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The role of women in mosques is finally changing. Here’s why that matters

6 Muslim women explain why the UK’s first female mosque training scheme is so vitally important

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has announced a groundbreaking new scheme to train women to run mosques, after slamming the current lack of women in visible leadership positions as ‘unacceptable’. 

The scheme is the first of its kind in Britain, and 26 women have already come forward to enroll on the six-month programme.

It’s been a long time coming: at present, a quarter of mosques in the UK have no facilities for women, while access is often restricted and the space they’re provided with can be inadequate. Meanwhile, in a recent survey from Scottish Mosques for All, a project campaigning for women to be included in mosques at all levels, two thirds of respondents said that mosques rarely involved women in decision-making, or even made them feel welcome.

Mosques can be unwelcoming places for women

Thankfully, it’s not all bad news. A number of mosques, including the Inclusive Mosque Initiative (IMI) and Imaan LGBTQI, have made some welcome strides in providing spaces of worship for the multiplicities of British Muslim identities in recent years. Both welcome all races, genders, sexualities and sects. This is in direct contrast to most mainstream mosques, which have historically rarely sought to accommodate space for women.

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And the new training scheme is part of a broader shift of women taking an active role in spiritual spaces the world over; female pastors in the US have doubled in a decade, while the UK saw its third female bishop appointed earlier this year. It’s heartening to know that Muslim women, too, can occupy positions of religious authority.

Here, Stylist speaks to six Muslim women about the new scheme, why it’s important and the impact the move could have on mosques in Britain. 

Naima Khan, 31, trustee at the Inclusive Mosque Initiative

I’m pleased that the value of female leadership has finally been recognised by an organisation with influence. It was heartening to hear Harun Khan, the MCB Secretary Council, say: ‘It’s actually about educating the men, [to show] that they need to open up and create space so that women can take part’. He recognises that women have great skills and are an asset to mosques.

I saw quite a few Muslim women leaders when I was growing up, including in mosques, but they were always leading groups of other women. Seeing men being supportive of Muslim women leaders would have had a huge impact on my younger self. I joined the Inclusive Mosque Initiative after years of listening to sermons by men who have no real understanding of the different things women experience.

I think the training programme is a great start. For a long time, women have been told that they don’t deserve or need a place at the mosque, so what’s required for a long-term change is a huge shift in attitude. I think the key to long lasting change is the education of men and boys about the power they hold, and the ways that power can be abused.

But even though it’s taken far too long for this to have been introduced, am I optimistic about what the future holds for women’s roles in mosques in Britain? Absolutely.

Bana Gora, 45, co-founder and CEO of Muslim Women’s Council and founder of the first women-led mosque in Britain

Although we have a long way to go, the announcement is a brilliant start. Younger generations are taught that Islam treats both men and women as spiritual equals, yet the practices within mosques contradicts this.

I’ve found that mosques abroad, including those in Saudi Arabia, Bosnia and Turkey, are more inclusive and welcoming of women than in Britain. When I was growing up in Bradford, we prayed at home but I’d always ask why we couldn’t go to the mosque on a Friday with our brother and father. We were told it wasn’t the ‘done’ thing: women don’t go to the mosque.

Women should assert their right to access in mosques. They were never denied this during the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) time. I’m launching the first female managed mosque in the UK for that reason. I’m most looking forward to creating an all-inclusive mosque which allows women to question, learn, grow and have an opportunity to make informed choices.

What do I think mosques should do to ensure women are more supported and welcomed? Open up the space in every aspect of the mosque. Let women sit at the table and make decisions for the collective benefit of the community. Don’t confine them to invisible corners or basement rooms.

Saadiya Yusuf, 27, writer and policy and communications professional

I felt optimistic and proud when I first heard the news. The lack of female leadership and representation in mosques was something I just thought I had to accept. Men who currently run mosques do not have first-hand experiences on how they can be uncomfortable or unwelcoming spaces for women, so they have no sense of a need to address this.

I understand that it’s not obligatory for women to attend mosques in the same way as it is for men. Sadly, [I suspect that] this has been used to undermine women’s place in the British Muslim community, rather than providing us with the option to get involved as much or as little as we want.

I attended mosques growing up and it was great seeing my community gather together during Eid and Ramadan. When I moved away for uni, I was eager to recreate that community feel and went along to a local mosque in Liverpool.

“I hope that there’ll be opportunities to tackle anti-blackness within the Muslim community, too”

To my surprise, it was a completely different experience. Rather naively, I walked through the main entrance and was told to go back out and go through the side entrance to find the women’s section. There was no female representative readily available, so I remember feeling quite isolated. After a while, I stopped going and relied on the internet. But it’s no replacement for creating lived experiences and real-life community building.

While it’s great that Muslim women are given this opportunity, I hope that there’ll be opportunities to tackle anti-blackness within the Muslim community, too. As a black, female Muslim, I can feel overlooked. We’re often ignored and left out of important discussions surrounding faith, while anti-blackness has sometimes led to unnecessary division and isolation from the Muslim community. The MCB and other faith-led organisations should take active steps to ensure that black women like myself are better supported and welcomed in mosques. I sometimes find mosques intimidating if I’m the only black female in attendance. No one should ever feel that way.

Anjum Mouj, 52, trustee of Imaan LGBTQI and campaigner for Muslim LGBTQ+ rights

I think the new announcement is an important step towards equality. Mosques should go beyond having women on committees: they actively support Muslim women. They’re a community, not merely just a prayer or committee space. One of my colleagues at Imaan LGBTQI tells me his mum regularly takes other Tamil Muslim women to the doctor or clinics to help with translation – a lot of these women meet others and network at the mosque.

Growing up in the North of England, I felt very alienated in the mosque. These environments were hostile to any difference. I would have loved to have seen a diverse representation of women, LGBTQI leaders and different races, ethnicities and ages that reflect the diversity of the Muslim community.

What further reforms should be made to British mosques? Recognise and support LGBTQI members of the congregation, be inclusive and welcoming, talk to us, involve us, get us to lead prayers and hold us up with high regard.

Dr Rajnaara Akhtar, 39, Senior Lecturer in Law

Muslim women, like most other women in society, aren’t willing to exist within the carefully defined boundaries imposed on us. We’re no longer accepting periphery roles, unequal space or exclusion. Ultimately, the ideal solution would be mosques where men and women are fully participating and fully respected. However, mosques need to understand the unequal obligations that women face where care and household responsibilities are concerned, which mean many might not have the time to participate.

This needs to be taken into account to enable easier remote access to meetings. There also needs to be training for male members, too. Don’t leave fundraising for women while men undertake the ‘important’ tasks like book keeping, for example. Ensure the roles available fully reflect abilities. 

Samayya Afzal, 27, Community Engagement Manager at the Muslim Council of Britain

My experiences of attending mosques have been overwhelmingly positive. Whether to pray, paying my respects for the deceased, spending time reading the Qur’an, hosting events or attending iftars, I’ve always felt welcomed.

Even so, there have been cases where I’ve experienced inconveniences, such as unwelcome attitudes and inadequate women’s sections. I feel incredibly hopeful to see an organisation like the MCB taking a serious and practical step towards gender equality. The next round of trainees will include both men and women so that change will be widespread.

Images: Getty, Unsplash, Wasi Daniju

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