HUMANKIND has always strived for ways to connect with the Sacred and attain spiritual fulfilment. However, in Islamic tradition, the collective aspect of such pursuit is particularly reiterated and hence the obligation of offering prayers in the mosques. Like other social institutions, the institution of mosque underwent various changes over the past centuries with the onslaught of modernity and other entailing processes that restructured our social systems and authentic ways of being.
The Arabic word for mosque is Jami, etymologically derived from Jam’a which means ‘to bring together’. As such, mosques used to function as multidimensional institutions that would undertake educational, social and charitable work thus actualising Islamic values. Additionally, holding religious meetings and transmitting religious knowledge constituted some of the myriad functions of mosques.
Having equal access to the mosque, Muslim women were active and equal participants in carrying forth this social project of Islam centred around the mosque. Apart from participating immensely in the transmission of religious knowledge, such gatherings eventually entailed in the establishment of Waqf institutions that catered to the needs of economically challenged sections of the society. In fact, it was primarily due to the endeavours of these active Muslim women in the mosques that left behind the great legacy of Awqaf, a tradition which survives even today.
Traversing the current Muslim landscapes, women in many countries of Middle East ( except Gulf states) have easy access to the mosque spaces. In fact one can find separate sections for women in the mosques not only around the city-centres but also in picnic spots, shopping malls, and the like. Turkey, which straddles both Asian and European cultures sets an example of inclusivity in this case. Mosques there are not only open to women but also house long robes, scarves, full-sleeved cardigans for the women whose dress-code doesn’t comply with the religious regulations which they don before entering mosques for prayers. Masjid Al- Aqsa in Jerusalem, which is one of the most revered holy sites for Muslim world also has such arrangements in place.
Zooming in to South-East Asia and then to Kashmir, the picture is flipped altogether. Although spirituality and religious rigor have chiselled out the chequered history of the region with bearings of Central-Asian culture on socio-religious landscape; absence of women from mosques makes it a very intriguing case. Neither elder generationsof women have met this reality any differently, nor does Shia Muslim community here offer any exception in this regard which, although largely tracing its roots to present-day Iran, doesn’t seem to square on this front.
Recently, some religious movements in the subcontinent made significant developments in this regard with the consequences visible in Kashmir too. Yet, the project has fallen short of attaining a sustainable character and finding acceptance in the larger society. Some mosques like Jamia Masjid in Nowhatta, Aali (Ali) Masjid in Eidgah and others in city-centres and towns do have well-maintained arrangements for women but they usually serve the purpose best on religious occasions like Eid, Jumma-tul-Vida, Meelad and the like. Unforeseen circumstances such as we are facing currently and harsh weather conditions, a typical characteristic of the Kashmir valley often render grand mosques dysfunctional both for women and men. This makes the case even stronger for localised mosques which apart from overcoming such bottlenecks can adjust to local dynamics and needs.
Centralised grand mosques as well as shrines are frequented by Muslim Women in large numbers but the effect doesn’t seem to serve the foundational essence of localised mosques. In fact, shrines and mosques are often perceived interchangeably by women in Kashmir because the meaning of mosques does not extend beyond prayers for them. For men, on the other hand, mosques are more than just places to pray. Mosques determine the spirit of religious practice and guide the local temperament here. Absence of women from the ecosystem of local mosques is bound to alienate them. Women’s absence from mosques also runs the risk of religion being fixated on men’s issues as well as men’s world view.
Educational institutions including countless other sectors seem to offer no alternate example let alone the commercial and business establishments. Oftentimes, the explanation offered in this connection is that women have the option of offering prayers at home. Even then,keeping them from the wholesome effervescent experience provided by congregational gatherings in a space severed from the mundane is questionable. Having penetrated the public sphere, women’s absence from the prime centres of spiritual upliftment becomes appalling in present times. More so, because we are ensnared by the secular and individualistic frameworks which doubly necessitate the connection with Divine.
To compensate for the lack of such spaces, as reiterated before, some women often retire to local shrines for spiritual reprieve which have sections demarcated for women. Yet, the issue remains far from resolved.Since, in Islam, prayers are a daily obligation upon a believer and mosque as a physical space offers a scintillating retreat from dreary chores. This spiritual retreat must be accessible to all and is an equal need for all genders.
The task to reclaim mosque spaces for women may be arduous, yet there is no dearth of examples to take leads from. Noteworthy among these movements is Da’wa or “Piety Movement” started by Egyptian women in the 1970s to gain access to the mosques. Drawing their inspiration from Islamic sacred texts, they not only pitched for reclaiming the mosques, but also strove to make them the centres for transformation of the socio-cultural landscape of Egyptian society. Further, “Kadinlar Camillerde” i.e “Women in the Mosques”, an initiative run by Turkish women in Fatih mosque of Istanbul to discuss mosque-related and other issues also explains the potential such projects carry.
Women’s access to local mosques can also facilitate the formation of a parallel mosque committee aside the general one. Apart from fostering religious sisterhood and facilitating activism, such committees can encourage focused understanding of women’s issues at a miniature level and pave way for their resolution. These indigenous methods of empowering women have the potential of becoming grounded resources for the future generations to build their imaginations upon. Therefore, to reclaim back the mosque spaces for women and reimagining it as an overarching socio-religious institution geared toward positive social transformation is therefore the call of our times.
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