"Rites and Rights: the Mosque Movement From Mecca to Main Street," a Commentary by Margot Badran

January 9, 2007

Author: Margot Badran

Source: The American Muslim


Women are flocking to mosques around the world. Now, during Ramadan, they are packing mosques nightly in many countries for tarawwih or the recitation of the Qur’an. It has not always been easy, or indeed possible, for women to participate in communal worship.

Exactly 95 years ago when the Egyptian National Congress met in Heliopolis, in the midst of the anti-colonial struggle, writer, educator, nationalist, and feminist Malak Hifni Nasif (known under the penname Bahithat Al-Bad’iya) seized the change to forward the demand that women regain the right to participate in congregational prayer in the mosque that, as she pointed out, they had enjoyed in Mecca and Medina in the early days of Islam. If male nationalists, as fervently as women nationalists, wanted the colonialists out of Egypt, Malak Hifni Nasif and others wanted women in the mosque.

In recent decades, women have won increased entry to mosques. Yet, with new gains come new concerns. These include women’s use of mosque space. While often curtailed in their access to the mosque or relegated to inferior space in mosques around the world, Muslim women have traditionally looked—both figuratively and literally, every time they pray—to the holy city of Mecca where male and female believers pray in common space in the Grand Mosque and circumambulate the Kaabah together. This is in stark contrast to the extreme gender segregation and female face shrouding that prevails in the rest of the country, advertising the extremes and durability of the very patriarchal practice the Qur’an had come to eliminate. The ritual at the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina has traditionally reflected the Qur’anic ethos and the practice of the early egalitarian Muslim community. This, however, is now threatened.

It was with outrage last August that women received the news from the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques Affairs that they were to be removed from the circumambulation area around the Kaabah called the mataf and to be shunted to the northern wall of the Grand Mosque. Women in Saudi Arabia swiftly objected. Soon women around the world joined in. Hatoon Al-Fassi, a Riyadh-based writer and historian, objected in the press that the proposed plan “not only goes against the message of Islam but also wounds the feelings of Muslim women.” She continued: “The main problem of the proposal is that it denies Muslim women the right to pray at the holiest place on earth, near the Holy Kaabah, where prayers are answered and where the faithful can achieve better devotion and closeness to God.”