A Community is Made of Men and Women

Men's prayer space/our Arabic classroom in Carrolton, Texas.

Men’s prayer space/our Arabic classroom in Carrolton, Texas.

As much as I love Vancouver, there are moments when I want to move. There are moments when I miss spaces where the educational experience of men and women is equal, such as the SeekersHub in Toronto, where I always felt welcome, and never felt like my gender was a barrier to furthering my Islamic education.  I miss interfaith prayer spaces such as the MultiFaith Centre (and other prayer spaces) at the University of Toronto that were physically beautiful, and did not barricade women in a corner.  And more recently, there are moments when I want to return to Dallas, where I spent a month in a mosque learning classical Arabic grammar this summer, and where class was held in the main prayer space, and structured in a way that men and women were on opposite sides of the room, and equally able to learn from our teacher. Aside from the learning benefits, knowing your teacher means that you can model their behaviour. From the ways a teacher interacts with you, you learn what appropriate gender interaction looks like, and can extend those principles to the rest of your life. Knowing your teacher means that you have someone to ask questions and seek advice when you are unsure what to do. It is essential.

In Vancouver however, we’re not there yet.

Two nights ago, the founder of the Bayyinah Institute (the same institute that offers the Arabic course I did in Dallas) came to Vancouver for a lecture on stories in the Qur’an. Though he wasn’t my teacher in Dallas, during one of our class days he came to help us review for an upcoming exam, and I was looking forward to a small way, reconnecting with what was a very special month of learning for me.

Unfortunately, I never heard him speak. The hall where the lecture was held was large, but the women were in a different, crowded space, with no video link. So after waiting for a bit and seeing if I could sit outside the lecture hall, my brother and I left. The teacher was surprised as well I think, and mentioned that ‘he wasn’t used to women not being in the same space, would do a Q and A session after the event with the female attendees, and would stay as long as women wanted him to stay.”

I appreciate his attempt to address an inequitable situation. But it’s not up to a guest teacher to find some way to include everyone; equity needs to be thought of at the outset of the planning process. To give an example from urban planning, when the floor plans of housing developments and community centres do not consider the needs of the multiple communities and cultures, it is a message that only the dominant culture matters. When transit users with wheelchairs experience horrendous delays, poorly lit and dangerous transit stops, and systems that do not account for their needs, those barriers of access signal that their needs are not valued. We send messages about who does and does not belong in the ways we structure spaces and places.

As long the learning experience of women is not valued, the education of women, communities and families will suffer. As long as the learning experience of women is not valued, it becomes difficult to invite friends and colleagues who may be interested in learning more about Islam and wish to fill in their own gaps of knowledge. As long as the learning experience of women is not valued, it sounds hollow to talk about how gender equity is something inherent to Islam.

And so, rather than running away to another city, below are a few thoughts and suggestions on how to create better spaces. These are not new ideas, but they make a real impact.

1) If you only have one space available that is large enough for all your attendees, have the men and women share that space, and set up tables that are side by side.

You can have an aisle separating both sides of the room for ease of movement. If you don’t have a classroom available and you’re in a mosque, use the men’s prayer room.  In Dallas, the women’s section of the mosque was on the same floor as the men’s section with a one way mirror. During our evening classes, if anyone from the larger community wished to sit separately, they could still see into the class easily, but nobody could see them. (95% of attendees sat in the main section of the mosque though). A few years ago I was on a study trip called the Rihla, and spent a few weeks with teachers from the US and UK in Saudi Arabia. We sat on the floor in our classes, on opposite ends of the room. In Toronto there is a week long retreat held annually with incredible teachers from around the world, and again, that event happens through side by side seating, with a section in the middle of the room for families who wish to sit together.

2) If you are designing a space and you’d like a partition, make it subtle. At the SeekersHub in Toronto, one of my favourite spaces to learn, the men and women sat on opposite sides of the room, the teachers were at the front of the room, and there was a bookshelf in the middle. The room was equally divided, you could see the teacher, but the students on the other side of the room couldn’t see you. It was a beautiful set-up.

3) When you see an uninclusive space, act as an ally. It’s not up to women alone to advocate for inclusive spaces. In our family, we only go to events where I can hear and experience the event properly, and my Dad and brother are my strongest allies in bringing up issues of access. The teachers that I value most: my teacher in Dallas, my teacher at the Hub in Toronto, and other teachers I’ve learnt from in other settings, often speak out about how communities need to view the inclusion and involvement of women differently. The students I studied with at the University of Toronto were men and women who cared about equity, and if I was ever in a situation where I felt uncomfortable, there were lots of people who noticed the same dynamics and worked to address them. It is alienating to be the only person advocating for your learning.

4) Have an ongoing study of the life of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. Sometimes spaces are segregated in harmful ways because we aren’t necessarily familiar with the ways women were nurtured historically in Islam. But when we study the life and character of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), the ways in which he created a community in which men and women were equally valued, and the contributions, dignity and independence of his wife Khadijah, the courage of his daughters, the beauty of other members of his family and community, it is clear that gender equity are part of the Islamic tradition. One great learning resource to learn more is the Qalam Institute’s Podcast on the Prophet’s Biography, which goes into the Prophet’s life in a lot of detail.

5) Support organizations that care about their female students. If you can’t find inclusive spaces, still continue to learn. I’ve been remiss this year in organising regular study circles with others, but this is something I hope to do in upcoming months.  SeekersGuidance is a place with wonderful online courses, the Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto publishes its lectures and classes on its SoundCloud page, and both of these resources are wonderful resources to share, support and learn from.

(Day 3) Ramadan is the Month of Qur’an

The beauty of mosques (Dallas, Texas)

Grammar helps you take a word for word translation and make sense of it. For instance, the word al-Kitab is a written text. The word Qur’an means that which is recited abundantly, is read frequently. In the Qur’an we see that different pointing words are paired with these two words – this Qur’an, and that Kitab. And this makes sense. At any time our written text is in a fixed place, in our bookbag, our iPad, in our car. It’s possible that we will be far away from our written copy of the text (otherwise known as the mushaf).  But that which is read and recited, the Qur’an that is in the heart, that is always near, and we see that reflected in the pointing words used with these different words.

When we take a closer look we also notice the first place the word al-Quran is mentioned from the beginning of the Quran is in the verse about Ramadan. Before that the word that is used is al-Kitab. Because in Ramadan we recite Quran, abundantly, more than it is recited in the whole year. And so the first time we are introduced to this word is in this verse.

-Shaykh Abdul Nasir Jangda, Bayyinah Quran Intensive 2013

Today (Friday) is the third fast of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, in which Muslims worldwide fast from before sunrise to sunset for 30 days. It’s a month of reflection, prayer, personal transformation, charity and empathy, and a time that is much anticipated before it arrives. This year, there are two aspects of Ramadan I’ve been thinking about over the last couple of days.

1) Ramadan is a universally accessible experience.

For the past month I’ve been studying classical Arabic grammar in Dallas, Texas, and I returned to Vancouver the day before Ramadan began. The course was my first trip to the States, and over the month I learnt so much about mosques, the beauty of faith, Arabic grammar, the state of my own heart, and so much more. When it was possible, I tweeted reflections from our classes, and through messages and tweets I received that month, I realised that there were people across the United States and other parts of the world who were following our classes, and very much wished to be with us. Being part of such an incredible learning opportunity was a tremendous blessing and gift.

In contrast to that experience of traveling for a specific class, or other religious experiences such as the pilgrimage of Hajj or Umrah, it’s beautiful how Ramadan is something that is available to everyone. Regardless of time limitations or finances, everyone can, and is meant to change their routine, reflect on what they are doing, where they are going, and how they are personally striving to become better people.  It is a gift that we don’t travel anywhere to experience Ramadan, it is just there waiting for us, and I hope I can take advantage of this month and make the most of it.

2) Ramadan asks us to figure out how you fit spirituality in your daily life

At the Arabic course I was taking, we had class from 8-3pm everyday, and then returned back to the mosque from 7-11pm for additional classes and reflection time. It was beautiful to have that window away from my daily life and to take time everyday to study, read Qur’an, pray with others and make personal supplications as well. The challenge when you leave such an experience is figuring out how to maintain the spiritual habits and your relationship with the Divine you’ve started to cultivate while you were away. The challenge is translating the learning you’ve done into your character and your life. The challenge is actually becoming a better person.

Ramadan is the opposite. In the midst of one’s daily routine of commuting, going to work, preparing meals, and whatever responsibilities make up your day, you challenge yourself to fast, to set goals of developing a better character, and finding time to connect with the Qur’an, reflect on its meanings. You challenge yourself to do good works, to give in charity, and to spend ample time in personal supplication. It’s a month of practical spirituality. It’s a challenge because you are sleep and food deprived, but a critical exercise because the character development in Ramadan occurs as your life continues around you. As a result, the habits you develop in Ramadan are hopefully habits you can continue once the month is done.

During my Arabic class, I struggled with whether or not I should blog about our experiences – partly because of time constraints and partly because in recent months I’ve been trying to figure out whether writing is a beneficial way to spend my time. In the DFW airport on Monday though, I walked through bookstores eager for something for the flight, and realised I couldn’t find anything that spoke to my experiences particularly well, and had a long think on the way home about writing. This month, I’m going to God willing, try and spend some time sharing Ramadan experiences and reflecting on the course I just took – hopefully there is something here that is of benefit. Till next time.