Stepping into a mosque everyday, we miss the other side of the community and just accepted that being men, we’ll never be able to make it passed what we see. But arriving in the Little Rock, Arkansas mosque, I realize how tired I am of photographing men, hairy men, brown men, Arab men, black men, men wearing kufis, men laughing, hobbit looking men, bald men, Aman and the occasional ambigious man boy. And that’s how I decided it’s time to spend a day in the women’s area.
In my headspace, Muslim women exist only as my wife and my mother. There are a couple of friends sprinkled here and there, but largely my Muslim world is informed by men and more men. So perhaps that is one of the reasons why it has taken a while to finally jump into the women’s side.
A large swarm of Pakistani ladies (aunties) walk in wearing their traditional garb. Some are covering their heads, others are casually strolling in. They quickly start laying food and pouring drinks in preparation for break fast. Many of them don’t notice me taking photos, others are apathetic. I strike up conversation with one of the younger girls who is in college and ask her to help me navigate through the space.
“Yeah, that’s what it looks like here.” Sairah says.
The majority of the female congregation is the Pakistani and Indian. There are also some that have embraced Islam and a small number of Arabs, East Africans, and Bosnians seasoned around the space.
Sairah continues speaking about the congregation. The Little Rock community is a well-to-do one. Many of them are doctors, engineers, businessmen and professors at the local university. Many of the wives are also doctors and professors.
I jot these things down and start scribbling some larger thoughts that are swimming in my head..
A lecture begins right before break fast time. A man from Trinidad speaks about how Muslims need to get involved in the media. I sit out with the men for a while. Many of them wait for the call to prayer so they can break their fast. But people listen on. They nod their heads in approval.
Some women are sitting outside in the men’s area, they listen attentively. Some sit off to the side, whispering to each other and chuckling. I want to know what they are talking about. Hell, I’ve always wanted to know what women are whispering about in the corners of the mosque. Back in high school, the same girls I would see in the hallways I would sometimes see at the mosque. Many of us would never acknowledge each other’s existence even if our parents knew one another. All we would do is whisper something into a friends ear and make cryptic eye contact. Thank goodness there was no Facebook when I was in high school. Would I add the girls from the community as friends? We’d only do it so we could compare the different lives we were living in and out of the mosque.
The mosque was always this place where we put on a face, added a “God willing,” an “alhamdullilah” and a scented oil to cover up wherever we were coming from. It was how we felt was best for us to be accepted into the mosque environment. We played parts in a play where we were both the audience and the actors.
I stand again in the women’s area after breaking my fast and praying. The area is jam packed now. More than it was before. I pull out my camera and take a couple of shots.
“What are you doing?” A lady asks.
I try to give her our 30 mosques spiel but she cuts me off.
“You are not allowed to be here.”
“I got permission earlier and a lot of the women are okay with me taking photos.”
“That’s ridiculous!” She says, “I am going to talk to the president of the mosque myself.”
She storms out of the room, visibly upset at how I can just walk into the women’s area. I follow her into the kitchen, where she is sharing her concerns with an elder lady. The complaining lady looks like she is disturbed by me in their space. I feel like I have done something very wrong, like I threatened or harassed her with my eyes. I want to apologize for something, but don’t know what, so I hold my fort. I may not know much about the happenings on the women’s side, but it didn’t seem like the women were that distraught with me being there. We all live in America, we walk through malls, classrooms, hallways and parks with people from the opposite gender. But at the mosque, we become hyper-sensitive. Granted, the women’s area could be a safe space. There are a couple of women that wear the face veil and there privacy needs to be respected. This is their space to be comfortable, why would they be okay with someone like me ruining it? And that’s our limit. That’s as far as a Muslim man can ever get into these communities. They will never be as comfortable with me as they would with another woman – at least not in this space. So do we just twiddle our thumbs and wonder what it’s like in the women’s area? Or do we get a female partner in crime joining us to add some depth to the story? Or do we stay stubborn and continue trying to get a foot into the women’s area?
“The men’s side is a lot bigger than here. You should go there!” another lady scorns.
The women can barely take a step without knocking down a kid. The area is loud. Many kids play tag and jump over half-eaten plates. They make grunts and speak in a very sweet broken Urdu. The kids are no more than 8 years old and have a loving and innocent quality that almost makes you forgive them for being so disruptive during prayer.
For those who may not know, kids between the ages of 2 to 8 are a handful at the mosque. The one or two kids that will do a backflip in front of the prayer congregation will be quickly transferred to the women’s section to deal with.
“So yeah, the women area gets really loud.” Sairah says as kids scream in the background.
“Well the kids have to go somewhere right?” I stupidly ask.
They shake their heads. I guess that’s the part I don’t understand. The limit of my own understanding. Is a man’s concentration in prayer more important than a woman’s? Or is there maybe another solution, like an in-door day care at the mosque so both men and women can worship easier? But that means a facility, hiring staff and putting on an entire operation. It just seems easier to throw it on the women, right?
By this point in our conversation, an auntie comes by.
“Do you boys not pray?” She asks us.
We leave immediately. It was her nice way of telling us to take a hike. This is their space, I shouldn’t be claiming it, or rather, speaking for it.