Campaign launched to open British mosques to women

By Ruth Peacock

About one third of British mosques have no space for women to pray. Now a network of women has come together to challenge the status quo.

The women have produced a report detailing statistics about the provision for female worshippers in British mosques and a survey collecting examples of inequality and discrimination, which they hope will be a catalyst for action to change.

They launched it at a high-powered meeting in parliament, with Muslim female professionals from all walks of life and contributions from Baroness Warsi and an Anglican bishop.

The report was produced by the Open My Mosque campaign, which is part of Together We Thrive network founded by Julie Siddiqi.

At the meeting that launched the report, Ms Siddiqi said the movement began when a group got together and “realised that the issue of bring shouted at, or belittled, or turned away from mosques was happening to lots of women”.

It was common, she said, that women did not feel included or valued on mosque management boards. Women might have to travel two to three times the distance of men to find a dedicated prayer space or a mosque, which made it difficult to observe the requirement to pray five times a day. 

“These attitudes leak into other parts of our communities and not just mosques,” she said, and “this is not the equality our religion teaches”, reminding the audience that men and women were welcomed together in the time of the Prophet Muhammad and women were teachers in mosques.

Ms Siddiqi realised that in this time of heightened tension, people felt nervous about raising the issue, but she said: “We’re not going to stay quiet over something so important and fundamental as this.”

The report, My British Mosque, acknowledges that conversations about inclusion are kept within the community, over fears that they would feed into Islamophobic tropes that Islam was anti-woman.

But it outlines the theological and historical imperative for women to be treated equally and be included fully. The arguments are well rehearsed among UK and European scholars.

The report was written by Anita Neyyar, a social psychologist and research consultant, and co-founder of the campaign.

At the launch, Ms Neyyar outlined a body of research on women’s inclusion in mosques, theological interpretations that cause discrimination, women’s experience of faith, and the needs that women have identified as being lacking in mosques.

The purpose of My British Mosque was to gather evidence and statistics on the experiences of British Muslim women to deepen understanding of the issues and point to practical solutions for change. It includes evidence from an online survey of 322 respondents from 19 regions in Britain, in addition to policy-makers within Muslim organisations.

It found that 96 per cent of those surveyed did not believe there was any basis in Islamic law to stop women from attending the mosque to pray or to be excluded from management boards.

It also found that 59 per cent had female friends or family unfairly or negatively treated in a mosque.

Examples of discrimination were included in the respondents’ own words:

‘The women’s area tends to be in some rubbish corner the men don’t want’

  • “There were unclean poor wudhu [washing] facilities, insufficient places to actually pray. Women’s area tends to be in some rubbish corner the men don’t want. Being squashed in a basement made me very uncomfortable like I’m a secondary citizen.”
  • “When I’ve tried to visit a mosque, you’re told you can only come in on one day at a set time and it’s always a space that’s not set up for prayer or reflection. If you’re a man you’re welcome whenever you want to go.”
  • On intimidation: “It has happened to me numerous times. It includes being turned away at the door, rudely and told ‘no place for women’.  No signposts showing where I was supposed to go, so I felt unwelcome and lost in a place that I should feel at home in.”

At the launch, two young women told of being violently blocked from entering a mosque in London, manhandled and kicked. At the time, some people accused them of being the problem. Neither the police nor the Charity Commission took up their case, they said.

The report explains that most mosques have been set up by people moving to the UK from the Indian sub-continent, maintaining a way of life that can sit at odds with the needs of British-born Muslims.

It says: “Worshippers tend to locate the problem with power-hungry mosque boards, dominated by a small group of men with ‘back home’ mentalities, unwilling to adapt to contemporary needs.” However, it says it is important to address the needs of worshippers both under Islamic law and as British citizens.

Places of worship are a grey area for equalities legislation and in one test case brought by lawyers, the Charity Commission said it was unable to act, which made redress and challenge a struggle.

The Open My Mosque campaign hopes the report will act as a tool for change, creating conversations with statutory and non-statutory bodies, governance boards and umbrella bodies.

It has come up with five needs that worshippers would like to be met:

  • 85 per cent want a prayer space for both men and women
  • 73 per cent want Jummah prayer for both men and women
  • 73 per cent want a welcoming presence from staff and worshippers
  • 70 per cent want more inclusion for women on the governance board
  • 70 per cent want more women on the management board

Ms Siddiqi said the issue had been known about for some time and the Muslim Council of Britain and the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board have highlighted the need for better inclusion of women.  

Faith Associates — a consultancy set up to meet the needs of ethnic minority faith-based communities — gives a Beacon Award for gold standard mosques and includes “the best women’s service”, which was won last year by Easton Jamia Masjid in Bristol. But, the launch meeting heard, more needed to be done.

The report outlines good practice at mosques. This includes: women being offered a consistently accessible prayer space; speaking to women with respect; women being integral to the running of the mosque; where a social hub is created for the wider community; holding women-specific services; and having women in leadership roles.

But respondents said fewer than 20 per cent of mosques in their area made them feel welcome.

Speaking at the launch, Baroness Warsi advised that, from an equalities and human rights perspective, any change would have to be an “all-faiths approach”, with people from other faiths working alongside the campaign.

She said it was important to make an argument to the mosques that would be impossible for them to come back on. Organisations should in principle adopt the position that all mosques should be open to women and if they were not, they should be on a journey to make it happen.

Rosemarie Mallett, the Anglican Bishop of Croydon, joined the meeting by invitation and said that although she was from a different faith tradition, there were similarities. She reflected: “In Christianity and Islam, we are all made in the image of God and all should be able to worship”.

Even as a bishop, there were some spaces in the Church of England where she was not welcome as a woman, she said. Listening to contributions at the meeting, the bishop recognised that women who had a faith expected that they had a right to be in the mosque and to worship in that space. From what she had heard, the status quo was not good enough and needed to change: “This is not a faith issue, it’s a power issue”.

The report said change was being held up by an absence of procedure, loopholes in legislation and fear to challenge. There was a need for set standards for all mosques as a means of making them accountable. To achieve this, it said group effort was needed between worshippers, Islamic organisations, policy-makers and the mosques themselves.

The meeting ended with this formidable collection of high-powered women discussing grassroots action to take forward the campaign.


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