Originally a guest post on Orbala.
My favorite masjid is so severely sex-segregated that there isn’t merely a barrier for the women; there’s an entirely separate tiny afterthought of a room. But it’s my favorite because it is in the hills, where the stars are the brightest, next to sheds with horses in them (my mother once chastised me for feeding the horses before breaking my own fast during iftar time) and in the midst of wild plants, cats, rabbits, and snakes—and, according to the claims of my brothers, jinn. It is a wild, tangled, untamed place, and my heart always quakes at the glimmering city lights far away. On Ruby Avenue, my imagination is also wild, vibrant, and irrepressible. It was where I went to Quran classes as a child and studied under the imam, but because of the segregation, I rarely attend anymore, since I’m not fond of second-class citizen treatment; though aunties constantly demand to know why, the response from my mother is always that I’m busy with class and work, which they then proceed to make clear is an unacceptable excuse.
Currently, the masjid is under an expansion project. My mother relayed to me that the new building won’t have a barrier, and so I should attend. I informed her that men lie (a male leader told me once that he would take down the barrier at a different masjid and did not keep his word) and so I will not believe this until I can witness that it is true.
In the meantime, on a Friday during Ramadan on Ruby Avenue, in a prayer room separate from the women’s, one of the imams casually mentioned through the intercom that anyone from the congregation can call the azaan. I turned to my mother and announced, “I’m going to call the azaan on Sunday.”
She stared at me for a few minutes, and I added, “He said anyone!” I knew, however, as well as she did, that he’d only meant the men in the other room whose presence he could appreciate. The message was not intended for me. We do not exist. Earlier that week the imam had asked for feedback on whether maghrib should begin 10 minutes or 15 minutes after iftari.
“10 minutes,” I had voted softly in the women’s section in vain. We were in a different room, deliberately could not be heard, and would not be counted.
“10 minutes!” shouted several of the men. For some reason, they always shouted, as though the imam couldn’t hear them two feet away. At any opportunity they would then of course proceed to complain that the women were too loud.
But the imam had said anyone and should be held accountable for his words. After all, if he meant to exclude women, he ought to have said so. He should hear himself say it, hear how terrible it sounds. There is a reason none of the men have the courage to say these things out loud. They quietly go about them instead, self-liberated from the burden of forming words from their actions to give them consciousness.
“I don’t know if he meant women…” my mother responded.
“He ought to be more explicit with his sexism then.”
“I’ll ask him for you tomorrow. It would also depend on if the community allows it. It’s not just his masjid alone you know.”
I had prior arrangements to meet a friend for dinner and wasn’t able to attend the prayers at the masjid with her the day she sought an answer. After tarabee when my mother returned, I would let her rest and not disturb her. So, the soonest was Sunday morning when, stumbling downstairs half-asleep, too eager to bother waking up completely, I asked her whether I would be calling the azaan that night.
My mother is naturally soft-spoken, but this time, she made a point to lower her voice. “I asked the hafiz’s wife to ask him if you can call the azaan, and she responded that he said that since you were once a student of his, you should come to him so that he could explain to you why women can’t give the azaan, and you would understand.”
I never imagined I would, but I started to cry. I was so angry. I told her I would never go back (but for her, of course I did), that there was no reason for me to go to a place that doesn’t want me there, that I don’t want to hear his “explanations.” I’ve heard all of them before. On Fridays, my little brother uses my material for his khutbahs—because I can’t. I told her I would not speak to the imam.
“Please don’t be this way,” my mother pleaded. “Come with me. Stop crying; you are fasting and you cannot lose water.”
I could not stop. I didn’t care how much water I lost. It was an insignificant detail to what I felt and I was not thinking of it. There might have possibly been a very small part of me that genuinely believed I would call the azaan. How could a masjid situated in such a beautiful place, a place where the air shifted and somehow always felt misty, where there used to be a tire swing that would fill with water and that I’d run to as a child, be so unjust?
“How was the dinner yesterday?” my mother asked.
“It went well. I was allowed to speak during it. …It’s better than the masjid.” I began to cry again.
“You seem to be well-loved,” my mother said. “I mentioned that you were fond of a certain dish that was being served at the masjid and all of the aunties wanted to fill plates of it for me to take home to you.”
Vision still blurred with tears, I asked my friends to pray that I don’t burst into tears over a plate of samosas later that night at the masjid iftari. My mother returned to clarify that the imam’s actual words were, “Yes, she can. But… since she was once one of my students, tell her to come to me. I’ll explain to her why a woman can’t give the azaan.”
He might have been implying that it would create too much of an uproar in the community… even if it were the truth. But I didn’t care enough to find out what he’d meant.
Upon hearing all this, one of my two little brothers, three years my junior, who follows me around frequently to pester me with Islamic questions, texted me, “Am I a plagiarist?” I responded he was free to use my material as long as he acted according to the spirit of what he lectured. After all, I never protested before, even when he softened the blow of my words… which circumstance compelled of him, always.
The day before I decided to pray in the men’s section, my brother stood in the hallway outside my room with an awkward expression on his face. “They [some of the younger girls at the masjid] were telling me they weren’t allowed to pray on their periods,” he recounted to me, “and I told them, actually they could if they wanted. And they were like NO, you can’t. And I was like, but it’s not in the Qur’an; if you want to make something haraam you have to show the verse.”
My eyebrows furrowed in subtle protest of a man “educating” a woman on her menstrual cycle. At the same time it was unique that he was not disgusted with the subject. But I already knew where this was going. As admired a Quran reciter my brother was in the community, he did not have the power of age to pull this off.
He continued. “And they were like, my mom says you can’t. …And one of them went up to her mom and asked! And her mom said, no he’s wrong. And strange. Don’t talk to him. She told her not to talk to me!”
I laughed, “Well yeah, don’t bring up girls’ periods like you know better.”
“But I didn’t! They brought it up first! To me! They brought it up to me! It’s not like I was some random guy! But now I look like some random guy going up to women like, hey, did you know you could pray during your periods?”
I laughed a little harder. My brother had also been a student of the imam, and a much admired one by the community. He gave khutbahs (even if the materials were mine) and recitations. It was peculiar and hilarious to hear that he had weirded out masjid aunties.
We left earlier for the masjid than usual, almost as soon as I returned from the office. It was a Sunday, so we were expecting a crowd and few parking spaces. For iftar I had only a date. I’d gotten into the habit of eating very little for iftari. I don’t pray with the imam, because I don’t pray behind men, and certainly not behind walls, which act like the sutras that we place in front of us when we pray to prevent interruption of our prayers by those walking in front of us—therefore severing us from the imam leading on the other side, rending our prayers dismembered and incomplete. Instead, I finish the salah before the imam starts. This requires fast eating, or little to no eating. I go with the latter.
One time, I overheard a sister ask my mom, “What [prayer] is your daughter praying?” while the women were waiting for the imam to begin.
My mother had responded, “Oh no, she is praying maghrib… she…” —nervous laughter—“she just doesn’t think prayer should be hindered so she prays immediately after iftari.” This excuse was less controversial; it made me look like a quiet, pious young woman who was eager to pray immediately after iftar rather than a troublemaking feminist rebel.
There is nothing I could do to not be a spectacle. Although everyone at the masjid breaks their fast as the azaan starts, I always wait for it to finish. The first couple of times this happened, a few of the women repeated to me that it was time to break the fast. I smiled and said, “I’m listening to the azaan.” One of them gave me a strange look. “You don’t have to wait.”
“I know. I believe it’s nice.”
Since the masjid is under construction, we had iftari several feet away in a very large, spacious tent outside, so it was difficult to hear the azaan that was called from the inside. (Nevertheless, I was still not allowed to call it.) I waited, straining to hear that it had finished, consumed the date, and then quickly slipped out of the tent.
Some of the congregants who don’t fit inside spill out onto the deck, where the women pray behind the men (as opposed to an entirely separate room like the arrangement on the inside.) This is only a Sunday community iftar phenomenon, when the masjid is most packed.
As usual, I started praying maghrib long before the imam began—this time in the men’s section outside on the expansive deck, so that I would be finished before the rest of men came. The summer air was cool and lovely.
When I was almost done, with 2 rakat nafl left, a man attempted an aggressive “Excuse me!” but I started the takbeer for nafl before he could say anything else. Frustrated, he walked behind me to the sisters, who hadn’t been there when I’d begun but had gathered in a line in the back as I was finishing, and he said to them, “Excuse me, when she’s done can you make sure she moves back? We need this space.”
(There was plenty of space.)
One of sisters laughed and answered, “Uh, yeah, that’s why she’s, uh, yeah.”
I finished just as the imam started, turned to leave and saw 2 entire rows of women formed far in the back, staring wide-eyed at me across the safe gap they’d maintained, and I descended down the stairs as the rest of the men who’d been waiting for me to end the prayer ascended. In the sky, Saturn could be observed beneath the moon, and so could Venus and Jupiter. My heart leapt.
On the way home, I asked my mother in the car, “Are you mad at me?”
“No. Why would I be mad at you?”
I was straining her reputation, I knew it. Once, during maghrib, my hijab kept sliding off, because it was heavy and jeweled and the fabric shimmered, so I tossed it to the ground where it was inclined. I finished the prayer sans hijab, with my hair falling in dark curls around my neck during sejda. I did not look around to see who was gaping at me in disapproval. When I turned to bid salaam to the angels, I saw only that the women were preoccupied with themselves. MashAllah. My mother, though, had winced, as these behaviors are magnified when it is your own daughter, though she related that she understood the hijab would not stay.
But this, this was a whole new level of a transgression. It didn’t matter that I technically wasn’t in the way of the men, that I had started before the imam and finished before him so that the men only had to wait a few moments to start forming lines. (Regardless of the fact that they really didn’t have to wait, and it was their arrogance that prevented them from lining up beside me, even if on the other end of the same row, leaving a wide distance in between.) They missed no part of the prayer. What mattered was that I was a different creeping shariah—a quiet challenge, out of order, a threat. I’m too young to have the advantage of the masjid aunties, with whom no one messes, and they were not going to support me either.
The next morning, my brother reported to me, “My reputation is ruined.”
“Why?” I asked, thinking for a second it was because of me.
“I’m known as Menstrual Man.”
I laughed, “Who calls you Menstrual Man?”
“I call myself Menstrual Man. They call me Period Man.”
His renovation did have a better ring to it. He continued, meekly laughing at himself, “One of the girls showed me a hadith to prove that she was right, so I sent her some links to show that I was right too.”
I opened and closed my eyes.
“And my friend was like, dude, you went back?! And I said, yeah, I mean if they’re already going to ridicule me I might as well substantiate my perspective with some evidence. And he was like, yeah, go down a martyr.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Just tell them you got it from me and it won’t be so weird.”
“Well, you’re already a weirdo for wanting to do the azaan so I don’t know how much that would help.”
“I meant because I’m a girl, dunderhead,” I said crossly. “You have a sister, who menstruates.”
To justify women forced to the back, men cite a hadith by Abu Huraira, a renowned sexist and a liar. Imam Zarkashi in al-Ijaba writes, “They told ‘A’isha that Abu Hurayra was asserting that the Messenger of God said: ‘Three things bring bad luck: house, woman, and horse.’ ‘A’isha responded: ‘Abu Hurayra learned his lessons very badly. He came into our house when the Prophet was in the middle of a sentence. He heard only the end of it. What the Prophet said was: ‘May Allah refuse the Jews; they say three things bring bad luck: house, woman, and horse.’”
The same misogynist who was consistently refuted by an angry ‘A’isha reported that the Messenger said, “The best of the rows of men is the first and the worst is the last. And, the best of the rows of women is the last and the worst of them is the first.”
For men, attending the masjid prayers is emphasized as crucial; women are allowed the flexibility to pray at home if they wish. If the Prophet even ever said this, I believe he said it to mean that if women are in the front, it signifies that men were late to the prayer, and women were faster than them. It was meant to ensure that the men were prompt.
So if I get there first, I have a right to pray there. It does not mean that you should push me to the back to accommodate your tardiness. (Who’re you fooling? You weren’t there first.)
“Nahida,” said my mother gently after she called me to her bedroom. “I’m going to ask something of you and I hope very much that you’ll listen—”
I already knew what was happening. “No.”
“You want me to stop praying in the men’s section.”
She was quiet, and then she said, “Please.”
“Why? Do you care about what people say?”
“It’s not that. They already think we’re a dysfunctional mess… I don’t want to fuel it.” And here she did not even know about my brother the Menstrual Man. “Please, you can still pray without the imam.”
There are several times, regarding what I wore or where I traveled, during which I disregard my mother’s insistence and live as I please, but I would always ensure it did not hurt her. This time, I succumbed to her request.
“This is against my religion,” I said.
“And I’m right.”
“It doesn’t seem to matter.”
Where could I pray? I wracked my brain for possibilities. Not inside the women’s room, behind a wall. Not on the deck, behind men. Not in the tent, where I would need to wait for everyone to leave after iftari first and thus delay the prayer. Not in the wilderness I love, though it is ideally situated behind the masjid, in the direction all the men face so that I would be in front of them, where the qibla was closest, because at the thought of snakes after sunset, my mother would surely prevent me.
I didn’t mind the idea of a couple of snakebites, which frankly sound far more appealing than this. I didn’t mind the wild plants we as children had referred to as spiders’ eggs because they erupted what looked like tiny dead spider children either. But that was it. Those were all my options and I’d run out. There was no where for me to pray.
In my ideal masjid, families pray together. It seems anti-Islamic to tear them apart. These are parts of Islam that are integral to my being. I can not freely practice them. I thought of Ibrahim’s sacrifice, his defiance of his fathers who worshipped idols, of tradition, of patriarchy. I thought of his sacrifice of his son, whom he made sure consented. There are many more sacrifices, by women in the Quran, countless sacrifices, time and time again, that are not considered sacrifice—but just things to expect of women.
This would be one of them.