Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan for the fourth year in a row, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.
My friend Shyema Azam reached out to me late last night after having a real tough experience at a local NYC masjid. I am a firm believer in the power of personal narrative and story-telling and rather than hearing her story and offering my insight, I felt it was important for us to hear her own words about her experiences as a Muslim woman trying to connect with her Creator and the frustrating obstacles that were keeping her from doing so. I am not a woman. As a community leader and as a man, I have much to learn from the experience of women from women themselves. I would encourage everyone to put aside assumptions and try as best as you can to read through Shyema's story objectively and with a sense of compassion and empathy that validates and acknowledges her experience. If you catch yourself being anything other than that, then take a moment to really reflect on the person you are and if that's really the person you want to be. There doesn't always have to be judgment attached -- sometimes it's just about listening.
"It was already a long day. The night before I only got a few hours of sleep. Most nights in Ramadan end up that way for many Muslims because of the short period between our nightly prayers and waking up to eat before dawn. Whereas my fasts were going by with surprising ease the days before, yesterday I found myself terribly sluggish and fighting an unusually pronounced headache, while simultaneously hoping my colleagues at work would ignore the loud conversations my stomach was having with itself. The humidity didn't help on the way back home, and if matters couldn't have gotten worse, the subway got stuck right before my stop. With the crowd and heat, I was almost certain I would pass out (I didn't). When I finally made it out, I rushed home to cook for my roommates and finished just in time for prayer. After we broke fast together, I promptly passed out on the couch. Not even an hour later at 10pm, my roommate, Shazia, woke me up to go for the nightly prayer. I contemplated skipping out and just praying at our apartment, considering how little energy I had, but I also didn't want her to go alone. I forced myself up and got ready while my other roommate, Amina, made me a cup of coffee to go. This is what Ramadan is all about, I thought. It's about denying the self, sharing these moments in worship with the community, and strengthening your personal bond with your Lord. The fatigue swiftly turned into excitement as we made our way to the mosque.
Unfortunately, that feeling quickly faded.
As soon as we began heading upstairs where we had normally prayed in the past, a man called after us, redirecting us back to pray in a dark corner on the first floor instead. We followed his gestures towards the area and quickly realized it had no air conditioning. We finished our first prayer and found ourselves wiping away beads of sweat from the extreme humidity and heat.
"Let's go to the third floor," Shazia suggested. "It's empty and has air conditioning." The other two ladies sitting with us overheard and told us that women were actually told to pray in the basement next to the bathroom. However, because of the recent unbearable heat, they were given the current space on the first floor, which was just barely more tolerable. Shazia was determined though, and to her credit, it was really hard to focus with drops of perspiration rolling down our backs. We attempted to make our way back up and this time, another gentleman in a white thobe shot up, wagging his finger. "No! Women are not allowed up there," he said in an all too condescending tone that made everyone around look our way. Shazia tried to explain to him that it was too hot where we were...and then came the cherry on top: "Sisters, your place is here," he said pointing to the first floor oven, "or the basement--not anywhere else." And just like that, he killed my Ramadan spirit.
We returned to our spot, feeling equal parts humiliated and defeated. Whereas I began on a spiritual high, I quickly lost my focus after that. Instead of concentrating on the beautiful recitation, it made me think: Why are there still mosques where there are incidents of women feeling so unwelcomed? Why does it feel like at some point or another, we're fighting for space? And why is this still an issue? Imam Khalid wrote about this same concern two years ago and it made me wonder if we're really minding masjid etiquette the way it was practiced in the time of the Prophet, peace be upon him.
In one hadith, Imam Bukhari wrote that the Prophet (pbuh) said: Do not forbid the mosques of Allah to the women of Allah." And from the hadith of 'Aisha in al- Muwatta', it's said that the women would pray Fajr [the dawn prayer] with the Prophet. The men and women at the time were not separated completely in the mosque. The women prayed in rows behind the men.
But my point isn't to prove that we belong there (at least, I hope I don't have to). In this case it's not just about space, but the manner in which we interact in God's house.
When I threw out the question to my girl friends if they ever had a moment where they felt uncomfortable in a mosque, the resounding answer is always yes -- whether it's a man wagging his finger, or a woman they've never met sharing her thoughts about their clothing. This, by the way, also happened to me in a previous Ramadan when a woman interrupted my prayer to tell me it's not going to count because I was wearing pants (this notion isn't true, but it seemed like that woman was talking from a cultural standpoint). "I'm just here to pray," I quietly responded, and never went back to that mosque again. It's episodes like these that make me wonder how different our experiences are from men, and generally, why some people feel it's OK to treat each with such insensitivity, especially in a place and a month that should be utilized for heightened spiritual awareness. Mahatma Gandhi was quoted as saying, "Fasting will bring spiritual rebirth to those of you who cleanse and purify your bodies. The light of the world will illuminate within you when you fast and purify yourself." If we're fasting during the day to cleanse our spirit, but otherwise treat each other with disregard, what is the worth of our hunger?
I'm not trying to make a blanket statement about every mosque -- I've been to plenty where the women enjoy way more benefits and space. When I go to the Islamic Center at NYU, I've always feel welcomed, especially being that I live in a city almost 800 miles away from my home in Chicago. The community feels like family to me. But it's alarming that I personally only found one mosque in all my years here where I truly feel at ease.
We need to keep in mind that we don't always know what brings someone to a place of worship. It could be a place one frequents or it could be that he or she is searching for something, within themselves or otherwise, and the way we interact with each other could make or break this experience. While we can't control the actions of others, we can at least be mindful of how we conduct ourselves. Even something as little as a smile may make all the difference in someone feeling comfortable enough to come back. Treating each other with respect and compassion are cornerstones of our faith. In one hadith, the Prophet (pbuh) said, "Keep to gentleness and avoid harshness and coarseness. Gentleness is not found in anything without adorning it, and is not withdrawn from anything without shaming it."
In the Qur'an, it also says, "And the mosques are for Allah (Alone), so invoke not anyone along with Allah" (72:18). These places are considered the house of God and a trust to us. Let's honor them and be more mindful of making it feel more inviting for all.
Back at the mosque, praying in our shadowy corner, I tried to subdue my thoughts. As if on cue -- and I'm not making this up for cinematic effect -- a cool breeze began making its way to us from the window, relieving our discomfort and staying with us for the rest of our prayers. It sounds crazy, but I felt like we were being taken care of at that moment. It was just what I needed to slip back into focus, and let myself once again get immersed in the beauty of the recitation. I thought again, this right here really is what Ramadan is all about. At least all was not lost this time."