Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author e-mail alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.
My wife and I were driving home late last night and decided to find a mosque to pray in on our way. There is a great emphasis on praying during the night throughout the month of Ramadan, but the last 10 nights have that much more of an emphasis.
We stopped at a mosque that we usually don't go to and when we walked into the main entrance it seemed like there were only men coming in. I asked someone if there was an area for women to pray and how to get there. He said there was and pointed us in the direction of what lead to a shoe rack. He then asked someone else how to get to the women's area and this second young man told us to go outside and around the corner where we would find a back entrance that led into the area designated for women.
Priya and I walked together and as we turned the corner we stumbled over a hose and breathed in the fresh scent of garbage from three cans placed conveniently there. We then turned into a pitch black darkness that was illuminated all of a sudden with a sensor light that turned itself off almost as quickly as it turned itself on. If you've ever seen the back allies in the Spider-Man movies, this "women's entrance" would make them look like a well-lit park. I told Priya that I would meet her right at the door when she was done praying so she wouldn't have to walk through that darkness by herself.
I never really understood why some mosques are so comfortable in creating spaces for women that really are just disrespectful, both of the women themselves and the ritual that they are coming to undertake. Prayer is the most important pillar of Islam, and as a maintainer of a house of God, how could one justifiably think they are honoring that responsibility by providing a space that makes the congregant feel as if they made a mistake in coming to pray there? It's not your house, it's God's house. And if I'm coming there to worship God, you have to provide for me the best possible atmosphere in doing so, whether I am a man or a woman.
My friend Hind Makki wrote a piece on this a few weeks ago appropriately entitled Where's My Space to Pray in This Mosque?
I've prayed in different places all over the world. On the beach in the Maldives, in a jungle in Sri Lanka, right in front of the kaaba in Mecca, in parks and on street corners all over NYC, on mountains and hills, in rainstorms and in the snow. Each place has been meaningful and in many places I've felt a deep connection, alhamdulillah. I was able to move beyond the mere mechanics of the prayer and into something deeper. My surroundings played a role in that connection and it's enhancement. My friends Musa Syeed, Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq, whom some of you might remember from the 30 Mosques Project, made a video recently that I think puts this into a good perspective. It follows a young woman named Deena "who loses her job and decides to start a daily photo blog with her free time. What results is an intimate glimpse in to a woman's prayer and the personal struggle connecting with the Divine."
Deena speaks about why she prays and what she hopes to gain out of it. How she describes it isn't really that different from most others Muslims, whether they are male or female. We are simply looking to connect to our Creator, and it's not OK for any of us to lose on that opportunity because of our gender.
I interviewed a young woman a few weeks ago for a women's initiative that we are starting at our Islamic Center at NYU. She spoke about how her local mosque doesn't really provide adequate space for women and how, especially during Ramadan, she finds herself cramped, surrounded by children who are crying, and straining to hear and understand much of the service. She went on to say how it really hit her hard when her husband one day took her to another mosque and they found themselves in a large, open space that was designated for men to pray in. They both prayed there together and she described it as one of the best experiences in her life. Her ability to concentrate and focus multiplied itself and tears starting to stream down her face as she got more and more into it, all because of her surroundings. She tasted that, and then found herself back in the reality of her own local congregation, that didn't really seem to care too much about the quality of her prayer.
If the question is one of religious permissibility, then Islam clearly states that women are allowed to pray in mosques. Habib Ali Al-Jifri, a well-known Muslim Scholar, addresses this here.
A mosque is not meant to be a place that is run or driven by ego. My prayer is not more important than your prayer, nor is yours more important than mine. If I am in the place of facilitating, then I need to understand that, as important as my prayer is to me, it's just as important to someone else. To take away from one's experience simply because they are female is not justifiable. How I could do that comfortably with an understanding that I would stand in front of God one day worries me. It's one thing if I take away from my own prayer. But if I am the cause of someone else's prayer being adversely impacted, what am I really hoping to set myself up for?
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