As a Muslim woman born and raised in this country, some of my earliest and fondest memories were of me accompanying my mother, grandmother and sister (that's three generations!) to the Mosque. It was the highlight of our week, topped off with a McFlurry or bucket of KFC.
The statement "no women allowed" is something which is hurled at many Muslim women across the UK and world. And by guess whom? Men. Of course, not all men and Mosques impose this restriction, but far too many do!
Despite tremendous advancements in women's rights over the past century, many religious spaces in the UK and across the world still remain women free-explicitly banning women from entering them. While this form of gender apartheid is not limited to Islamic places of worship, as a British Muslim woman I hope that my personal experiences of British Mosques can help to highlight both the problem and the opportunities for positive change.
The reality of 'women-free' Mosques first came to my attention when I was in my early twenties. To their frustration, disheartened Muslim friends shared their experiences of being told that they could not enter their local Mosques. This experience, they told me, caused them to feel as though they were being discriminated against and alienated, particularly for converts to Islam. This was made all the more difficult to deal with because it did not seem to fit with the teachings of Islam that they were familiar with.
How could it be that many mosques do not cater for the needs of women, I asked myself? Even more fundamental than this, what meaningful role could women play in Muslim communities that prohibit them from their Mosques? This was particularly frustrating because these women were often well educated, confident and positive individuals. They had and have much to contribute!
You are probably wondering why it is that this grim reality came as such a shock to me. Given the negative portrayal of Muslim women in the media, which would have us all characterised as faceless and #traditionallysubmissive people, you probably think that all Mosques ban and disenfranchise women. This could not be further from the truth!
As a Muslim woman born and raised in this country, some of my earliest and fondest memories were of me accompanying my mother, grandmother and sister (that's three generations!) to the Mosque. It was the highlight of our week, topped off with a McFlurry or bucket of KFC. We would sit and listen to our local Imam and to positive Muslim women talk about the social challenges facing men and women in UK society and the solutions that Islam offers to them.
And no, our very kind-hearted and gently spoken Imam did not sermonise the ''evil'' of the West or the need to flee to the Middle East in order to wage the grotesque Wahhabist misinterpretation of Jihad. Quite to the contrary, we were taught that our jihad is self-reformation through engendering a sense of heightened compassion, social justice and good citizenship in our hearts and actions. We were encouraged to view all people as equal, irrespective of their gender, race or religion.
For me and the women in my family, the Mosque and its grounds served many purposes. It was a space in which we played sports, studied and competed in academic competitions, learned new arts and crafts skills, held 'girly' sleepovers, and organised talks on a variety of religious and secular subjects that attracted large audiences of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
The Mosque also served as a base from which many young Muslim women, like myself, became socially active. As members of the UK's largest Muslim women's association, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women's Association (AMWA), we went out into local communities to contribute positively through charity collections, homeless feeding, supplying food banks, visiting the sick and elderly, campaigning against problems in society such as FGM and forced marriages, and much more.
This progressive and socially conscious integration of religion and love for one's nation was actively encouraged and nurtured by the worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya community, a Caliph, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad. He told us that women should not be hermits, but are obliged to help others in need whenever they have an opportunity to do so safely. Speaking to thousands of Muslim women last October, he advised: ''...always seek to spread compassion and kindness within society. You should not just hope for the best for yourself and your families but should desire that all people are able to live with peace, security and in comfort."
Operating under a structure of positive female role-models and leaders, the AMWA has about 100 branches across the country. And whether people gather at a local house, rented building or state-of-the-art Mosque, it is always taken for granted that these spaces are for women and men. For example, if you visit the UK's largest Mosque, Baitul Futuh in London, you will find space for 5,000 women to pray (the same as men)! And if that is not enough, then, brace yourselves; this space contains a soundproof room so that mothers with small children can attend without the worry that their children might disturb other worshippers.
My positive experience of Mosques made the stories shared by some friends all the more saddening. Most painful of all was the inner conflict that these women had been forced to contend with. They have been conditioned to believe, and in fairness so have many of their fathers, brothers and husbands, that it is in fact the beautiful religion of Islam that forbids women from setting foot in a Mosque!
The clerics reinforcing these false patriarchal notions of Islam have no sound basis on which to make this claim. No verse in the Quran forbids women from entering the Mosque. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) too, did not forbid this. In fact, he told men that they are prohibited from preventing women entering the Mosque, even during the night. There are countless early accounts that also place women in the Prophet's Mosque who prayed there, were taught by the Prophet and who gathered there for study circles. As for the architecture of the Prophet's Mosque, he made sure that an entrance and part of the Mosque were reserved for women.
Quite clearly, the Prophet did not forbid women from entering the Mosque. And so as I believe it had been intended to be, a Mosque has always served as a great symbol of personal empowerment; providing me with a sense of community as both a Muslim and a member of this nation.
Many Mosques in the UK are women-friendly, but not all of them. The key to inclusivity becoming a universal reality is not in how we shape bricks and mortar, but in educating and reminding the Muslim men involved (that's a minority!) that religious practice and spaces are defined, by their own standard, by the beautiful teachings of Islam, not cultural or patriarchal preferences. Then the argument becomes a very simple one: If the Quran and Prophet did not forbid women from entering his Mosque, what right do you have to do so?