Our family emigrated from India to Montreal in 1965. Soon thereafter, my mother entered a mosque for the first time in her adult life. Where she grew up in India, women were forbidden from participating in worship at mosques. It's a cultural practice that unfortunately remains prevalent in many parts of South Asia.
As with so many female-unfriendly practices, the banning of women from mosques has no basis in Islam. In fact, the Prophet Mohammed was unequivocal when he told Muslims to not forbid women from attending. In most of the Arab world, it is rare to find a house of worship that bars women. Yet something was apparently lost in translation as Islam spread to South Asia.
Here in Canada, women are not banned from mosques, although they are welcomed somewhat grudgingly. For years, "the dungeon" was an inside joke, referring to the typically cramped, dingy prayer area where women followed prayers or lectures by way of a rickety sound system. And while the physical premises may be better today, there is still the issue of that "wall" that physically prevents women from seeing an imam or participating fully in community events.
Mosques often have gender-segregated entrances. Since these institutions are usually run by men, the women's entrance is given little thought. For years, women were prevented from using one downtown Ottawa mosque's main entrance, which was reserved for men. Instead, they had to walk next to a garish sex shop in order to use "their" entrance. I once tried to use the main door and was shooed away. So, I trudged past Venus Envy to complete my afternoon prayers, then trudged back out. I found it demeaning and I hated it, and I wasn't alone. But our concerns were met with indifference.
The physical barriers faced by Muslim women are part and parcel of institutional barriers that prevent their full participation in community affairs. Far too many mosques (and other Muslim institutions) are run primarily by men. To make matters worse, this exclusionary structure is unwittingly sanctioned by governments.
Consider the B.C. Muslim Association, founded in 1966 by immigrants from South Asia and Fiji. The organization lists an impressive network of mosques and Islamic schools throughout the Lower Mainland. It has provided charitable services, participated in interfaith initiatives and tended to the religious needs of the province's growing Muslim population. Impressive feats, by any standard.
However, for decades, the BCMA's constitution stipulated that its executive must be all male, and can only be elected by male members. The women had their own "wing," which is subordinate to the executive. While the constitution was recently amended to remove the overtly discriminatory language, it still refers to "male" and "female" elections, with the male pronoun used exclusively to describe the president of the association. The Council of Women's Affairs must still report to the executive. Practically speaking, it is understood that only men run and vote for the executive. Despite these constraints, the women of the BCMA have done terrific community work. Yet they are barred from running or voting for the organization's executive body. Surely this must be a human-rights violation.
Despite its discriminatory constitution, the BCMA has received charitable status from the Canada Revenue Agency since 1967. In both 2011 and 2012, it received in excess of $1.5-million of government funding. This should be suspended until the organization allows women equal opportunity in governance.
The BCMA is but one of many organizations across Canada that operate on cultural practices imported from abroad, escaping accountability. Many receive charitable status and government grants while their governance structures exclude women. This must change. Government agencies should be more circumspect when handing out grants and charitable tax status. More importantly, Muslims must push for change from within.
The emerging "unmosqued" movement in the United States seems to have captured the frustration of second- and third-generation Muslims with the way their mosques are run. The movement seeks to engender honest debate, discussion and reform of the Muslim community's most important institution. Issues include transparency of governance, full participation of women and youths and the hiring of imams who understand the North American context. This is a natural step in the evolution of a vibrant, diverse community.