"The last ten nights of Ramadan is approaching us. I'tikaf will begin starting tomorrow night, so come worship all night at the masjid. It is very valuable in your faith. This is only for men, eighteen and up. Sisters, may Allah bless you and reward you."
The Imam at my local San Diego mosque makes this announcement right after the night prayer. I am disheartened by the lack of my invitation and even more crushed that women around me were not moved.
The last ten nights of Ramadan are believed by Muslims to be better than a thousand nights of worship, specifically the odd nights. It is recommended to spend the night at the mosque in worship. This recommendation extends to all Muslims, yet mosques only allow men. It is as if the men who set these rules at the mosques, think that my vagina gives me the claim to faith without having to worship.
There are many reasons that I have heard of why women can't spend the night, or sometimes even the day, in worship at God's house with other Muslims. "Women don't need to come to the mosque." "It is not an obligation for women the way it is for men." My favorite, "it is not safe." Not safe from whom? Will the Muslim men turn around and rape us?
After worshiping in many mosques all over California, I finally found a mosque in Sacramento two years ago--while completing my Masters--that welcomed women and children to worship all night. Ramadan 2012 was the best of my twenty-seven years of life. Now, after moving to San Diego for medical school, I've realized that the SALAM (Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims) Center is an elf from Mars, visiting the planet earth.
The SALAM community has open hallways, where women are not pushed to a corner or upstairs behind shaded plastic walls. We sat behind the men like the way Muslims prayed over fourteen hundred years ago. Tissue boxes creating a delicate boundary across the grand hallway replace thick walls and dusty curtains. So many times, had I used those tissues from powerful khutbas, sermons, given by Imam Azeez. Traveling imams spoke to us, and some even came to the back and sat with us to address all of our concerns. I stood in prayer with a community, stayed up with the community, ate with the community, and broke fast with the community. I became a better human being because the community kept me accountable. More so, nowhere have I seen more people come into Islam then at SALAM.
I never needed community since, growing up, my Bengali immigrant mother forced me into a loner lifestyle of constant studying. Now, as an adult, I have a dead father, an estranged mother and brother, a non-Muslim sister, and friends that range from devout Christians to atheists. I am alone yet surrounded by people. Going through a divorce and not having a partner to eat breakfast with at 3:30am, pray with through out the day, and make love with into the night, I feel even more alone. Although my tight jeans and open hair do not fit in with the women in black dresses covered from head-to-toe, my lack of drinking, my fasting and five-times-daily prayer don't fit in with my friends either. I stopped trying to fit in, but rather appreciate the differences in others and still find a sense of community. In San Diego, the mosques are not open like SALAM and I hardly see my friends who can't relate to the sixteen hour fast from food and water and the nightly worship after fast breaks. I treasure community, but now I am back in an environment of non-Islamic Muslim brotherhood, which is not unique to San Diego.
To tell women to pray at home, especially during the last ten nights of Ramadan, is dehumanizing. I am not a houseplant or a goldfish to be left by the window. There is a reason we stand so close, shoulder-to-shoulder in line during prayer at the mosques - because it is difficult to worship alone. It's almost impossible for me stay up in my cement block graduate housing room, by myself, praying and reading the Qur'an all night. It is important for local mosques to welcome men and women. Without SALAM, I would have been lost, as lost as I feel now in San Diego among the Muslim men's club. It is time for the Islamic "brotherhood" to be castrated. I am calling out to my local mosques in San Diego and all other mosques: stop taking women out of the house of God. We have the right to worship with the rest of the Muslims whenever we wish. Imams, please, I don't need your duas, prayers, I need you to let me in when I am at the door.
I am not a feminist. I am a human being, deep in my faith and wanting to be part of a community that I can worship with and not be ostracized for being born the way I was.
Suzanne Syeda Shah is a Muslim-Bengali-American born in Saudi Arabia and grew up in Los Angeles.
Her interest in poetry and activism grew at UC Berkeley where her passion for human rights encouraged her into becoming a doctor. Her short story was published in "Love InshAllah: the Secret Lives of Muslim American" and her poetry resides in the "International Museum of Women: Muslima" showcase. She is currently attending UC San Diego School of Medicine and continues to write during her free time.