by Pamela J. Prickett
Islam is one of the only global religious traditions (along with Orthodox Judaism) in which men attend worship services in far greater numbers than women. Search for images of mosques around the world, and what you find are pictures of men filling prayer spaces. Women participants are smaller in number and often in separate, smaller spaces. Such gender differences in the mosque contribute to public perceptions of Islam as a men-dominated religion. And, yet, it is Muslim women worldwide who are more likely to describe themselves as religious and to say they believe in God, according to a 2006 study. Why this contradiction?
Many Islamic scholars say the answer rests in Islamic texts, which are frequently interpreted as mandating congregational prayer for men and not women. But this does not explain why many women go to the mosque, including many African American Muslim women. Other observers (and many media pundits) argue that Islam is a patriarchal religion that places greater emphasis on men’s participation. They point to sex segregation in the mosque and the systematic exclusion of women from leadership roles (i.e. imam) as evidence of women’s oppression. I conducted more than five years of ethnographic fieldwork in an African American-led mosque, participating in the community as a non-believer. Based on my findings, I cannot claim Islam is any more patriarchal than other religious traditions. Instead, I found instances in which patriarchy manifests in observable ways (what I call “particularities of patriarchy”), but these can be found in any religious organization—perhaps any organization.
In my February 2015 article, I argue that religion, including Islam, does not make people do or believe anything. Instead, people “do religion,” a term I borrow from Orit Avishai. Seeing religion as something that is done by people rather than to them, helps us move away from essentializing notions of Islam as designed to suppress women’s interests. To do this, it helps to think of Islam—not as some grand and global religious tradition with more than two billion believers worldwide—but as a locally experienced identity that happens within the mundane interactions of daily life. Looking at local mosque life from the perspective of African American Muslim women reveals a different portrait of Islam than what we often encounter in the news or on social media.
In most African American-led mosques, women pray in smaller areas behind men. However, as demonstrated below, this arrangement does not impede the women’s abilities to control their own worship experiences.
The masalah is quiet, save for Imam Khalid’s soft voice speaking about the importance of taqwa (God-consciousness). Although the service started at 1:00, and it is now 1:28 p.m., believers are still trickling into the masjid, including one younger non-African-American male…he starts to move into salat position, bringing his feet together and correcting his posture. Before the man can begin his prayer, a sister sitting in a chair about six feet behind him clears her throat loudly and says, without moving her body an inch, “As-salaam alaikum, Brother.” The young man turns round, looks at the sister humbly as he lowers his head, and then moves far to the left out of the sister’s way. The sister says nothing else, just continues to look forward towards Imam Khalid.
I draw out this interaction for three reasons. First, the sister wanted to be able to see the imam as he spoke, demonstrating a desire to be actively engaged in worship service. This is important to how the women make sense of their religious participation. Second, the sister demonstrates that she is neither intimidated by nor subordinate to the men worshipping in front of her. Third, on this day only 15 sisters were in attendance, while the men’s area had at least 60 brothers. To get out of the sister’s way, the brother had to move into a crowded group of men against a wall. And this was typical—women had plenty of room to spread out, whereas brothers sat through the khutbah with folded legs, often touching their neighbor’s knees.
So, even though their designated space in the mosque was smaller, the women enforced their rights to make it a meaningful place for worship. I also found women working together to resist patriarchy by creating their own sacred “sisters-only” spaces and by developing systems of social support outside the mosque that are more meaningful in the long-term than the greater access to organizational resources certain men had as official authorities.
Understanding these local maneuverings of space directs our attention to how people construct religiosity on the ground, as opposed to seeing religion as a set of beliefs and practices imposed on believers. It also reminds us that however “global” Islam may seem, especially in light of recent events, all religions are lived in the local. Grounding religiosity in local place and time is critical if we want to understand the actions of any pious women or man.
Pamela J. Prickett is a PhD candidate in the department of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her article, “Negotiating Gendered Religious Space: The Particularities of Patriarchy in an African American Mosque,” is published in the February 2015 issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.