Exempted, not prohibited

Print edition : May 13, 2016

Women offering prayers on the first day of the holy month of Ramzan at the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, on July 11, 2013. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Islam does not prohibit women from offering prayers at mosques but since it prohibits mixed-gender prayers, logistical problems prevent some mosques from offering separate enclosures for them.

IN 1993, THE NOTED AUTHOR ANEES JUNG had written about Muslim women’s interpretation of Islam, including, of course, their right to pray in mosques. In her book Night of the New Moon, Anees Jung had done a fetching portrait of Najma Heptullah, now a Minister in the Narendra Modi government. “The Prophet would apply attar and instruct men not to eat garlic or onion when going to the mosque, lest the odour offended others. These, says, Najma, are the beauties of Islam, the attention that is given to small things that make the texture of our daily life. It is the youngest and the most modern religion. At a time when women were buried alive the Prophet gave equality, honour and rights to women. A woman was entitled to own, inherit and sell property. She had the right to choose whom she wanted to marry. Of course, with these rights were tied obligations. If they were not respected that was another matter. It is not the mistake of religion, believes Najma, but of men. ‘We live in a man’s world where men make rules. Women were never barred from going to the mosque. They were only exempted as they had household chores. When they go to Haj or Umra they go and pray in the mosque.”

Anees Jung’s words, written more than 20 years ago, would have rung in the ears of Zakia Soman, co-founder of the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, as she approached the Supreme Court seeking for Muslim women the right to worship in mosques. The Andolan, a coalition with over 70,000 members, caught the public’s attention by taking recourse to Article 15 of the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. The move, understandably, united the clergy in their responses, with most representatives of Muslim bodies, such as the Jamat-e-Islami Hind, the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, the Ahl-e-Hadith, and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), pointing out that such a move was not needed. “The Constitution of India as well as the Shariah safeguards a woman’s right to pray in a masjid,” said S.Q.R. Ilyas, member, AIMPLB. “We are not going to counter any move from women to enter the masjids. It is their right. Women used to come to masjids during the time of the Prophet. Even today, they come and offer prayers in Masjid-e-Nabvi. Here in India, women can offer prayers inside mosques. There is a big Ahl-e-Hadith masjid in Joga Bai, Delhi, where a complete floor is reserved for women to attend Friday prayers. Even in other mosques such as the Jamat Masjid in Zakir Nagar in South-East Delhi, women do come to offer prayers. We want women to come to masjids as it is essential for a feeling of unity and camaraderie. Islam is all about the unity of the ummah. On Friday, there are special sermons to guide the faithful. If women are not allowed to attend the Friday prayers, how are they going to gain from the sermons?” asked Ilyas.

“Women come to our masjid, located in the heart of New Delhi. They come and offer their namaz almost every day. Nobody stops them,” said an official of the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind. “Though a fatwa can only be given by an authorised mufti, nowhere have women been forcibly evicted from a masjid. Even in our smaller mosque, women do come to offer prayers and nobody has raised an objection.” The point is elaborated upon by Engineer Salim, secretary general, Jamat-e-Islami Hind: “Our beloved Prophet did not prohibit women from coming to masjids to pray. Even in Haj and Umra, women pray in masjids. We, at our own masjid in Jamat’s headquarters in Delhi, have a dedicated section for women. Hundreds of women offer their Eid prayers here. On Fridays too, many women come from various places. Some women participate in the prayers offered five times a day. During Ramzan, so many women come to the masjid for the special taravi [extra] prayers. They have separate entry and exit points. They can drive in and drive out without meeting the male namazis [devotees]. The Quran does not prohibit women from coming to masjids and offering prayers. It merely exempts them.” According to him, a woman can also lead the prayers of women in case they have their own jamaat [assembly].

At Old Delhi’s historic Jama Masjid, a corridor is reserved for women. Indeed, Imam Ahmed Bukhari, who is otherwise often criticised for his political statements, is quite supportive of them. “Islam permits women to go to mosques. Who can deny [them]? When they pray at Masjid al Haram, they can pray anywhere. There is no stopping them.” At the Jama Masjid, the women’s rows are at a slightly higher level than the men’s. It helps to avoid undue male attention. The scene is similar at New Delhi’s Jama Masjid, where a separate room is provided for women worshippers. On Eid, when the room often proves too small to accommodate all the women, the entire first floor is reserved for them. Said Muhibullah Nadwi: “We get many women namazis on Eid. So many women from educated families come here. It is important to give them an atmosphere of security and privacy.” On every Eid, security personnel frisk the devotees, as the mosque is right opposite Parliament House, and well-known people, including Vice President Hamid Ansari, offer their prayers here. Keeping women’s participation in mind, women police officers are deployed too.

At smaller masjids

The religious Right apart, the situation is quite different at the ground level. Many mosques, particularly the smaller ones in residential areas, do not have a provision for women to offer prayers. Islam prohibits mixed-gender prayers and most mosques in India do not have separate enclosures for women. There is no separate wuzukhana (wash area) where women can perform ablution. Most do not have separate restrooms too. All this combines to effectively discourage women. “In some cases, the local imams or maulanas could be rigid,” conceded Salim, “but women cannot be barred from mosques.” Salim’s point is echoed by his female colleague Atiya Siddiqua, women’s secretary, Jamat-e-Islami Hind. “Women were given the right to enter and pray in the masjid and even kiss the black stone of the Kaaba during Hajj more than 1,450 years ago. There are some misconceptions but it is the duty of the community to present the teachings of Islam to our fellow countrymen.” Ilyas, however, said: “While so many big mosques permit women to pray, there could be a problem with some of the smaller masjids. This has a lot to do with logistics. Some mosques are not equipped to have separate enclosures for men and women, which is a must as Islam does not permit intermingling of the two sexes. However, it has nothing to do with opposition to women’s entry into masjids. The situation is better in south India where people are not as conservative in such matters.”

Women, all clerics reiterate, are only exempted from praying in a masjid, not prohibited.

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