It’s a man’s world. Living in a society made by men for men is exhausting as a woman. And for Muslim women, this is magnified, as they possess the additional identity of being both a Muslim and a woman in Western societies which hold tightly onto the narrative of the oppressed Muslim woman in need of liberation from the “enlightened” West. Religion in particular is a difficult sphere to navigate as a woman, where traditions have been founded by and led for centuries by men. The question of, “where is my place in religion as a woman?” is one that has been asked by liberation and feminist theologians again and again. Mary Daly, a noted Catholic feminist theologian, eventually ended up leaving the church because she felt it no longer could give her what she needed as a woman. And in Islam, it is males leading prayers and becoming imams. So when our class got the opportunity to visit Europe’s first all women’s mosque in Copenhagen, we knew we were entering into relatively uncharted territory for the West.
Mariam mosque was opened by imam Sherin, a half-Finnish and half-Syrian woman living in Copenhagen. She and others had the idea to open such a space where Muslim women could come together and pray in community led by another woman, so only the women in our class were allowed to attend the Friday prayer. We participated in the movements, listened to her “khutbah” (similar to a sermon), and received “bissous” on each cheek at the end. However, something happened before prayer began we did not expect.
Before the prayer, two men entered the mosque looking to pray. One was from Denmark, the other all the way from India. She talked to them for just a minute before coming back into the prayer space. She sat in deep thought for a moment before going back outside to talk to the men. She consulted with the regular worshippers of the mosque, and then invited the men inside to join us for prayer. Later, she told us it did not sit well with her for us to be praying formally inside while the two men sat outside, and said she felt a call to “seize the moment” and adapt to the situation. This attitude was mirrored in her khutbah, where she talked about the importance of love, compassion, and faith in Islam. “My religion is love and faith,” she said, and that Muslims “speak” the “love language” of Islam whenever they live out their faiths with love and acceptance.
Meeting Sherin and the other women of the mosque provided us tremendous insight into the reality of Muslim women in Europe. So often the media portrays a narrative of Muslim women from the perspective of everyone besides the Muslim women themselves. The media rarely approaches the Muslim community when attempting to foster discourse about refugees and immigration in Europe, and especially with Muslim women and within headscarf controversies.
Women have a fantastic history within Islam. Two of Mohammad’s wives would lead prayers for women, and China has had female imams since the 1800s. Many great Islamic poets and artists have been women and are sources of Islamic feminism. Today, three of the four Islamic law schools in the world do allow women as imams if they are leading prayer only for other women. The Mariam mosque reinforced a reoccurring theme in our course which is making space for Muslims, especially women, to craft their own narratives.
Women have to create their own representation if society refuses to hand it to us. The Mariam mosque, and a feminist, Muslim, anti-racist group named “Lallab” in Paris, were just two examples of Muslim women coming together to create a future for women in Islam which puts them intentionally at the forefront of social change and leadership, not for the first time, but for a drastically changing, increasingly globalist world.