This evening I attended a well known class taught by an even more well known scholar at a local masjid here in Chicago. The masjid is physically striking. It’s green dome is a historic and curiosity-inducing landmark in the Hyde Park skyline. Despite it’s sheer beauty and unambiguous architectural presence, there is also a profound sadness associated with this masjid that many of the women I know in this neighborhood experience every time we drive or walk past it. The sadness comes because we know it is not a space in which we belong.
I attended tonight’s class because I needed something. For the past couple of days, I’ve been working through a feeling of being a bit overwhelmed. Thankfully, all is fine but when everyday life pours on you in the way that it sometimes does, it is only natural to seek relief in the place that you see to be a spiritual home.
At one point in today’s lesson, the scholar pointed out that creation is created in dualities and multiplicities so that we may better understand the order of created things. He pointed out that this is in direct contrast to the singularity of the Creator. (Islam is a monotheistic faith. ‘There is but one God.’) In other words, we, the created, are by our very nature inclined to see and seek out partners, pairings, and multiplicities.
A broken heart is a palpable, physiological sensation. The first wave of brokenheartedness is a dull, overwhelming ache that prompts one to seek solitary relief. You need to be alone. Your heart needs to give your mind the direction to give your body permission to get down on your knees and plead. You need to be given the space to feel seemingly endless wells and rivers of tears. But, we are human and the intensity of beseeching Him alone is soon followed by it’s partner - the sharp pangs of needing to find Him while intertwined with His creation. To not drown in the immense intensity of solitary prayer, one needs to find sacred spaces that are shared - to be reminded that we are not alone, that we are a multiplicity of shared human experiences.
Despite knowing what I know about this particular masjid and the poor track record it has when it comes to gender inclusion, I went. I went because I promised someone I would go. I went because I needed to go. I went because two days ago I was drowning in my own solitary prayers. I went because I wasn’t sure if I was reaching God. I went because I shouldn’t need to provide a reason to enjoin in communal worship.
After walking to the door from the dimly lit parking lot, I was greeted by the unavoidable signage clearing delineating the “SISTERS ENTRANCE.” My space, the space for my kind, was only accessible upon walking through a bathroom area. As is custom in this masjid, I was further greeted by impenetrable, solid green curtains. About a dozen women sat there waiting for class and Isha prayers to begin, as we faced the black-out curtains for 45 minutes.
At some point, a mic’ed voice shot out announcing the evening prayers. Like a sideshow circus act waiting to be unveiled, we lined up and dutifully said our communal prayers. A beautiful voice beautifully reciting beautiful words streamed through. Given my overwhelmed state of being, I badly wanted and needed to melt into those words. But my mind kept bringing me back to my intentional and stark separation from the reciter. All I could feel is the flushed rush of blood that comes shooting through your cheeks when you know that you are just a circus sideshow act, when you know that there are others who have access yet you do not, when you know that you and your kind can so easily be humiliated by creation. Once that reel started in my head, nothing could shake it. And so, worst of all, my prayer - my connection to the Divine, was disrupted.
Following prayer, one of the curtains was ever so graciously pulled back. ‘This is progress, sisters. We will lift the veil for the main act.’ An announcement was made prior to the class that was to be led by the scholar who everyone was there to hear. In this announcement, a seven minute diatribe was sweetly unleashed to remind women that if they were not in an appropriate “condition” for prayer, that they had no place being in the mosque and should in fact, respectfully leave. This was awkwardly repeated in every grammatically possible way until it was clear that a good percentage of women on any given day did not belong in this sacred space and were not in the right condition for learning from this teacher.
The scholar immediately followed and opened with a beautiful line, “Creation is a manifestation of marvelousness.” That was one of the last things I was able to absorb from him during the evening. The dissonance of the immense beauty in that notion coupled with also knowing that the men around me can and do remain silent in the face of women being made to feel so utterly spiritually disconnected and degraded was too much for me to handle.
The class continued. The mic was brought to the women and the whole lot of us was oh-so-generously asked if we had any questions. Less than half a moment later, the man stated into the mic, “Don’t be shy sisters,” followed by paternalistic chuckling amongst a few of the men.
Some of you may think that this is an overly lengthy way to describe a minor indignation. It’s not. (Yes, it’s overly long, but no, it is not a small thing.) I’ve been thinking about why I’m so struck by the silence of the men in my community in the room tonight and on many, many other nights. I’m feeling deeply wounded because it pains me to see the men that I respect remain silent in deference to another man in a position of authority. That willingness to prioritize the adab for a single man over the dejection of half of the congregation is painfully evocative of the same tired excuses that are made with respect to other crass violations of women’s dignity. As we denounce the monstrosity of the NFL’s repeated willingness to turn a blind eye towards domestic violence, we simply choose to ignore that we’ve got our own Ray Rice’s and NFL commissioners that are silently permitted to carry on just as they always do, even when women are being mocked, excluded, or beaten to a bloody pulp in our own neighborhoods and communities.
How’s that for duality, my brothers and sisters?
- Samar Kaukab of Chicago, IL, writes about Masjid al-Faatir in Hyde Park.
- Nura Maznavi, of Chicago, IL supplied the photographs of the prayer spaces at Masjid al-Faatir