Too Beautiful to Pray?

Patriarchy supplies a slew of bizarre rationales for keeping women away from places of worship.

“Women are not allowed into mosques because god has made them very beautiful. There are other men in the mosques and if a woman enters she will disrupt the prayers and men will stare at her,” says Haroon, a small tradesman from Bewana village in Uttar Pradesh. Haroon is convinced that there is scriptural sanction for not just preventing women from entering homes but “After marriage, men have to ensure that women stay inside all the time and maintain purdah.” But these sentiments are also endorsed by Noor Jehan, a woman from the same village. “Women are impure–they give birth, they menstruate. So they cannot go into mosques,” she says with conviction. However, when Community Correspondent Gayatri Devi asks her why women cannot go inside a mosque many months after giving birth, she doesn’t have an answer and giggles.

Clearly, it is commonly assumed that women are not allowed in mosques. But in Uttar Pradesh itself, last Eid, women were allowed to participate in the Eid prayers at the Eidgah. Lucknow also has a women’s only mosque. Across the world, from China to Turkey and Indonesia, there are women ulemas and zenana sections in mosques for women. In fact, research shows that starting from the advent of Islam on the subcontinent right upto early twentieth century, mosques in India architecturally incorporated a segregated women’s section allowing women to pray inside mosques. Islamic scholars have repeatedly shown how there is sanction for women to participate in prayers in mosques and yet, everything has become flattened into an ahistoric assumption about women’s supposed impurity and inferiority that makes them unfit for entry into mosques.

While, often globally, Muslims are selected for censure for gendered segregation, we would do well to remember that in the South Asian context, irrespective of religion, the notion of female impurity is advanced as the ‘reason’ to limit women’s access to houses of prayer. Temples are equally guilty of enforcing such bigoted patriarchal practices. Women have internalised it themselves. The historic Bombay High Court judgement permitting women to enter Haji Ali dargah in Mumbai, opened the way to challenging this narrow notion. As the High Court noted, preventing women from entering was tantamount to curtailing their constitutionally guaranteed right to freely practise religion.

Kashmiri women offer prayers inside a mosque during Ramzan Source: Al Jazeera

Women across the nation are challenging patriarchal diktats in every aspect of their lives including their #RightToPray. Community Correspondent Rohini Pawar, for instance, was able to mobilise the women in her community to end this discriminatory practice at a temple, carried out for over four centuries. Women are fighting for their rights–cases have been filed in the Supreme Court challenging the faux religious edict barring women from mosques. The tide is slowly but surely turning as more and more people are questioning misogyny disguised as tradition.

This series documenting everyday patriarchy is supported by UNFPA | Article by Madhura Chakraborty

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