In many mosques, women are excluded from leadership positions; in others, women are not even provided space to worship. But a new mosque in one of England’s oldest cities is offering a thrilling vision of space open to all.
A recent article in The Economist lamented that in many of Britain’s mosques women are excluded from leadership positions, with a large proportion of mosques not even accommodating women by providing space for worship. In a piece that appeared in The National, Shelina Janmohamed similarly levelled a critique of this phenomenon that is at once impassioned and bewildered. She asks:
If women are not able to join their friends and neighbours at the mosque, then where should they go? If they can’t use places of worship to gain knowledge and discuss the issues of the day, to whom will they turn?
At the same, there are several Muslim women serving as MPs in the House of Commons, as well as Baronesses within the House of Lords. On the other side of the Atlantic pond, two Muslim women have just been voted into Congress and none of these women have denied their Muslim identities. Will the mosques catch up, one wonders?
I had the distinct pleasure recently of seeing the early stages of one of Britain’s newest mosques in one of England’s oldest cities, Cambridge. The mosque organisers, headed by a Cambridge University don in Islamic studies, Dr Timothy Winter otherwise known as Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad had clearly thought very carefully about the needs and requirements of this community. I am not familiar with many places of worship that send out opinion surveys as to what the mosque ought to provide in terms of services and spaces but this mosque did; including very specific questions, it seems, about the provision of space for female worshippers. This created, it appears, its own dilemmas but it also allowed for the opportunity to be rather creative.
As one walks into the mosque complex, one immediately finds a cafeteria, teaching area and a garden. The mosque organisers reminded me that all of these were obviously gender inclusive, but that, additionally, the garden was designed by an English Muslim woman, Emma Clark, who trained at the Royal College of Arts. So far, so good. But the real question for Muslim women in places of worship is simple: does it allow for their empowerment in terms of space, or does it entrench their disempowerment in the same?
The answer to this question is answered as soon as one enters in the main prayer hall. There are three prayer spaces: the main hall; another, smaller hall separated from the main hall by sound-proof transparent glass; and a balcony area above the smaller hall, from which the entirety of the main hall can be seen. The balcony is reserved for women; the smaller hall is reserved for women who might have crying babies, but who still want to be a part of the broader mosque community without feeling they might be bothering them with the infants’ crying. The reserved “women-only” prayer spaces probably make up a good fifth of the overall prayer space. But that still leaves the main prayer hall.
A common topic of discussion in many mosques in the UK where there is provision for women is: do women have access to the main prayer hall and, if so, should there be a screen therein, separating the men from the women? The mosque organisers decided to ask the prospective community this question, in the form of a survey. Around 40% of respondents wanted a screen; the majority did not. So what was the mosque to do? Whom should the mosque try to satisfy?
The answer was easy: both. The mosque constructed arabesque screens that were a couple metres high for those who wanted to pray in complete seclusion, and screens that were about a half a metre high for those that did not. These smaller screens, nonetheless, functioned to demarcate the different spaces. Moreover, gaps existed in between those sections, so that families who came to the mosque with children who might want to go back and forth between the men’s and women’s sections could do so easily. If that was not flexible enough, the screens themselves are movable, so that the space can be adjusted to accommodate more women should the occasion demand it. Such a simple solution to a potentially divisive problem is as elegant as it is ingenious.
Perhaps crucial for the success of this project will be the appointment of the Mosque Director at the Cambridge Mosque Trust a position that, at present, is yet to be filled. On more than one occasion, the chairman of the Trust, Dr Winter, stressed that the position was gender neutral – both men and women were welcome to apply. He volunteered that information without any prompt from me.
This is a thrilling new project, and one that is well placed to welcome all sections of the Cambridge Muslim community. It is also a project that is designed to be accommodating to Cambridge’s ecosystem: the mosque will feature solar panels, as well as rain-gathering (for use in maintaining the grounds) and water conservation (such as motion sensors near the taps in the ablution areas) measures. Consistently, I saw a mosque that was designed to bring the wider community Muslim and non-Muslim alike into the mosque grounds, and to a means of regenerating the local surroundings as a genuinely communal space.
One can only hope that the Cambridge mosque serves as a new standard in England, the UK and Europe more generally for mosque design. It still needs support, and for the good of social cohesion throughout Cambridge and Great Britain, I hope it receives all the assistance it needs.
Dr H.A. Hellyer is senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute, and a visiting professor at the Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation in Kuala Lumpur. He is the editor of The Islamic Tradition and the Human Rights Discourse, and author of Muslims of Europe: The “Other” Europeans, A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond Revolt and the forthcoming A Sublime Way: The Sufi Path of the Makkan Sages.