Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mosques and barriers.

Has anyone else felt as unwelcome in a mosque as I do, as an adult? I'm no stranger to mosques, having had 'Sunday School' religious instruction in one since the age of five. I went to a kindergarten that was housed in a mosque, and we learnt a little bit about Islam alongside some Maths and English, but I mostly remember playing (catch) with plastic cabbages.

When I started school I was sent to two-hour classes on Saturday or Sundays at a mosque in Telok Kurau. It has since been refurbished, but in the old mosque we all learnt to pray in the main prayer hall, girls behind boys. Classroom chairs had an aisle in the middle, boys on the right side and girls on the left side.

In recent times, I've entered about a dozen different mosques in Singapore (and a few more in other countries, I'll keep the analysis to Singapore to control for culture though the pictures are mostly from other countries) and these are some of the things that I found.

Gender segregation is a mainstream issue in conventional Islam, and I'm not going to challenge this (just in case any of you are starting to get a bit defensive, haha.). But there are differences in how segregation can be carried out.
  1. Side by side (with no/semi-barrier)
  2. Women behind men (sometimes with no/semi-barrier)
  3. Women and men in separate rooms/floors (i.e. high/complete/space barrier)
2. Low barrier (The Hague)
2. One-way/Semi-opaque barrier (Granada)

Option 3 is the most common form of congregation segregation (that rhymes!) in Singapore. In all of the mosques that I have been to (but I have not been to all) in Singapore, the main prayer hall is reserved for men during prayer time, while there is a separate women's area with a complete barrier -- a "tent-like structure" (as said by my man) at the back corner of the main hall, or a completely separate floor for, labelled as such.

Sign for separate ablution area (Granada)
Segregation for all (Sikh Temple)

From this separate floor, only the front row can see the imam -- but same goes for the men's section. Technological conveniences like video, microphones and loudspeakers help to maintain the third form of segregation (because now you can see and hear everything without actually being there). In mosques where there is no sound system, it is difficult to hear the sermon. This is sometimes circumvented with a projection system, but only from certain areas is the angle clear enough to read from.

There are sometimes also separate entrances for women. In the case of a mosque in Novena, I attempted to enter by the main, obvious entrance but was immediately told by a man who jumped to his feet to tell me to go through by the small 'women's gate' (hmm, peace upon you too) along at the side wall.

These women's areas are sometimes appallingly less clean than the main areas -- not that I can compare both prayer areas objectively, but surely mosques are regularly cleaned! When I went to the women's area of a mosque in central Singapore almost two months ago, the carpet had bird droppings and recent stains.

A (male) friend commented that it seems that the beautiful architecture of a mosque as seen from the main prayer hall is meant to be enjoyed during prayer by men only.

Peeking through the barrier (Granada)

When there is a lack of space, women are bumped up or out. This is especially the case for special occasions like Friday prayers or Eid. Perhaps due to the hadith that says Friday prayers are compulsory for men, or the one that says it's better for a woman to pray at home? No one highlights that God's command is gender-neutral in 62:9.  In my neighbourhood mosque, the women's area on the third floor gets terribly hot and cramped on Eid, while the men's area stretches out to the roadside and garden.

Second floor on a normal day (Singapore)

In two other mosques in Singapore, when there is a need to accommodate more people, the women's area is bumped up another floor in (okay for the latter since there's a lift, not so okay for the former especially because there are a lot of older women). If one made Friday prayer area available on a first-come-first-served basis would there would be a lot of male latecomers not having space?

The point is, men are the default mosque-goers, while women are the special case. Men can freely enter by the main entrance of any mosque and their main concern is to do their prayer, not finding their specially-assigned ablution and prayer area. They simply do not have the worry that they are entering by the wrong entrance, or praying in the wrong area.

Psychologically, women are disciplined to be unseen in the mosque. It's fine if one is familiar with a mosque and where are the women's areas are. But on the occasion that I can enter an unfamiliar mosque by the main entrance, I may have to scuttle to the second floor (through a toilet, sometimes) or guiltily look around for a separate room or tent before (someone sees me!) I find that blessed hidden refuge of the women's area.

And so sometimes I prefer praying alone -- give me a field, or the side of a dune:

Rejoice! 7:29

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