Editor’s Letter: Religious Spaces

by Diana Rahim

When I was an undergraduate, I don’t think I missed a prayer if I could help it. My university had a prayer room for its students. All you had to do was to bring your card to an office tucked obscurely in the basement of a building and requested them to allow you access to that room.

Each time I had time to pray, I would walk to that prayer room located at the North Spine. I had no complaints. It was a good space with carpeted floors, a rack of prayer garments, and a small shelf of books. It was an upgrade from praying at the top floor’s staircase landing back in junior college.

Then one day, while I was praying, I heard two girls talking loudly from the back of the room. Loud conversations have happened before, and they’re not that big a deal to me. What was more uncomfortable was the content of their conversation. In the safety of that prayer space, they were gossiping about a girl they felt was inadequate in her faith because she did not wear the hijab. They were judging her piousness in hostile tones. I tried to bring my mind back to my prayer but I knew it would be awkward when I take off my prayer garments. I was dreading the hostility they might have for me. The moment came. I took off my prayer garments and walked back to hang it. I retrieved my bag and left the room, which was far more silent and conducive for prayer now that the girls were no longer talking. They realised I did not wear a hijab and probably heard their conversation the whole time.

After my initial feelings of upset passed, I told myself that it was probably just the both of them. I told myself most of the women I’ve come across probably do not feel that way. I told myself that because I didn’t want to assume the worst. Still, that feeling that I was not truly welcome has made me feel uncomfortable since. After a few more incidents, including at mosques, I prefer to pray alone at home where I can perform my ibadah without anxiety.

I don’t think my experiences are that bad but I do think they reveal the kind of environment that exists today that can drive people away from religious spaces because they have been made to feel unwelcome. When people are driven away from such religious spaces, they are driven away from their own communities. It is a deliberate act of exclusion. It is an exclusion sometimes actively carried out by people who feel like they have the authority to deny people access to the house of God.

What is notable about the experience I just shared is the fact that they felt safe gossiping while someone was still in the room. It revealed their assumptions about what kind of person would be in that space, or rather, who would not. They did not expect that someone who did not wear the hijab would even be in that prayer room. Remember an earlier submission to this blog by a Shi’a Muslim? She too shared about how she heard Muslims around her gossip about Shi’a muslims because they simply automatically assumed that everyone around was Sunni.

It reveals the fact that spaces like these are easier to navigate and exist if who you are, how you look like, does not resist against the dominant image that good, reliable Muslims are expected to have.

And of course, this is a conversation we have been having for a long time! I remember when I was younger an Ustaz shared with students how mosque-goers would sometimes refuse to stand beside bangladeshi migrant workers during Friday prayers, deliberately, and blatantly avoiding them. It made him upset, and he led by example by making sure to welcome them with a hug, talk to them, and pray beside them. The fact is that our mosques are not free from bigotry simply because it is a holy place. Humans are fallible. And when they come into the space, sometimes they bring their racism, their sexism, and other discriminatory biases with them. And sadly, those who are not within the status quo are made to feel it.

We live in a world where certain individuals are given more space than others. When space is made more comfortable and more accessible to certain types of people, exclusion exists. It means that for those from a different sect, citizenship status, socioeconomic status, gender identity, etc, it is harder to access the same spaces. The restrictions, pressures, and lack of encouragement they face means that they have to work harder, bear more microaggressions, and little indignities just to occupy the same space. These spaces are not as open to them, and may even feel hostile, which in turn limits their participation.

If you want to know if the religious space is truly inclusive, and truly reflects the ideals and principles of the religion it was built for, then who you should be looking at and talking to are the ones who are not included.

In theory, for example, the mosque as a religious space is meant for all Muslims. It’s where they go to perform acts of ibadah (worship), and connect with their community. In reality, however, many women have expressed that they do not feel that it is a space equally made for them. This pertains not just to physical space, where women are often relegated to areas that are not as spacious or convenient as their male counterparts, but in terms of whether they have any say at all in the community, and whether their needs and concerns are addressed or even asked for.

In 2013, Hind Makki kickstarted a global conversation in the Muslim community with her project Side Entrance. The project basically collects images of female prayer spaces in mosques all over the world. Some are comfortable, some are alright, and some are downright disappointing. In any case, the difference between male and female prayer spaces is undeniable. Accompanying these pictures, women shared their stories of sadness, frustration and difficulties when simply wanting to be in a mosque. In speaking about her project, hind Makki shared:

“The main point (of Side Entrance) for me is that the spaces that women occupy in a mosque is actually reflective of the values that the community believes that they add,”

In other words, whether someone is included in a space reveals the degree of respect that we have for them. It reveals whether we value their inclusion, their being, and whether we acknowledge that they can contribute something valuable to the community.

I remember feeling really happy when I found out that the Waria community in Indonesia have managed to set up their own mosque. Finally they can have their own holy space where they can pray without being harassed, and where they know they belong. They can perform their ibadah and strengthen their relationship to their faith and to God. But in my heart, I find it sad that marginalized communities have to go through the difficulty of finding the resources to set up their own mosques just so they can have what so many Muslims take for granted. It’s sad that they have been prevented from simply being in a mosque, and that people were willing to prevent another human being from performing their ibadah, and made the environment hostile for another person. For me, it is unthinkable to get between someone and God when a connection between the two is about to be made. I don’t think God would appreciate us pushing away one of their creations from worship and connection.

It’s important to mention that when we talk about “religious spaces,” it does not simply pertain to the physical space of the mosque or even the Muslim community. It’s also about whether there is space in dominant, mainstream religious narratives and culture for the presence, importance, and appreciation of those who are basically not just Muslim men. Is there space for them in positions of authority, in cultural spaces, in the family? Is their history told alongside the history of “great men”? Are religious interpretations done with them in mind too?

And of course, it’s important to think about what kind of spaces are available when it is made available. For example, a benevolent sexism and the idealisation of Victorian ideals of femininity is often used to soothe and assure women that they have a special place in the culture. But this sends the message that only a certain type of woman is valued. It makes access conditional, far more conditional for some than it is for others. This is against the tradition in Islam where women are accorded equal dignity.

The spaces we keep as a community says a lot about us. Who are included in our spaces, and perhaps more importantly who are not included, can reveal our actual values in practice, versus what we may insist our values to be.

In the future, I truly hope that every Muslim who seeks to deepen their connection to their maker, to visit the house of God, and to participate in their religious communities can do so without any anxiety or feelings of inadequacy. I hope they can do so without feeling like they are unwanted.

For the present, I hope that those who have felt rejection from Muslims can know that it is not rejection by God. That even if the communities may not, or even do not want to make space for them, that this cannot take away the connection they have to their maker.

The beauty of Islam, to me, is in the fact that it was to be a non-hierarchical religion. That every person is equal before God, even if on earth they are not seen as equal to other human beings. After all, in the Qur’an, in Surah Qaf, we are given the beautiful reminder: We are closer to him than [his] jugular vein.

And that is a closeness that nobody can take away from you.

Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu