Guest Column

How Muslims betray Islam by not allowing women in mosques

2018-06-07 06:58
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Nuraan Davids

Recently a group of Muslim women from Johannesburg and Durban were quoted saying "we want to pray in mosques too". This was a response to attempts to prevent women from listening to the reciting of the Qur'an while attending evening prayers - as is customary during the month of Ramadan - at a Johannesburg mosque. Sadly, their appeals are not new. 

The "women in mosques" campaign is one which has continue to blight not only the treatment of Muslim women in South Africa, but raises critical concerns and questions about the untold harm that Muslims themselves inflict upon Islam. 

The appeals by Muslim women to be afforded space within the precincts of a sacred space is a mere symptom of the greater marginalisation, exclusion and discrimination meted out by Muslim men. 

On a superficial level, it is easy to poke fun at the absurdity of excluding women from any mosque. The men, who enjoy the comfort of plush prayer mats as they pray to "their Lord", while knowing that their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters are placing their heads onto the cold slabs of a courtyard, are the very same men who usher these same women into the sacred spaces of two of Islam's holiest mosques: al-Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina, also known as the Prophet's mosque, and al-Masjid al-Haram, home of the Ka'aba in Mecca.

On the other hand, the exclusion and marginalisation of Muslim women feed into a greater normative-patriarchal narrative that women are defined primarily (at times, solely) in relation to her private space, and hence, the private responsibility of the family. In this regard, her status as the custodian of Islamic values are seemingly held in check through secluded domesticity. 

But, of course, Islam does not relegate Muslim women to the confines of their home; this is the work of patriarchal Islam, and every Muslim (men or women) has a responsibility to contest it. What, therefore, does the Qur'an and the Sunnah (example of the Prophet Muhammad, PBUH) – the foundational source codes of Islam – say about women? Chapter 33 ('The Confederates', verse 35) states:

For Muslim men and women – for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast [and deny themselves] for men and women who guard their chastity and for men and women who engage much in Allah's praise – for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward. 

This verse not only confirms the equality between men and women but locates this equality within an ethical human condition. It also confirms the autonomous intellectuality and spirituality of Muslim women. As a historical text, the Qur'an introduced far-reaching changes to the personal and social conditions of Muslim women under circumstances of an apparent deeply ensconced Arabian patriarchy – which includes the right to decide on marriage, the right to inherit and the right to own property. 

Historical accounts describe women of the first Muslim community as attending mosques, planning and taking part in religious services on feast days, and listening to the Prophet's sermons. They were not passive and docile followers, but active interlocutors and participants in their faith and other social matters. Women in medieval Islam are described as freely studying with men and other women – both in the halaqat [study circles] and the madrassah [college]. And after receiving their ijazat [certi?cates], they would continue to teach both men and women. Both textually and contextually, Muslim women are centrally placed as equal participants.

The problem is, however, that because of patriarchal hegemony, women and women's experiences are mostly excluded from historical and current methods of interpretive reference. Secondly, the applications of Qur'anic interpretations when constructing laws to govern personal and private Islamic affairs, as well as public policies and institutions, are based on male interpretive privilege. 

So, how should Muslims respond to the exclusion of women from mosques? 

The answer is: In the same way that they should respond to any form of injustice – from racism and xenophobia, to oppression and extremism. Any notion of injustice is fundamentally at odds with the Qur'anic injunction, quoted from the chapter, entitled, 'The Women' (4:135):

O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives

To conclude, it is true that Muslim men assume and maintain authority through patriarchal interpretations, and at times, deliberate misinterpretations of the source codes. However, it is equally true that the far-reaching and marginalising effect of male interpretive privilege is sustained by the lack of female understanding of Qur'anic exegesis. Even though Muslim women directly experience the consequences of oppressive misreadings of religious texts, few question their legitimacy, and fewer still have explored the liberatory aspects of the Qur'an's teachings. 

In the absence, however, of reading the Qur'an and exploring its content, Muslim women are neither in a position to question or challenge oppressive misreadings, nor are they able to remedy their own oppression. The appeal by Muslim women to be granted access to the mosque, has to, therefore be understood as a demand for just and equal recognition. As a collective (ummah) the responsibility falls on all Muslims to preserve the integrity and values of Islam by speaking out against all forms of injustice. 

- Prof Nuraan Davids is Chairperson of, and Associate Professor of Philosophy of Education in the Department of Education Policy Studies in the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    muslims  |  islam
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