Women claim the mosques

By Ferial Haffejee, Africa South & East, 1994

There is a quiet revolution underway at mosques around the country as women demand to pray alongside the rest of the congregation. This storming of the masjid is being led by members of the Muslim Youth Movement and by its Transvaal leader, Shamima Shaikh, who gives new meaning to the adage about dynamite in small packages.

In September, Shaikh led a group of women at Wits University to Friday’s Jumu’ah prayers - the most important prayer of the week - where they prayed alongside male students, instead of separately as has been the case for many years. “They still hung up a sheet to seperate us.” says Shaikh, shrugging her shoulders.

Their action followed a protest at the beginning of Ramadaan this year when 25 women, led by Shaikh, entered a mosque in Mayfair and said that they would pray there. Despite the anger of the elders, the women stood their ground and prayed. Shaikh says: “It was very intimidating at first, but our perseverance saw us through. The protests fizzled out as the nights went by.”

Their protests paid off in part. On the 27th night of Ramadaan, called Lailatul Qadr, when the congregation’s reading of the Quraan is completed, women were invited to other mosques, to pray and to listen to lectures from the congregation’s leaders. The sexes were still seperated, but the first bridge was crossed and women had got into the mosques.

And the protests are not confined to urban areas. Deep in the Northern Transvaal, in Pietersburg, where Shaikh was raised, her sisters also went to Eid prayers. They were the only two women there, but she hopes that a precedent has been established. Protests for the right of women to pray at mosques is confined almost totally to Indian Muslim areas.

Women in Malay areas do have facilities at mosques, although these are always partitioned from the main prayers. Some of the objections to women praying at mosques are archaic. According to Shaikh, these include “Women make fitna (gossip), they come to look for husbands and women always pray at home.” From the younger men comes the complaint that women distract them from their prayers.

Now the challenge for Muslim women is to assert their right to pray alongside men, not separately, and for women to know that they can also be Imams (the leaders of the congregation). “Women believe they are not supposed to be at the mosque,” says Shaikh. Yet this belief has no basis in Islam.

She quotes two examples of Islamic history where women have led prayers. In Mecca, women and men pray together during Haj, the annual pilgrimage. A woman led the funeral prayers for Imam Shafi’i (a respected Muslim scholar) and “the other was a case of an elderly women whom the Prophet Muhammad used to visit. The male servant used to give the adhan (call to prayer) while the woman used to lead the prayer,” says Shaikh.

Shaikh is pathbreaker in more than one sense. From the modernist strand of Islam in South Africa, she is the first women leader of the Muslim Youth Movement. The organisation “views Islam as a comprehensive world view,” and central to the practice of the religion is understanding the political role of Islam, which includes considering the role of women in Islam.

Shaikh’s methods have not always made her popular, especially amongst more traditional leaders. In a letter to a newspaper, a Muslim man said: “Great emphasis is placed on men performing their five times compulsory daily prayers at mosques, while women are encouraged to perform their prayers at home...” He said when women went to mosques, they prayed in the back rows not out of discrimination, but to separate the sexes. “In any case, one’s objective is to perform prayer, and you would not be any closer to God if you were to stand in the front rows, or any other rows for that matter.”

Says Shaikh: “For women, being home-makers is the priority. Going to mosque must fit into your schedule, but women carry the burden of the house-hold.” For example, women do not attend the morning prayers on Eid days, instead, they see there role as preparing meals for the day. “But (the most important part of) Eid is the morning congregational prayer,” says Shaikh. She says it is important for women to be at mosques because they are the most important centres of Islam. “Decisions are taken, direction is given. It is where people meet to pray together and it promotes consultation and discussion.”

This will be essential in encouraging Muslim women to think independently, especially when faced with the range of challenges that living under a future government presents them with. These challenges includes voting in next years elections as well as the forthcoming inclusion of Muslim personal law in the South African body of law.

Muslim women will now have to start discussing changes to personal law, like whether women can divorce men. The law as it stands says that women cannot divorce men.

Karima Brown, in a survey of the Muslim community in transition, points out that “....the Muslim community, especially those of Indian origin, are very traditional and in many instances Muslim women will in most cases follow their husbands on who to vote for, or whether to vote at all.”

A Muslim scholar remarked: “If women can win the battle for the mosques, then they are expressing clearly that they want entry into the Muslim community.”

Journey of Discovery:
A South African Hajj

by Shamima Shaikh and
Na'eem Jeenah


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