On Mosquing (Day 2 Ramadan 2015)

Wedding Day, Houghton Masjid (April 2015)

Wedding Day, Houghton Masjid (April 2015) Photo Credit: SP from SA

Yesterday was the second fast of the month and so far I’ve been praying at home. Partly because my local mosque didn’t have a women’s section when I was growing up and partly because I’m not very good with crowds and heat, it’s always just felt more familiar and comfortable to pray at home. And so although there are facilities at the local mosque, the past two nights I’ve waved goodbye to my husband and family as they leave for tarawih (nightly Ramadan prayers), before praying on my own while they are away.

But it’s winter in South Africa so heat isn’t an issue, and I was up early and ready to go, so when everyone headed to the masjid for Fajr (the dawn prayer), I jumped in the car.  Including myself, my mother in law and another woman there were three of us in the female section of the masjid at Fajr, and it was a beautiful, beautiful experience. The imam recited Surah Yaseen, my favourite chapter from the Qur’an, and it felt so comfortable to be starting the day praying and hearing a beloved and familiar Surah. It made me want to be more familiar with the Qur’an as a whole and to read and listen to it more often so that more chapters and verses become beloved friends, and to make dua this Ramadan that this takes place.

My mind was on duas because along with the heart softening experience of beautiful recitation, being in the mosque was a tangible, physical reminder that Ramadan is a time of supplication. It is a time of raising your expectations and knowing and trusting and believing God is Capable of all things. Our local masjid in Joburg is the Houghton West Street Masjid, and last year in Ramadan, before I had ever met my husband, I discovered the masjid when a teacher in Toronto tweeted a link to a recitation of the 99 Names from the Houghton Masjid Soundcloud page.  A couple of weeks later the same teacher posted their recitation of Surah Rahman (another chapter of the Qu’ran) and through Ramadan and afterwards as well, the same recitation of Surah Rahman, the 99 Names, and prayers on the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him posted on their Soundcloud page became things I would turn to time and time again for solace and comfort and reflection.

Many months later when I met my husband (a story for another time!) and learnt he is from South Africa, I admitted that I didn’t know very much about the country, but there was a masjid that I loved from afar. There are many, many, many masjids in South Africa, and so I didn’t think this particular one would be familiar to him, but to my great surprise, he shared that in fact, that very same masjid was his neighbourhood mosque, and that he loved their recitation of Surah Rahman too. A few months later, we were married in that very same masjid, and though wedding events and receptions can seem a bit of a blur, our nikkah (wedding ceremony) is very clear. Each time we drive past, or the few times I’ve been to the masjid to pray since then, our wedding day comes to mind, and yesterday’s Fajr prayer was no different. It brought forth memories of arriving at the masjid with my family beforehand, of navigating my long dress and train up the masjid stairs in heels (a new experience) to the female section upstairs, sitting as close as possible to the partition to see down into the mens section and hear the beautiful words and reflections of the ceremony, hugging friends and family and new faces afterwards, praying Dhuhr (the midday prayer) and praying and sitting on layers upon layers of material, making my way down the steps carefully after others left, and praying supplications in the moments before seeing my husband for the first time. Every time we visit the masjid, the anticipation and joy and gratitude of that day comes to life.

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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.

How Debates About Legitimacy and Technical Standards Can Mask Islamophobia

I stumbled upon an article today about an incident from Australia where “a community centre which also facilitated Muslim prayers” was denied a planning permit. The post in its entirety can be read here, but the following quotes from the article caught my attention:

What hurt most was the open vindictiveness displayed by objector neighbours who were passionately against having this centre in their backyard.

At times the objections bordered on hysteria, I still have them in my file – “these Muslims celebrate something called Ramadan where they slaughter animals on site”, “I am followed by Muslims who want to steal my credit card details” And then there is the hysteria that connects extremism around the world with the establishment of an Islamic centre. That somehow if an Islamic centre were established it would produce a wave of extremists that would destroy the community. This is the sort of hysteria thrown up with attempts to establish Islamic centres in Camden, Perth and more recently in Doveton and Monash. (…) Sadly what does hold sway are incidences of double parking, blocking of driveways, and excessive noise. That is sad and indefensible. (…) And yet it is easily reversible by exemplary behaviour stemming from humility and sincere concern for the plight of God’s Creations – people and the environment. “

Though I respect the sentiment, and do agree with the point that faith centres should think about how they are helping the greater whole, there are two issues here that require a closer look.

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Mosques Tell of Meaning, Direction and Settlement

Display at the Sultan Masjid, Singapore.

Display at the Sultan Masjid, Singapore.

I’m lost in a book. On the way to work, during lunch, on the way back home, and in every spare moment I can squeeze out of the day, I’ve been reading “In the Footsteps of the Prophet” by Tariq Ramadan, a biography of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) that extracts lessons from his life with love, thoughtfulness and careful attention.  It is a spectacular read, and accessible for any audience. Before I reflect on the book in its entirety though (I’m halfway through) I wanted to reflect on a passage I read today that has relevance for how we understand and address contemporary conflicts about the development of mosques.

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Goodbye Tea, hello Indonesian Coffee

I’ve been sitting in the courtyard of our hotel for the past few hours with the intention of writing this blog post, but I’ve been caught up in conversations about quantitative research methodology, the beauty of Bandung, the ethics of international travel, and how Islam is manifested in Britain, and the richness of the discussions have taken me away from my computer. Rich discussions and learning have been the highlight of today, a day that has been full of beautiful new places, interesting reflections and trying to stretch my courage muscles to try new things.

Which is something I forgot to mention yesterday in my post about intentions. Yesterday I was feeling a bit overwhelmed about all the new unfamiliar things we’ve been observing and experiencing, and realised that in addition to the academic goals I mentioned in the last entry, there are personal intentions I have for the trip. In essence, because I’m not very good at dealing with change, I want to focus on reframing anxiety into adventure, and recognising that for the next month, I have the wonderful privilege of (as my roommate beautifully described it) of waking up each morning and having the sole job of learning about Indonesia, and soaking up as much knowledge and experiences as I can. To extend this learning, I want to focus on stretching my courage muscles, trying new things, and God willing, putting forth my best effort to make this a meaningful experience. (Our tour guides, our professors and so many other people are so keen on facilitating our learning, that it seems poor form to not put in my best effort too). I also want to focus on becoming more directionally savvy, because so far I still don’t have my bearings in  Bandung, and I want to be able to navigate the city with a bit of familiarity.

And so today, in an attempt to be a tiny bit more courageous, I started the day by experimenting with Indonesian coffee. I’m a tea-lover, but today tried my first cup of coffee after many months. And oh, I fell in love! I’ve had four cups so far today, which is more coffee than I’ve probably had in the last year, but Indonesian coffee is simply that good. The rest of the day passed in an equally exceptional fashion. We had an amazing walking tour of the city that started with a visit to the Governor’s house, which is the seat of  the governor of the West Java province and the local mayor’s office, and then walked all the way to the top of the building where we could see all of Bandung. From above, you can really see how green and beautiful the city is, and the mountains are breathtaking.

From there we continued our walking tour and saw different areas of the city, took the local para-transit system of shuttles called Ankut Kotor, which was an adventure in and of itself (it’s not clear which shuttle goes where, and the passengers are really packed in tightly in the van) , went to the Asian-African Museum, which details the Bandung conference of 1955 (where the term third world emerged), went to the Grand Mosque of Bandung, went to an amazing lunch at a local restaurant, and finally ended our day at ITB, the Bandung Institute of Technology, where we learnt more about the school and got feedback on our research projects.  I was impressed by the depth of knowledge of our hosts- all of us have such different research interests, and yet regardless of topic, they were able to suggest wonderful resources to help us get started. Our hosts also are speaking to us in English, which is not their first language, but are doing so well that I feel silly about my own hesitancy in practising languages I’m not comfortable with (such as Urdu) and am committed on being more courageous on that front once we return. By the time we left ITB it was Maghrib (the evening prayer) time, and so I went back with some of the students from our program to the hotel.

But even with the early evening end, it was an incredible day where at each stage, there was so much to take in and explore. On one street called Jalan Brago ( I think) we learnt that though things look unplanned, there is informal housing intended to support the formal work in the area.We learnt that the street is connected to Pasir Baru (the old market) and that there is a logic to the structure of the street. When we went to the Grand Mosque it was time for Dhuhr (the midday prayer) and so as we approached the mosque we could hear the adhaan, or the call to prayer. I was surprised how emotional I felt hearing it, but it’s been so long since I’ve heard the call to prayer from the street, and hearing it made it real in a visceral tangible way where we’re in a place where it’s ok to be Muslim. Where being Muslim isn’t immediately connected to assumptions of patriarchy or exaggerated media representations. I wouldn’t say I’m experienced discrimination really in the past, but it surprises me how good it feels to see so many Muslims, and to really feel like you belong. I felt this most strongly in Singapore, where many locals asked me if I was Singaporean or Malay, and I would look around the MRT car and realise that I really did physically resemble many of the people on the train. I felt more at home there than I have when I visited Karachi, but as of yet, I’m not sure what one does with that realization, since I identify most with Canada and that is home. Oh for a world with the comfort and invisibility of South East Asia, combined with the loveliness of Toronto and Vancouver!  In any case, while it lasts it’s a joy not being a visible minority, and not being asked why i wear a headscarf and I’ll miss that when I return home.

Back to the call of prayer though, it wasn’t simply hearing it that was beautiful, it was also the sight of people rushing to prayer, and seeing the exterior design of the mosque, as the minarets were unlike any I’ve seen before. Part of the words of the call to prayer are rush to success, rush to prayer, and as we witnessed that today, it was good to reflect on the fact that those words are not simply the thing that happens before the prayer, its a call that one is meant to respond to. More pertinent to planning, I’m  curious to learn more about the story about this particular mosque. There was a courtyard that was bustling with people even during the prayer, and it is clearly an active public space that functions for more than prayer.

Being in Indonesia has made me hungry for information about Islam in this particular country, and though it’s a planning course, I have so many questions about how Islam has informed the region, and social and cultural identity. During our time at ITB I mentioned my interest in mosque development, and learnt that mosques typically were built with a courtyard, with the south side having a palace, and the west side having the mosque. I also learnt that even in Indonesia, given the colonial presence, mosque development has been contested territory.

At the same time, I’m curious about Muslim fashion in Indonesia, and how Muslim women are clearly targeted through advertising. In the supermarket yesterday I saw a cosmetics brand called Wardah featuring women in headscarves, there are shops that have ads for trendy Muslim clothing, and the women in Bandung are incredibly fashionable, with hijabs unlike ones I’ve seen in Toronto. Those two topics, Muslim women fashion and mosque development fascinate me at present, and I’m not sure what direction my research will take me.

I’m also trying to figure out how to negotiate prayer times within our course. The schedule is quite full, and  prayer rooms are not easily identifiable (at least so far, apparently there is a campus mosque at ITB) and so today we heard the Dhuhr call to prayer while we were at the mosque, but we didn’t really have the time to stop and I prayed later on. Then when the call to prayer for Asr (the afternoon prayer) came in, we were in a seminar, and I wasn’t sure what to do. So God willing in the days to come, I’m going to pack a prayer mat, and just pray in the hallway if needed once a prayer time comes in. There’s no point wanting to study Islam in the city  if I’m not diligent enough to pray at an appropriate time, and the prayer times are so close, that delaying will likely mean missing them.

So much more to share, but my battery is nearly gone, and it’s another full day tomorow. Till next time.