutbas on women’s challenges here in America or abroad.

Negative Dawa

The situation becomes worse when non- Muslims visit. They see there are hardly any women present in the mosque. Or, if there are a few, they are confined to a small and less ceremonious corner. What kind of Dawa is this? What kind of impression does this give in our current context, where the battle against stereotypes is ten times harder than it was pre-9/11 America? This visual impact is far greater and far more lasting then tens of books lauding the status of women in Islam. Since Shahadah (witnessing) is the first pillar of Islam, this obstacle to outreach must be dealt with.

Of course, women, unlike men, are given a choice by the Prophet to pray at home or in the mosque. But the Prophet was categorical in telling men “do not stop women from coming to the Masjid.” Friday prayers are also optional for women. But considering that Friday sermons are the only Islamic educational opportunity available to most women in the North America Muslim women should attend Friday prayers. This is especially important because we do not yet have a widespread tradition of female teachers, as is the case in the Muslim world. I am pretty sure Caliph Omar would have encouraged Friday prayer attendance by women if he was alive today in the United States, may God be pleased with him.

Who is stopping women from the Masjid

Knowing both of these Masjids, their volunteer leadership, and the fact that women are on their boards, I don’t think either of them stops women from attending and participating. The first Masjid’s president did make an announcement twice in front of me inviting women to visit the new location to help determine the sisters’ space. I think, perhaps, need sisters taking these issues more seriously instead of accepting the current situation.

In the second Masjid, I learned that some sisters prefer to pray behind a curtain. An easy solution could be to make a larger area where women who do not want a curtain between the men and women, as was the practice in the mosque of the Prophet, can pray. Behind them, women who are comfortable praying behind a curtain can do this.

With lower donations as a result of donor chasing by the FBI, extra expenses for security and legal battles, which six or seven Masjids in the Chicago-area are going through, the last thing on the mind of Muslim leadership is women’s space. About 80 percent of the Masjids in the Chicago area do not have any permanent Imam. Volunteers like me are asked to offer the Friday sermon on a rotational basis. Almost all of these Masjids’ leaders are busy professionals who volunteer their time to run the community centers, schools and Masjids. Unless someone is pushing for something, things will continue as they have been.

This is why I have come to the conclusion that the agenda of women’s space will not come to the forefront unless Muslim women take it upon themselves.

Establishing a Muslim Women’s Caucus

It is time that sisters come together and provide leadership in clearly defining a Muslim women’s manifesto for change in mosques in North America. If these sisters are practicing Muslims, they will have a far higher level of success in demanding change and leading it.

I would like to make a plea to leading Muslim women in North America who are respected and honored by the community to call a national women’s caucus on these issues. In this conference, the following things need to be discussed and tackled:

1. An agenda outlining change in the Muslim community centers and Masjids in which

* Each Masjid should formally declare that it is unIslamic to stop women from attending a mosque

* The need to restore women’s space in the mosque as it was at the Prophet’s time (i.e. without a curtain or a wall separating men and women) is stressed

* Develop a welcoming space where they have a clear view of the Imam

2. One-third of Masjids’ Board of Directors should be composed of sisters, one-third of brothers, and one-third of people born in North America.

3. A mechanism for an ongoing Muslim Women’s Caucus needs to be developed

On the issue of women’s exclusion from the mosque, this Muslim Women’s Caucus may want to do the following:

1. Invite the leadership of major mosques, as well as national and continental Muslim organizations to a closed-door dialogue with an equal number of Muslim women leaders present.

2. Give a deadline to all Masjids that do not have a space for women to allocate one in consultation with women.

3. If space is extremely limited and there is no cultural and ideological objection to it, then allocate time for additional congregational prayer for women lead by women as was done by Umm Waraqa with the Prophet’s permission when she lead her staff regularly in prayers in her own home as reported by Sahih Abu Dawud. (If thousands of women lead other women in prayers throughout Pakistan, it can be done in a mosque here as well).

Shura (consultation) has been a way of life for Muslims (42:38). If our families and our communities are not run on Shura, open communication and proper representation, how will we grow?

“The true believers, both men and women, are friends to each other. They enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil; they attend to their prayers and pay the alms and obey God and His apostle. On these God will have mercy. He is Mighty and Wise.” (Quran 7:71)

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  1. I am disappointed that the hadith regarding the best place for a woman to pray hasn’t been mentioned.

    The best place for a woman to pray is the quietest and most secret place in her house, there is a hadith which mentions this.

    • True, but the two matters are not contractory. He (sws) also said, do not prevent the women from attending the Masjid. In the West in particular, Masjids are often the center of community life. There are sisters’ groups and classes for women. The women therefore deserve a good space. They should be treated with respect.

      Wael Editor

  2. I don’t want to argue, but I have to do it I feel. While there are numerous fair and good articles on this site, this is clearly a biased one. I don’t like the fact that the author is comparing women contributing money ie $25k inside a few mins and men not contributing that much. This is completely unfair, men have to do the breadwinning for their families, these women have the luxury of giving away that kind of money, men don’t because they have families to think of first.

    I wish people didn’t compare men and women because whilst they are equal in many ways, they are also very different and in Islam have very different roles.

    Most masjids do try to accomodate women, but not before they accomodate the men. The best place for men to pray is the masjid is in congreation at the Masjid, the best place for a woman is the most secret place in her house, usually her bedroom.

  3. Assalamu’alaikum,

    I totally agree with Brother Wael. In most cases the only time women get any Islamic education is when they go to the masjid. Most men are not taking any time to sit and teach their families about Islam. We use the excuse that we are busy with our jobs, but the reality is that many of us are just chasing dunya. If our wives are the first teachers of our children then it is even more important that they attend the masjid with the proper space to learn. If the husband is not teaching her, then it is a must that they go as a family to the masjid and learn together.

    We are treating the masjid as if it is a men’s club and that women are not allowed. If our brother’s were doing their jobs as husbands, and have established a wholesome Muslim household then there may be an argument but as Wael said, the masjid serves as a center of community life, and education.

    Let’s make those spaces comfortable for our mother’s, sister’s, aunts and daughter’s to come and learn. Our women are the teacher’s of the future generations. If they are unable to pass along the teaching’s of the qur’an and sunnah then who will?

    Abdul Wali Editor

  4. I was going to comment the same as Muhammad. When there is a sahih hadith that says that the best place for the man to pray is the front row of the salah in the masjid and for women there is more reward praying at home- what woman in her right mind would want to get less reward by praying in the masjid. However, if a woman is traveling it would obviously be appropriate for her to pray in the masjid as opposed to in the car or on the street, etc. Allah knows best.

  5. Salaam,
    It is certainly a necessary part of gender reform to have both women and men advocate on behalf of equal access to the mosque. I want to commend the brother.

    I think he might have gone a tad bit too far by outlining the full agenda for a Women’s Caucus, as if we are NOT competent to do that on our own should such an initiative prove possible!

    thanks amina wadud

  6. Brother Mohammad,
    Why does it bother you that the author suggests that women have ample space in the masjid? I’ve read that hadith as well, but could you shed some light on this matter, from your perspective? Why do you think it is important for a woman to pray at home versus in a masjid?

    • Aisha,

      Whilst there is no harm and no reason for women not to pray in the Masjid, I have stated that according to many scholars, the best place for any woman to pray is the home. It is the reason why every single woman I know does not go to the Masjid to pray.

      They say that going to the masjid is a good place to socialise and meet other Muslims etc, but is it really? Ever since I was a boy, I was told the Masjid was a place for worship and learning Islam, not for socialising or meeting new people as such.

      If you want to go to Masjid to pray you do that, but please bear in mind that many Scholars believe it’s best for you to pray at home.

      • There’s an important point that you are missing. In the Muslim world, a Muslim woman may experience fellowship with other Muslims anywhere. She can make friends at work or at school. She can acquire Islamic knowledge from TV programs, and even from courses offered at school or the university.

        For a Muslimah in the West, it’s not like that. For a convert Muslimah, for example, her best chance to acquire Islamic knowledge and get her questions answered is at Masjid classes, hopefully a Masjid that is open and friendly to women. Of course she can read books, but that’s not enough. Most converts need some personal guidance and direction in their studies, and the best place for them to get that is at a Masjid that has a sisterhood group, classes for women, and lectures that are open to men and women.

        When the Messenger of Allah (sws) used to teach, men and women would be present in the Masjid, and women would sometimes ask questions. He set the example for us. The women were welcome in his Masjid. They were not shunted off to some tiny room. Why do we think we know better than him? We should follow his example.

        I have been in Masjids where women prayed in the same large hall as men, and attended community meetings. In one case there were female members on the Shura Council. What I noticed in these communities is that a lot more got done. These communities had more programs going on, and were better organized. The children were more involved as well. Why? Because women are half of the community. When you involve them in Masjid affairs, you have twice as many minds and hands contributing.

        I think one of the many reasons why the Muslim world is in such bad shape is because we treat our women like baby making and cooking machines and nothing more. We ignore their intellects and spirits. This affects our children, since the women generally spend more time with the children than anyone else. We get a new generation who are Islamically uneducated and spiritually vacant.

        We need to do better.

        Wael Editor

  7. So do you think women should not go to masjid to learn the deen? Perhaps most scholars think that Islam was created for men only and women have no Islamic responsibilities. If you think a woman should learn in masjid, then should she go back home to pray, or is it okay to pray there? Maybe the hadith is considering famial obligations but there are also hadiths about the prophet S.A.W shortening the prayer or letting the women leave first. He would have forbidden it if he deemed it proper.

    • Ideally Wael you paint a perfect picture, in reality it’s not as simple, it really isn’t.

      The vast majority of masjid in the UK are small masjid built in normal residential properties, in fact if there weren’t signs outside with the Masjid name, you’d think it was someone’s home. In these Masjid, there’s barely enough room for the full congregation of men, many times when I attend for Jummah prayers, we have to go in 30-45 mins early to get a place inside the masjid, they say many men pray outside on the pavement/footpath.

      How is it possible to accommodate women without having to sacrifice space for men? Thankfully, many masjids have not forgotten the women, so they have built speaker systems which can be connected to people’s home and women/elderly can pray from home.

  8. Wael summed it up perfectly! I hadn’t seen his post.

  9. Al-hamdulilLahi. ProphetMuhamad (SWA) says, MONYURIDULAHA BI KHAERY, YUFAQIU FI DEEN. I realy gain from both the question &the answer. To my own opinion, women praying in the Masjid or at home shall base on enviromental factor she face , at time some women will love to pray in the masjid for the fact of where they live, may be they stay with a non Muslim fellow and they need to acquire more Islamic knowlegde and to mingle with the believing women just for the sake of Allah and religion knowledge. So i dont see any bad in coming to the masjid. Prophet Muhammad (Pboh) said:( NIYAHTUL MUMEEN KHAERUN MIN AMALIHI). WAllahu alaam

  10. As Salamu Alaikum,
    Great article!!!! Without any doubt, the place that is reserved to women in the masjid is a reflection of the respect that masjid leaders have for women. Subhana Allah! To us, people who live in the West, going to the masjid feels like going to haj, pilgrimage. Praying at the masjid gives us the opportunity to learn about our deen. Some people, may think women just need to stay and pray at home for reasons that are beyond my understanding but I would point to them that those who think that way are not depriving only women but also the children. How can I put this nicely without hurting anyone’s feeling: some muslim husbands do not go to the masjid; therefore, if the wives do not go to the masjid, the kids will not go to the masjid and they will grow and be ignorant of their religion.
    I am a muslimah and I cannot describe to you my happiness when I go to the masjid, alone or with my kids. I feel peace in my heart knowing I am close to Allah. Subhana Allah!
    Thank you for sharing this article.
    Jazakum Allah Khayran

  11. Assalam alaikum ofcourse wall should be provided between male and female in order to prevent enteraction between them,& also remember ALMAR ATU KULLUHA AURATIN ILLA WAJHA HA WALKAFFAIN.& when man & woman get aside the third one of them is evil.Allahu aalam.

  12. Assalamu’alaikum,

    Great article! Well written and precise. North America has large spaces to accommodate female prayers, and its time to stop segregation between male and female to learn Islam, ask questions regarding our deen, and to use the protocol of the religion, such as the respect of the masgid (المسجد) and to read the du’aa of entering and exiting the Masgid (المسجد) then there is no Evil (الشيطان), to enter between men and women because the main reason is to listen the Khutba, pray, learn or ask questions. I also agree most men push their children to live with their wife, sisters, etc. Men have a beautiful place to pray, spacious, nice ventilation system, quiet, and respectful.

    If we “Women” follow the rules of the masgid المسجد, then we can conquer of the segregation. I know lots of المسجد have open spaces for women to pray behind the men. Lastly, we might not need to pray behind men and that we can have our own community or المسجد to pray and sometimes invite men to give khutba to the women but could that be possible like some countries in Turkey or Pakistan, and much more who are doing great things.

    Wajazklaahu khayran!

  13. Oooh, I just love the proponents of what I refer to as Hislam; perhaps they need to read ‘Uthman dan Fodio?

    Now, as for the curtain that did not exist in the Prophet’s Masjid nor at Mecca during Hajj – just when did this become a requirement? How could something unknown to the Nabi (SAAW) suddenly become a fard? And why does the Maliki fiqh I learned require that I actually be able to see and follow the Imam if I am supposed to be securely hidden behind a curtain? Especially since in Maliki fiqh a woman cannot lead even a group of other women in prayer? So, if women weren’t to attend the masjid, wouldn’t this be a rather silly injunction? Especially since if one is praying at home with family, the family tends to all pray together.

    After having to walk through dumpsters and spilled garbage to the women’s entrance, and having to pray on the floor of a school room downstairs from the Imam and follow on a loudspeaker, or praying in a space piled with junked furniture and trash, and being left with an entire group of sisters face down when the Imam didn’t speak loudly enough for us to realize that the salaat was over, and after having been told how disgusting it was for women to pray in the masjid by an Imam who apparently made his intention as Imam to lead only men – well, quite frankly, it’s surprising any women still pray at all. Especially when we listen to men tell us how the clear text isn’t really clear, and how the rightly guided caliphs, and how the Imams of the four schools of fiqh were also apparently, and horribly, wrong in assuming that women were allowed to attend the masjid because the Nabi (SAAW) said so.

    As for children running wild in the women’s section, it isn’t just men abandoning children to their wives. Men who come to the masjid with their children, and without their wives, think nothing of shoving the kids into the women’s section and fully expect any woman present to watch them. In fact, on one occasion I stopped to do salaat on my way back from a college class and watched as a Muslim man opened the door to the women’s area, looked around, saw me in there, and turned his children loose. The children began to run around the room shrieking and yelling, and I was nearly knocked down when one of the little darlings ran into me at full speed.

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