The Fourth Sister

On Friday evening I attended a talk in Birmingham by Habib Kadhim al-Saqqaf. It was the first talk I had attended in a long while, having taken a spiritual sanity break from the general weirdness of Muslim-organised events. A decade ago, I had been at the heart of the religious events scene with Q-News and memories of overly reverent Sufi groupies and self-styled male gatekeepers to the Shuyukh had not quite left me. But that was a long time ago and things have certainly moved on in some parts of Muslim community. This event, despite being part of the traditional Sufi mosque scene, was surprisingly pleasant to begin with. It was running reasonably on time and men and women were seated in the same hall, albeit with a segregation barrier that granted women much less than half of the space. The speaker entered and sat centrally, equally visible to both sides of the room. It looked like a promising evening, before it all went downhill.

Prayer time came in before the talk could begin and just as we got settled, women were told to go downstairs so that men could stay where they were and pray comfortably. In the scurry of it all, those on the female side of the divide lost their spaces and everything was set off course. The short journey back up those two flights of stairs took more than half an hour. All the while, over 150 women, children and babies — most of whom had arrived on time and waited patiently — were crammed on a stuffy narrow staircase and corridor with little ventilation and no idea what was happening. The problem, I was eventually told, was that men were still strolling in late and praying on the women’s side of the hall so we had no choice but wait for them to leave. This went on, and on and on. The two-hour event was now running over an hour late as women and children continued to stand in a hot, confined space while men stayed seated, waiting for more of their brethren to arrive and take their places on what had been the women’s side of the hall. This continued to the point where it was decided that as so many men had arrived late, the women wouldn’t be allowed back into the hall at all.

Tired, frustrated but surprisingly compliant, the women quietly expressed their disappointment among themselves and returned downstairs to a room where they would not be able to see the speaker deliver his talk or be part of the event experience. The only reassurance they received was that the Shaykh would briefly visit them after the talk and perform tahneek on their babies. There were whisperings of discontent but no real objection. Had that been evidence of spiritually elevated souls accepting a misfortune without complaint I would have been in awe of them. Instead there seemed to be an acceptance that this kind of treatment was part and parcel of being a woman at a religious gathering — a humiliation I am sure many of them would not stand for in any other aspect of their lives.

But it was not a humiliation I was willing to bear on behalf of half the ummah of the Prophet (peace be upon him). My friends and I remained in the main hall, in sight of the speaker, and the three of us politely refused to be relegated as second class citizens to a space that even the event organisers themselves had not initially deemed appropriate for their guests. We politely refused to accept that late-coming men had priority over all women and children at the gathering, regardless of how early they had arrived and how long they had waited. We politely refused to accept that what the Shaykh had to share was more important for men to hear than women, that their quest for knowledge in this life and salvation in the next was above ours, that even in matters of the deen, we should put their needs above ours. We politely refused to accept that gender as a hierarchical distinction was at all relevant in a context where the purpose is so much higher.

It was not our intention to get brothers hot under their kufis and send panic among their rows as we sat quietly to the side of the room, three hijabs among a sea of beards. We were there to see, not to be seen. We had come to seek knowledge from a scholar, not stares of disbelief from men. We were there as three human beings in search of spiritual guidance, not three women attempting to unsettle three hundred men.

We were asked to move a number of times, once at the apparent request of the Shaykh, though I doubted this was true. I asked to speak to him directly for clarification, at which point one of the organisers conceded that we should at least sit somewhere less conspicuous. Had I been allowed to speak to the Shaykh I would have asked if women and children would have received such treatment in the mosque of the Prophet (peace be upon him). I would have asked him if religious knowledge was the domain primarily of men while women should be content with having their babies blessed. If what we had experienced that evening was evidence of basic Islamic etiquette let alone male Muslim chivalry.

The Shaykh spoke beautifully about the importance of good character in dealing with all people, Muslim or otherwise. He said the pinnacle of good character was that of the Prophet (peace be upon him). He advised us to smile, not to bring harm to others, to replace bad deeds with good, and be considerate of others’ needs.

I looked to my friend, who had been through so much heartache with her family that she had come to the event seeking some solace as she prayed for them. This kind of gathering was unfamiliar to her, and I prayed that the anxiety attack she had while waiting in the crush on the stairs would not put her off coming again. I thought of another friend downstairs, whose battle with serious illness had taken her on a difficult journey and how relieved I was to see her in an Islamic gathering again. “Always take the hearts of others into consideration,” the Shaykh said. If one heart is turned off attending another Muslim event because of this evening’s experience, it is too many. If one soul is put off this faith because there appears to be no space for it, it is too many.

As I tried to ignore the glares and glances of men that evening I wondered what they were reading into our presence and whether it would occur to them that our reason for being there was no different to theirs. I wondered if our presence had made them consider where the other women were, and what attending the same event had been like from a woman’s perspective. I wondered if they were even aware of the privilege they enjoyed as men until they saw three women among them. After all, why else would they spare a thought for the other half of the ummah who were out of sight and out of mind? For men, however late they arrived, would always have priority seating while women, however punctual, had no choice but to accept eviction to the overflow room.

Male privilege in these gatherings is as assumed and unquestioned as the expectation of female compliance to whatever will make male life easier. We have come to an unbelievable situation where Muslim women are treated with more fairness in non-Muslim contexts than in places where the virtues of Islam are taught. Meanwhile non-Muslim women’s needs are pandered to by Muslim men — especially when they think they might convert — while the needs of their sisters in faith are rarely given much thought. If the injustice of this is not apparent to those actively seeking to improve their Islamic knowledge and character, then what hope is there for the rest of the ummah?

This was one talk, in one city, on one evening, but it’s the same story in so many mosques, events and Islamic institutions, that it’s no wonder that even those within the faith have internalised the sacrilegious notion of gender inequality in Islam. I know three women in a hall of three hundred men may not make a difference, but a fourth might. At one point during the talk a sister came into the room, saw us sitting among the men and quietly joined us. We exchanged no words, and she had no more interest in drawing attention to herself than we did. She came, like us, to claim what was rightfully hers, then left. Her quiet confidence that evening gave us more reason to be hopeful than the many eyebrows we inadvertently managed to raise. Perhaps women just need to start taking their rightful places in Islam because God knows we’ve waited long enough for an invitation that has never come.