This past Friday was my first visit to the Washington Islamic Academy and MAS Community Center in Alexandria, Virginia. The building is surrounded by some green foliage and as I walked from my car to the front door, I saw a deer galloping off into the woods. There was a woman hosing down the sidewalk outside the front doors with water, which set the tone for my visit there. The school area, although school is out of session, was remarkably clean and neat. This cleanliness continued into the musalla prayer area.
The crowd for jumu’ah here seems to be one of the more mature in terms of managing gender relations. The main entrance to the musalla is used by both men and women, the imam, Johari Abdul-Malik, arrived early, and the khutbah started on-time. When space got tight, Imam Johari asked the brothers to move up to make room for the men who were standing outside. Towards the back of the prayer space there’s a small divider used to demarcate the men’s area from the women’s area and affords a measure of privacy to those women who want it without impinging on those who would rather see the khatib (lecturer).
The space is tight, I hear the mosque community is looking to expand and renovate their unfinished basement. But I was impressed by the normal and respectful behavior of the congregants despite their close proximity as can be seen in the above pictures.
Pictures from my first visit to the Mustafa Center in Annandale, Va.
I went in the morning around 9am and no one was there. I went up the steps to what I assumed to be the front wooden doors and found them locked. I did not see any signs posted regarding operating hours or labeling the entrances. A friend later told me that the wooden doors are generally regarded as the “men’s entrance” and the side door as the “women’s entrance.” For a newbie to the mosque, there was no way for me to know that so I waited outside for awhile until a family arrived and went in the side doors, which were open.
These are pictures from the Muslim Community Center (MCC) in Silver Spring, Maryland.
MCC, was one of the first mosques I ever attended after my conversion. After I obtained my driver’s license, I used to think nothing of driving more than 20-25 minutes each way to attend the fajr prayer in congregation.
Women used to be kicked out the mosque completely in Ramadan and relegated to another building but they fought back and have won these concessions. Not perfect but progress. MCC has a health clinic on-site where Muslim healthcare professionals donate their time to treat those in need.
This past Saturday, I visited the Dar al Noor Islamic Community Center in Manassas, Va, which according to the center’s website, has two women serving on the mosque’s board of directors. I entered through a common door, put my shoes on the shoe rack, and walked to the prayer hall where a mother was praying next to her young daughter in what seemed to be the back of a common prayer area.
I didn’t see a partition so I also prayed there. After I completed the 2 units of prayer as a greeting to the mosque, I noticed a wooden wall to my left. Curious, I walked over to investigate further and much to my surprise found that this appeared to be the area designated for women. You can see it for yourself in the above slideshow.
At the Prince George’s Muslim Association (PGMA) in Lanham, Maryland women are routinely displaced from the pink musallah designated for them to make more room for the men who have a large musallah down the hallway, which is not connected to the pink one. So where do the women go? The women are shunted off to classrooms, only one of which has a television monitor. Please tell me again, how this demonstrates a respect for the dignity of women as full and equal spiritual beings? All things being equal couldn’t the overflow men pray in the classrooms or overflow men and women pray there that way no one is unnecessarily displaced solely on account of her gender?
Years ago, under a different imam, men and women prayed the majority of the prayers in the pink musallah with the women restricted behind large wooden partitions. If you’re tall like me when standing in salah, you could just see over the top of the wooden partitions. Then under successive imams this arrangement was discontinued and men and women continued to pray in their own separate musallah. A flat-panel television screen, which is usually turned off was added to the pink women’s musallah. Now, on occasions where a large turn-out is expected like Friday prayers and perhaps the tarawih (I’ve stopped going here for tarawih), the women are pushed out of their musallah and relegated to the two classroom musallah.
The reality of the situation is that the mosque is generally empty for the five daily prayers and all of the congregants could be easily accommodated within one musallah space.
I used to love going to PGMA for fajr and isha and any other salah I was able to attend but now I rarely go there except when I’m in the area and need somewhere to pray. I had one of my happiest moments in Islam at PGMA behind the wooden partition in that pink musallah one night after maghrib or isha. After the prayer ended, the imam Moataz al-Hallak began related to the audience the hadith in Arabic of the man who killed 99 and then went to ask an abid and an alim if he could repent. The amazing thing was that I had just begun taking a Quranic Arabic class with Dr. Mamdouh Mohamed and I realized that for the first time I understood the words of the hadith and could make my own rudimentary translation from the Arabic without recourse to the English translation that would soon follow. Amazing, subhan’Allah, I think I cried silently to myself at the happiness and joy of understanding the language of the Quran and hadith.
The venue is the Cherry Hill Manor/Knights of Columbus property in College Park, MD. Most weeks, we pray with the men in the front and women in the back separated by a single row of chairs. However, when larger numbers and crowding is expected as happened around the holiday season with many Muslims off from work and school, the sisters were relegated to the basement with only an audio connection.
It seems to me, a fairer and more considerate solution would be to maintain the setup as is, so women who come early or who would like to see the khatib are not penalized on account of their gender to the less desirable accommodation. Men and women that come later could be re-directed to the basement, where they could recreate the setup of men in the front and women behind them.
One week, surprisingly the men’s overflow area was in the basement, but unsurprisingly, the majority of the brothers did not wish to be relegated to the basement. The reasons are obvious, despite the piped-in audio, it is only natural that one’s focus is decreased by the lack of visual connection and also feels cut-off from the main body of the jama’ah when relegated to a separate room. It was so informative to see the resistance from the brothers to being relegated to spaces so often readily given to women.
The Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) said: “None of you truly believes, until you love for your brother what you love for yourself.” If you do not love to be cut-off from the jama’ah, know that many of us women don’t enjoy it, either. And the solutions are many if we can simply think critically and with some compassion.
Here are photos from the Noor Cultural Centre in Toronto. Women pray on the right side of the prayer room, men pray on the left side – no barrier. There are book cases on each side. Noorallah in wood over the windows. I wish these had come out better, it’s a beautiful center.
Photos courtesy of Elise Aymer