By Thakira Desai
While Muslim women have enjoyed many victories in their fight to be acknowledged as an integral part of the global Muslim community, in parts of the world, women continue to raise their voices in the face of patriarchy that is bent on isolating the role of a female to the home. The question of the role of women the local Muslim community was once again highlighted when a group of local women were on Friday admonished from entering Masjid Siraatul Jannah, a Johannesburg based mosque. The group of close to 30 females had planned to have iftaar (breaking of the fast) and perform Taraweegh (the evening Ramadan prayers) in the demarcated female section of the mosque precinct. The incident has since received mixed-reaction from the Muslim community of South Africa and abroad, forcing open an otherwise taboo topic.
The iftaar was organised by Shameelah Khan and Noorjan Allie, the co-founders of Women of Waqf (WOW), a female-run organisation aimed at addressing issues of women empowerment.
Khan explained that the event was planned to take place in the female section of the mosque, where she and Allie had arranged a loud-speaker to be placed so that female mussallies (congregants) could join prayers as it occurred in the mosque itself.
“I lived in Cape Town for one year, two-years-ago, and just being able to go to the mosque frequently and being part of that community really helped us see what was happening in our communities, that started our journey.
“We were not really getting out of the experience what we wanted – what we wanted was to be a part of the mosque,” Khan stated.
Khan and Allie subsequently released an iftaar invite to Masjid Siraatul Jannah for female mussallies, which was scheduled for Friday.
She said that the mosque representative, whom she only names as “the imam of the mosque”, declared that a “gathering of this nature” could not happen within the mosque.
“We kept saying that it is just an iftaar, it’s a small gathering for some of the women in the south,” Khan added.
She and Allie were informed that the mosque board took a decision that the iftaar would not be allowed to proceed.
“The whole thing got taken out of context and blew up the way it did, because the mosque itself recirculated [the poster], banning us and saying this is prohibited [and] it does not approve,” Khan stated.
While the organisers expected a few women to attend the iftaar, Khan said that due to the circulation of the invite, close to 30 women were in attendance.
“The iftaar became a representation of our voices,” she added.
The females proceeded into the demarcated section for women, which has a separate entrance.
“We were told that [the section] is not a female facility, it is actually for travellers. So, women are actually not allowed to pray [in there]. But, there are huge signs that say ‘female Salah Facilities’.
“Women brought their food, we put it in a circle and we sat down [and] it was very lovely actually. Just before the athan [call to prayer] went off, the electricity tripped. We reached a consensus that this was not an act on the part of the mosque,” she elaborated.
After performing maghrib salah (sunset prayers), Khan and another female approached a caretaker of the mosque and requested that he open a classroom for the ladies to complete iftaar and perform taraweegh prayers.
“We were sitting in utter darkness and we would not eat really, because we could not see. We said we would really like to be in a room with a [loud] speaker so that we can read taraweegh and he said ‘absolutely not’.”
Khan explained that the women sat in solidarity in what she termed “a peaceful protest” in the court yard of the mosque.
Just as esha prayers (evening prayers) were about to commence, a group of men approached the women and demanded that the women not pray in congregation and leave the area.
Khan said that a man proceeded to push a woman as she protected her daughter who was attempting to record the incident.
“He charged at her and pushed the mother and one of the women and I tried to get him off of her and tried to calm the mom down, because at this point she was shaking.”
A male mussallie intervened and arranged that a room be organised for the women to use.
Khan confirmed that the women completed the remainder of the taraweeh prayers in the room.
“We are very aware that it was still not part of the mosque…but they kind of just said that ‘we will accommodate you if you stop sitting here’.”
‘…if we don’t make a statement, they are just going to continue treating us this way.’
Khan said that mosque officials confirmed that the room would be remain available to female congregants, but she noted that on Sunday night the room was locked midway into taraweegh.
“They switched off all the lights mid-taraweegh, [after] about six to eight raka’at. They switched all the lights off, switched the speaker off, collected all the shoes of the men and put it on the other side and locked all the doors.
“So at that point, I thought that if we don’t make a statement, they are just going to continue treating us this way.”
Women were again barred from performing prayers in a section of the mosque on Monday evening. A mussallie, Sumaya Hendricks, shared the incident on social media with a video recorded by mussallie Tazkiyyah Amra. Hendricks explained that a group of female mussallies were insulted and called “morons”. A male can be heard stating that females cannot be in view of men during prayers.
While Khan and Allie were promised that they would be able to engage with mosque officials about the incident, Khan said that to date no communication has been received.
Khan further noted that she is overwhelmed by the support the women have received from both men and women around the country.
‘There is absolutely no prohibition in the Qur’an and the Sunnah…’
While a mosque representative could not be reached for comment, a number of local scholars have weighed in on the incident, among them the head of the Islamic Studies Department of the International Peace College of South Africa and a lecturer at Madina Institute South Africa, Shaykh Fakhruddin Owaisi.
Drawing a parallel between the murder of Palestinian doctor, Dr Razaan al-Najjar, and the treatment of the women at the mosque, Owaisi described the treatment of the female mussallies at Masjid Siraatul Jannah as “very sad and horrible”.
Dr Najjar was killed after being shot in the back by an Israeli sniper at the fence separating the Gaza Strip and Israel as she attended to wounded Palestinian protesters.
“On one side, our women are going out of their way to help in the cause of Islam, the cause of freedom and dying in the path of Allah. Then, on the other side in Johannesburg we have women not being allowed to have Iftaar and make salah in the mosque.”
Owaisi said that the mistreatment of women is in direct violation of the teachings of the Prophet (may peace be upon Him), who denounced men for preventing their womenfolk from entering masaajid.
“In the Prophet’s (may peace be upon Him) time the women used to come to the masjid and they used to pray behind Him (may peace be upon Him). And he said very clearly in a hadeeth sahih (authentic): ‘do not prevent Allah’s female servants from entering his house’.”
They shaykh added that within the three holiest mosques of Makkah, Madina and Jerusalem, females enjoy iftaar and salah in the precincts.
“The Qur’an mentions the role of many women in Islam – there is a surah [chapter] named after Sayidinah Maryam. The Qur’an mentions how she went into Masjid al-Aqsa and the men at that time were opposed to that… [But] Allah praises this great woman, Maryam, and so many other women,” Owaisi stated.
Owaisi said that in terms of observing iftaar in a mosque, both males and females have been given the same rules; no person should mess in the mosque, mussallies should be dressed modestly and no person should speak in a loud tone.
“There is nothing that stops our sisters from having salah or iftaar in the masjid – there is absolutely no prohibition in the Qur’an and the Sunnah [the life of the prophet].
He explained that the prohibition of females from entering masaajid is as a result of cultural norms inherited from the Indo-Pak region.
He further commended the women for the “great” stand that they took and for having not given into intimidation.
Jamiatul Ulama’s moulana Ebrahim Bham has indicated that he will provide comment at a later stage.
VOC News has contacted the board of Masjid Siraatul Jannah and was informed that a formal statement will be issued soon.