Enough is Enough: On the Oppressive Culture of American Mosques

Enough is Enough: On the Oppressive Culture of American Mosques

Asalaamu-Alaikum wa’ Rahmatullah wa’Barakatohu.

My friends, I have made a mistake.

Since I embraced Islam 18 years ago, I’ve been at odds with the way Austin-area mosques have structured their common areas to partition men and women away from each other. I have all but stopped going to the mosque except for special events, and when I do attend Jummah I attend with a small WD Muhammad community on the East Side of Austin with no barrier between the men and women. That dear little community congregates weekly in a Quaker church at 1pm on Fridays.

But let us be frank: the community I attend does not represent the vast majority of Muslims in this city who gather in big, formal mosques that cost millions of dollars to build. In these places, women are seated behind walls and curtains and fed a steady diet of ‘separate but equal’ – all while retaining zero control and having next to no input in how the spaces run and operate.

We are told that “most women” want the option of hiding out in their own community. That we go to a communal spaces so that we can hide from the eyes of the very men we work and socialize with face-to-face in every other part of our lives.

We are told that women need to ‘speak up’ if we aren’t happy–but when we do, we’re admonished for trying to trample on the rights of the women who want to stay behind a wall.

Because I’m a white convert and a Very Nice Liberal Lady (TM), I’ve allowed myself to participate in apologetics; feeling guilty that I am resentful for the status quo.

But I was wrong. Because this is wrong.

There is no legal precedent for making a gender barrier in worship spaces as the status quo. There is no gender barrier in the holiest city on earth where men and women pilgrims pray together. We do not put up a barrier for Eid prayers in secular spaces. There is NO REASON for there to be a barrier at all since women who don’t want to be seen can wear niqab and have the option not to attend.

This isn’t about reason, though, is it?

Pre-pubescent boys sitting front and center during prayers and speaking engagements while grown women who are doctors and lawyers sit behind a wall with layers of clothing on top of that to “protect” them is not reasonable.

I’m not interested in arguing or debating. I’ve got almost 19 years in this community and I’m done pretending that this is ok. It’s not. Another generation of children are being raised thinking that this is how God wants us to worship Them. That men and women are incapable of being in proximity to one another–or even within eyesight– during prayer because we lack the ability to remain pure in our intentions at the sight of someone of another gender praying.

I’ve watched as women strain to hear over crappy speaker systems; while children run through the rows between them because OF COURSE the children should stay on the women’s side. I’ve watched as the barriers are removed for Interfaith Events when the public comes in — because we don’t want to show them our dirty little secret, do we?

This summer during Ramadan we had a pre-dawn meal with a group of Jewish women from our Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom chapter, and then invited them to the small UT campus mosque to observe Fajr. We were literally the only women there, and opened the wonky curtain they have between the men’s an women’s section as best we could. As the prayer was beginning one of the men came over and closed it right in front of us. We opened it again immediately, and they took several minutes to complain to the Imam while we stood there waiting to pray.

The Imam reminded them that the curtain was to be used at the sisters’ discretion. But there are also signs posted to that effect so it should have been a non-issue. The Jewish sisters were pretty shocked by that, and I was embarrassed.

This is much, much more than how space is arranged.

It’s about mosque culture.

This is NOT about a single, isolated incident (we’ve argued before over that damn curtain on plenty of other occasions); and it’s NOT just happening in one mosque. The mosques in Austin and all over America are on a spectrum for how inclusive they choose to be for women — and we are supposed to thank our lucky stars if we fine one that will ‘tolerate’ our requests.

From this day forward I’ll not step foot in any mosque, nor will I support it with my time or donations if it does not have accommodations for women to fully participate in every aspect of the community — including visually seeing the imam or speaker at every Jummah or event — AS. THE. DEFAULT.

That doesn’t mean a little space way off to the side in the back where the wall is begrudgingly moved over a crack to accommodate us ‘deviant’ liberal feminists.

I should not have to ASK to see a speaker at an event. No one should. If I want to go to an event in a public space and *not* be seen, then I should have to ask for special accommodations. That’s how it works.

And furthermore… I am not going to support any mosque where EVERY PERSON who wants to come and worship is not fully welcome. If your community won’t open it’s doors to a Shia Muslim, a GLBTQ Muslim, a Muslim from any race or culture — then I don’t want to go there.

Mosque culture is toxic, controlling, unwelcoming and oppressive to anyone who isn’t a straight Muslim man. And I’m tired of being told that this ‘takes time’ and we need to be ‘diplomatic’.

Fine. Have your weird little counterculture bubbles. Spend your millions of dollars gratifying the egos of old men who want a tiny place to rule in a country where they feel disenfranchised. But don’t ask me to go there. I won’t speak there. I won’t write you a check. And I won’t tell non-Muslim people that you are a safe place to learn about Islam.

And let us be clear: People who erect literal, physical barriers between half the community are in no position whatsoever to chastise anyone about fitna.

I’ll be out here in third spaces, or meeting with my brothers and sisters at the East Austin Community of al-Islam. I’ll be out here, worshipping My Lord in homes and rec centers where men and women who emulate the Sahaba continue to inspire me to do good in the name of my religion. Where my daughter and her twin brother are BOTH accepted, respected and elevated.

I’ll be here.