Indian Muslim Women must have Equal Right to pray in the Masjid!

delhi jama masjid

The recent controversy that erupted in the aftermath of the sexist statements by Imam Bukhari of the Jama Masjid in Delhi, has yet again brought the national spotlight to the issue of Muslim women being denied their Constitutional right to pray in the Masjid.

The patriarchal & religious conservative male dominated leadership of the Muslim community swears by the secular liberal Constitution, yet is extremely hypocritical in adhering to it’s value system, that bestows equal rights on both women & men, both of whom are equal citizens of India.

The boards outside the Delhi Jama Masjid read – “It is forbidden for girls or women to enter Jama Masjid alone”. As the news broke of Muslim women being prevented from praying at the Jama Masjid, Bukhari was at his ‘worst best’ in his denial, stating that women were not being prevented from praying, but only from ‘loitering alone’. Thus men can loiter alone and women can’t! This is clearly a misogynistic statement reeking of contempt and distrust for women.

The ensuing backlash from various quarters, including from within the Muslim community, forced Bukhari to climb down from his position and the boards too were removed.

The controversy has yet again brought the issue of the Right of Muslim Women to pray in the Masjid, and its high time that Muslim women too were given their rightful access to sacred spaces.
Hindu & Jain Women have access to Temples, Christian women to Churches, Sikh women to Gurudwaras, Buddhist women to Viharas, Parsee women to Agiyaris – women of all communities have access to their places of worship, barring Indian Muslim women and this injustice must be corrected keeping in both the letter and spirit of the Constitution of India and that of Islam.

Recent battles fought by Hindu women over the right to pray in Shani Shingnapur (Maharashtra) and a movement led by Muslim women over the Haji Ali Dargah, both resulted in victories for women. They were a major victory for the progressive & gender just values enshrined in our constitution.

After the Jama Masjid controversy, this writer spoke to a number of Muslim women about their position on the issue. Most said that they would love to pray in the Masjid, but are being prevented from doing so by men. Some had tears in their eyes as they spoke. Who will make the Muslim clergy understand, is the question that was posed to me. Only one woman told me that, it wouldn’t be right to make this demand as “hamare deen mai aurton ko izazat nahi hai” (My religion does not allow women to pray).

But is this true?

Over the years my observations as I traveled across Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey & Tunisia have been that women too came to the Masjid to pray and there was no bar. In the Western world too, Muslim communities more and more masjids are emerging as both places of worship as well as community centres, thus playing a positive role in the socio-educational & economic development of the community. In certain western countries, even mix-gender masjids have emerged where segregation of the sexes is shunned upon and the faithful pray together.

The problem of denying access to Muslim women to Masjids is more acute in South Asia, and here Indian Muslims clearly are lagging behind both Pakistan and Bangladesh, and that in itself is a pathetic story. It just goes to show the level of regressive backward misogynistic beliefs that the Indian Muslim community is steeped in – and thus the need for a honest dialogue, engagement and enlightened progressive reform.

In this context Indian Muslims for Secular Democracy issued a statement that said, “Muslim women have prayed inside the mosques in Mecca and Medina from the time of Prophet Mohammed. They continue to do so even today in Saudi Arabia and much of the Arab world, the land of Islam’s birth.

Given this, it is the height of irony that in much of the Indian sub-continent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh) Muslim men have kept the doors of mosques shut for Muslim women. IMSD welcomes the fact that in recent years some Muslim religious bodies have started creating space for women inside mosques. It demands that ALL mosques open their doors similarly”.

Most importantly there is now a group of Muslim women who have been silently working at the grassroots, going from Masjid to Masjid, trying their best to explain as to why they should be given their rightful space to pray and worship on par with men.

I spoke to Rashida Tapadar, based in Assam where she is one of the core leaders of ‘Muslim Women in Masjid’. She also heads HAWA – Habitat for Women in Asia,

They recently planned a nationwide movement to offer Friday prayers in masjids across 15 cities. They faced a lot of opposition from the conservative establishment, but are making some headway. Rashida and many believing Muslim women like her are clear on the fact that in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, women were encouraged to come to the Masjid and pray. The Masjid was the centre of the community life and there was an open atmosphere that encouraged debate and discussions. The name of Umme Waraqah has been discarded from the books of Islamic history. Umme Waraqah was granted permission by Prophet Muhammad himself to lead the prayers, to be the Imam. Clearly her household included both women and men.

Rashida Tapadar went on to say, “The identity of Islam is in the Quran and it’s revelation through the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) who in his lifetime encouraged the participation of women as maintainers, as devotees inside the mosque. Whereas now we witness the boycott, humiliation and ostracization of women from mosques especially in South Asia. This creates a desperate need for open discussions on how and why such practices are prevalent contrary to the instructions of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) himself. While in Mecca, the holiest site for Muslims and during Haj, being one of the five pillars, Islam allows men and women to pray together. But in the smaller homes (read mosques) of Allah in India especially in remote areas, women are barred. This can be credited to religious ignorance, patriarchy, illiteracy and exclusionary policies of religious spaces in India. The Prophet led by example and created mosques as intellectual habitat for Muslims. Only when mosques become inclusive can we reimagine Muslim lives to transform at all levels”.

So on the one hand, we have certain courageous women trying to turn the tide against all odds, but then the work of reform takes decades, sometimes even centuries and that work must go on.

But there is another option that reformists must take recourse to in our struggle for equal citizenship rights – our progressive Constitution! This too was the result of centuries of struggle and reform.

As always, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board continues to turn a deaf ear to another sincere and legitimate demand of Indian Muslim Women.

As equal citizens of India, the time has come for both Muslim women and liberal men, infact all Indians, to demand that Muslim women be granted their right to pray in the Masjid.

The Supreme Court is the next logical step that Muslim women & the progressive reformist movement must seriously consider in the struggle for equal access to sacred spaces.

Feroze Mithiborwala, Indian Muslims for Secular Democracy, National Co-Convener


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