For Muslim women in India, mosques remain largely out of bound – even without entry bans

Zafar Aafaq
Last month, Delhi’s Jama Masjid sparked a furore by banning the entry of women. The order was taken back, but it came as a reminder of the exclusion women face.

Rafia Ahmed grew up in the United Arab Emirates where she often went with her family to pray at the local mosque. But when she moved to Bengaluru in 2009 to attend college and went to a mosque, she was in for a rude shock. “I asked some men there if I could pray and they got furious and they sent some kids to shoo me away,” said Ahmed, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy.

Mosques in India rarely welcome women. Often, they keep women away by failing to create a separate space for them to pray.

But the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid in Delhi, the largest mosque in India, went a step further on November 24 when he issued an express order banning the entry of women. The imam argued that the mosque authorities had found some couples were treating the mosque as a meeting point. “Girls coming alone and waiting for their dates… this is not what this place is meant for,” the imam said.

The decision drew criticism from the Delhi and national women’s panels and also sparked a backlash on social media, forcing the mosque management to rescind the order within hours.

For Muslim women in India, the controversy came as a reminder of the exclusion they face.

Twenty-one-year-old Reshma Salman is regular with her prayers but has never been to a mosque. Every time she hears the azaan resounding from the minarets of the mosque close to her house in Darbhanga, Bihar, she feels an urge to go there to pray. But each time, she has to hold herself back. Her brothers go to the mosque while she offers namaz at home.

For 22-year-old Sehrish – name changed on request – things are only marginally better. The Kolkata resident has been inside a mosque twice in her life. Once, it was during a visit to a town as a tourist in West Bengal. The other time it was when she visited the Jama Masjid, in Delhi.

Women say that the lack of access to mosques restricts their ability to go about their daily life. For instance, women who are out during prayer times either miss their prayers or have to go home and pray. “I just can’t step out whenever I want to because I will not have a space to pray,” said Dr Ruksheda Syeda, a psychiatrist from Mumbai.

Denying women the right to access mosques makes women feel “they are lesser beings in the eyes of God”, she added.

Mosques should be made accessible to women, said Dr Asma Zehra who until October headed the now suspended women’s wing of All India Muslim Personal Law Board. “Women, who are 50% of the population, have to be accommodated,” she said.

An informal ban?

There is no injunction in Islam that bars women from entering the mosque. “Most mosques in the Middle East, South East Asia, and Africa always have spaces for women,” said Sania Mariam, the head of a collective called the Muslim Women’s Study Circle. The Indian subcontinent is an anomaly, she said.

The vast majority of India’s 200 million Muslims are Sunnis. Among Sunnis, there are four major schools of jurisprudence, of which Hanafi is a prominent one. “Hanafi jurisprudence says that in times of moral corruption, it’s better for women to pray at home,” said Sobia Hamid Bhat, who is pursuing her PhD on women and mosques at the South Asian University in New Delhi. This view is largely shaped by the apprehension that the presence of women in mosques would lead to moral corruption, she added.

Bhat said when Islam arrived in South Asia, the already prevalent traditions and patriarchial norms may have seeped into Islam as well. These factors, together, translated into mosque authorities not creating space for women to pray.

Mosque authorities attributed the exclusion of women to the lack of separate space for them to pray. Mohammed Maqsood Imran Rashadi, the Imam of Jamia Masjid in Bengaluru, said many mosques in India do not have separate doors for men and women. “That’s why there are restrictions on women, because we fear it can create conflicts and controversies,” said Rashadi.

He, however, agreed that mosques should facilitate the entry of women for prayers. “New mosques should be designed and constructed in a way to create women’s sections,” he said, adding that he is seeing progress. “We have [a] section for women to offer their namaz at our mosque here.”

In large Indian cities, there is an odd mosque or two that has a women’s section. For instance, in Bengaluru, Rafia Ahmed, who now works in the information technology sector, would travel five kilometres on her two-wheeler to go to Salafiya Masjid in Gurappanapalya area for the congregational prayers on Fridays.

But since the Covid-19 pandemic, the 31-year-old has been unable to go there. She said there are five mosques within walking distance of where she lives. “But I never go there because they do not allow women inside.”

Similarly, in Delhi, there are a handful of mosques that have dedicated sections for women. In Okhla, women can visit the Masjid Ishat-e-Islam, located on the premises of the office of the socio-religious organisation the Jamat-e-Islami Hind. The nearby Ahl-e-Hadees Masjid, too, has a floor reserved for women.

Bhat said the Ahl-e-Hadees refer to themselves as “Gairmuqalidis”, or those who do not subscribe to any of the Islamic jurisprudential schools. They believe in following Islam as it was during the time of Prophet Muhammad. “They believe it to be the right of the women to access the mosque, a right that was given to them by the Prophet himself,” Bhat explained.

But women say more mosques should be made accessible to them. “I don’t have to go to the mosque, but the point is I should be able to and it should be easy for me,” said Syeda from Mumbai.

Since a commonly cited reason by mosque authorities to keep women out is the lack of space, Zehra said, “New mosques, wherever constructed, should create women’s sections.” Existing mosques should also make space for a women’s section, she added.

Change is in the air

Young Muslim women, in particular, are keen to challenge the exclusion.

Last month, Yusra Hassan, 23, a resident of Delhi’s Nizamuddin area, took part in the Muslim Women Masjid Project, which takes Muslim women on a tour of mosques in Indian cities. It is organised by the Muslim Women’s Study Circle collective.

Hasan and her group visited the Jamaat-e-Islami mosque in Okhla for Friday prayers in November. “There were so many women,” said Hassan. “We heard Khutba [public sermon] and offered our prayers. It was a very good experience.”

Mariam, the head of the collective, said the aim of these tours is to “visiblise women in Indian masjids”. Mariam grew up in Saudi Arabia, where she said women praying inside mosques is common. When she moved to India, like Rafia Ahmed, she found it upsetting to be denied entry into mosques.

She said the idea to organise tours came about as she, along with other women, decided to do something about being excluded from mosques. “Masjid is not just a space for prayer but a centre of community and social activities,” she said.

According to Mariam, there are challenges but “change is in the air”.

“There are some who have opposing views but there are also a lot of men who support the idea of women being inside mosques,” she said. “We want the reform to come from within.”


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