On Gender in the House of God

I spent the last two weeks in Turkey. I went from mosque to mosque to mosque. I took photos of the ineffable beauty these structures hold. I was consistently, without a doubt, in awe. Every mosque seemed to be more beautiful than the last. To sit or stand in the midst of such history, spirituality, and deep contemplation of God, for me, was a visceral, but also, a transcendental experience.

Yet every mosque we visited, I, along with the other women I was with, were banished to the very back of the mosque. We were given two to three meters of space, enough for no more than a few dozen women. Usually, the space was cold and there was no direct connection to the Imam or the rest of the congregation.

These experiences culminated at one mosque we visited in Edirne. In an essentially empty mosque, we sat to pray in the communal middle area. This area was already separated from the “men’s area.”  Still, the security guard aggressively told us we must go to the back (the women’s area) and stay there. This “women’s section” he directed us to, was behind the shoe section, where people leave their shoes when they pray. It was even behind the visitor’s section. Let me give a brief explanation here. In Islam, like other religions, there is the concept of ritual purity. There are some circumstances in which people, Muslim or non-Muslim, would be considered ritually impure and would not be able to enter certain sacred spaces. Before Muslims pray, they are required to perform ablution, so they may be ritually pure and ready for prayer. A visitor’s section is allotted in order to allow people to visit a sacred space without having said ritual purity. Therefore, the message I receive when I am told I am unwelcome in this space is that I, as a woman, and because of that fact, am unwelcome in a sacred space because of my gender. That inherently, my womanhood is ritually impure. The message it sent to me, and to many of the women I was with, is that our existence in the house of God, in so far we are women, is a perceived as a burden and, as a matter of fact, an impurity. 

For me the idea that the house of God is a gendered space is unacceptable. In the moment of creation, the soul, or the “nafs” as it is understood in Islam, is created un-gendered. This is because it is transcendental and beyond any notions of space and time. The constructs of gender are necessarily contingent on temporality and spatially, which human beings impose. A transcendental notion of the soul makes it so that there is moral and intellectual equality within all human beings.

Therefore, being in a place that is so beautiful, so connected the something that is beyond, and being told to remain confined to certain space, because of my space, frustrates me because it is simply arbitrary.

Today, I have one directed grievance, and it is to the men of our community. Insofar we are Muslim, and insofar, we are human beings, we believe in fair and equal treatment of one another, and the elimination of injustice. Many Muslim men I know, especially those on the trip with me to Turkey, speak endlessly of the Ummah- the united Muslim community. Yet time and time again, I do not see them standing up to unequal treatment of half the Ummah. I do not see Muslim men defending gender equality to other Muslim men; I do not see them standing with us when we report our grievances to men in power. 

Perhaps, you disagree with my standpoints, and that is your prerogative. Maybe you think I am too much of a radical feminist- a heathen- even. So be it. This is my testimonial, not my first not my last, of what I see: the ever growing ostracization of women, because they are women, in the house of God.