Ayesha Mahmood Malik, UK,
Editor – Law & Human Rights Section
In one of the scenes from the Odyssey, Penelope leaves her room to approach the assortment of courtiers that have occupied her mansion to serenade her to leave Odysseus and marry one of them. When she asks that they discontinue their melody, she is chastised by her adolescent son Telemachus: who tells her; public speaking is for men.
In the thirteen centuries since these lines were written, it seems little has changed for those who wish to silence women’s voices. And perhaps no voice in history has been so tempered with, muted and modified than the voice of the Muslim woman. Today, she carries a peculiarly unique burden. She must battle her way through two opposing narratives – one of an inherently misguided sense of patriarchy that seeks to control her and the other of radical libertarianism that wishes to free her. As these narratives clash for victory over each other, the Muslim woman’s voice is buried under the charge of their thundering hooves, which effectively trample and break her. Yet she must rise unscathed, shining brighter than before, louder in her defense and determination.
This indeed is the great irony of the Muslim woman’s voice – the forces that often champion her, are also often the ones that stifle her. The bastions of freedom that claim to set her free, so often clip her wings as she flies. A quintessential example of this was a report on British mosques today in the BBC, describing the lack of access to mosques by some Muslim women in the community during Ramadan and how this spoke of their ‘second class’ status compared to men. This is a classic case of today’s mainstream media taking the Muslim woman’s charge to free her from the so-called shackles of servitude that surround her and amplify her voice so that she is heard.
Yet, do Muslim women really feel heard, or silenced even more by such lopsided journalism? Such reports only provide a breeding ground for misconceptions about faith communities to thrive at a time when the world is already boiling over in the crisis of hate and racism. They paint millions with one brush without delving into the nuances that shape the subtle trajectories of faith-based traditions and norms, their purposes and what they mean to their adherents. They achieve exactly what they seek to conquer – the verbal subjugation of the Muslim woman. No other community is singled out for this treatment. Take the Orthodox Jewish tradition of separating men and women worshippers in synagogues with a mechitza, something that rarely gets any attention in the media. In fact, most people would not have even heard of what a mechitza is.
Today’s piece by Sophia Smith Galer provided that superficial screen with which people are free to ascribe their own negative constructs to Islam. Aside from being factually and theologically deficient, it also failed to note that the on-going restrictions in British mosques are in direct compliance with government guidelines regarding places of worship, which as reported by the BBC itself on 12 April 2021, state amongst other things, that ‘People… should be encouraged to move on promptly afterwards’ and ‘Spoken responses from worshippers should be uttered softly…’ It is clear as a basic preliminary point that these guidelines would be extremely difficult if not impossible to adhere to if children were to be allowed inside mosques during this time.
Hence, the decision to keep mosques closed for women and children during the pandemic is out of respect for government rules and regulations and in line with efforts to help stem the spread of the virus, particularly among the elderly and vulnerable. Furthermore, the piece by Ms. Galer claims that mosques closed their space to women during Ramadan. She says, ‘Several mosques across the UK have decided to close their women’s prayer space this month.’ However, coronavirus restrictions have meant that at least since December places of worship have been closed to worshippers. Even where men have been allowed, these are a handful observing social distancing measures, and the vast majority of Muslim men have also been instructed to pray at home during the pandemic.
This is true not just in the UK but has been the case in most parts of the world. This is true even though it is obligatory on Muslim men to offer their five daily prayers in a mosque, as much as possible. However, the same requirement does not apply to women who have been promised the same spiritual rewards by praying at home – because a host of reasons may prevent her from attending a mosque in person, even in the absence of a global pandemic. The Holy Qur’an provides unequivocally that the rewards for spiritual striving are equal for both men and women. For example, it states:
‘Surely, men who submit themselves to God and women who submit themselves to Him, and believing men and believing women, and obedient men and obedient women, and truthful men and truthful women and men steadfast in their faith and steadfast women, and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their chastity and women who guard their chastity, and men who remember Allah much and women who remember Him – Allah has prepared for all of them forgiveness and a great reward.’ 
Then there is the question of what a mosque really is. There is the physical manifestation of the mosque, wherein worshippers congregate to pray. However, the concept of a mosque is far wider within the Islamic faith and equally open in reach to both men and women. The Holy Prophet (sa) once said: ‘We have been made to excel (other) people in [these] things: our rows have been made like the rows of the angels and the whole earth has been made a mosque for us, and its dust has been made a purifier for us in case water is not available…’ 
Thus, as this hadith (saying of the Holy Prophet (sa)) beautifully extols, the mosque is not merely a space within the confines of the four walls of a physical structure. The concept of mosques is far greater than that. One of the mosques mentioned by Ms. Galer, the Baitul Futuh Mosque, belongs to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of which I am a member, and for Ahmadi Muslim women mosques are not just places of worship but places of enterprise. As the President of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association also intimated in her response to this piece today, the Baitul Futuh Mosque is a centre for convening large-scale events including peace symposiums, moral and educational training workshops, career and vocational training seminars, interfaith forums, sports events and yes, also our very own version of bake off.
For the Ahmadi Muslim woman, the mosque is a piece of her community, that brings her together in nearness to her Creator, by both praying and serving alongside His creation. All mosques belonging to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community not just accommodate women; women are their beating hearts. And while it has been painful to have not visited a mosque this year, this has been a part of a sacrifice for the wider good of humanity and respecting the laws of one’s country, which is mandated by the Islamic faith. Thus, when the storm clouds of misinformation gather to plant their fields of darkness, look for those voices creeping in the meadows. They sing but are often not heard.
About the Author: Ayesha Mahmood Malik is the Editor of the Law and Human Rights Section of the Review of Religions magazine. She is interested in Law and Religion, in particular Islam and Human Rights, the role of media in crisis reporting, International Human Rights and the import of religion on radicalisation. She has spoken frequently on these issues in the national media and various universities in the UK, including the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School.
The Holy Qur’an 33:36
Sahih Muslim Hadith #522