The Rights of Women in the Grand Mosque

Hatoon Al-Fassi, Arab News  

Last Friday a number of Saudi newspapers carried a report concerning possible new prayer arrangements for women at the Grand Mosque in Makkah. The new arrangements are based on proposals made by a special panel formed according to directives from Makkah Governor Prince Abdul Majeed. The panel was composed of representatives from the Makkah Governorate, the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques Affairs and the King Fahd Institute for Haj Research. It proposed that the present prayer area for women at the mataf (circumambulation area) be shifted to two other locations on the ground floor on the northern side of the mosque. The panel members said that women would thus get a larger prayer space in the new area compared to the present one at the mataf. They said the new area was away from places of overcrowding, the mass movement of people and the focus of television cameras, thus ensuring the safety and privacy of women and allowing them to see the Holy Kaaba but avoid the disruption of tawaf (circumambulation).

As this proposal was made without considering the views of women, I thought it my duty to express my opinion of it with the hope that the panel’s proposal is rejected. It not only goes against the message of Islam but also wounds the feelings of Muslim women.

The main problem of this proposal is that it denies Muslim women the right to pray at the holiest place on Earth, near the Holy Kaaba, where prayers are answered and where the faithful can achieve better devotion and closeness to God. This is also one of the factors that differentiate prayer at the Grand Mosque from prayer performed in hotels overlooking it. Throughout Islamic history — from the earliest days of Islam — women have never been banned from praying inside the mataf or any other parts of the two holy mosques. There have, however, been many recent restrictions on women praying and this new proposal is simply further evidence of this.

The religion of Islam was revealed for both men and women. Both sexes are equal when it comes to performing their religious duties and in terms of rewards and punishments. The Prophet (peace be upon him) has instructed that women must not be banned from mosques. Despite these facts, we have observed that the general trend at the two holy mosques is to restrict the prayers of women and limit the areas where they can pray — as if they were a nuisance to others and unsuitable for those holy places. Some even think that the presence of women in the mataf will affect smooth television coverage of prayers inside the mosque and it would be better if the women had been confined to their homes.

We have also seen people widely circulating certain Hadiths, whose authenticity is doubtful, that it was better for women to pray at home than in other places as if the status of the two holy mosques is lower than that of a house.

Women, especially those coming from distant lands, face many problems and constraints at the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah. The revered Rawda Shareef is open to women only a few hours each day while most of the time, it is for men only. Women, unlike men, are not allowed to face the grave of the Prophet and can only pass by the side of it. The same is also true for the graves of the early Caliphs Abu Bakr and Omar; women can only pass by them — not face them.

Whatever the circumstances, no Muslim can seriously entertain the idea that the presence of women in the Haram disturbs worshippers and visitors. We don’t hear the same said about the presence of men. Are the prayers of men somehow better than those of women?

Let us return to the Grand Mosque in Makkah where women are often driven away by officials — both male and female — who tell them to complete their prayers quickly and generally interfere with the women’s prayers and meditations. At present, women are limited to an enclosed area in the mataf from which, if they are sitting, they are not able to see the Kaaba. The area is small, confined and similar to a prison and is often moved depending on seasonal demands and a variety of justifications. Now the proposal is to remove this prayer area from the mataf once and for all.

My contention is that the panel should have made its proposal without denying the rights of women. In Islam, the only instruction regarding the prayers of women is that they should not pray standing in front of men and, in our times, woman pray in the last rows or on the upper floors of mosques.

In order to allow women to pray in the Grand Mosque in the proper manner, let us allocate a special area for them beginning from the Kaaba and ending at masaa (the running area between Safa and Marwa). The width of this area could be determined based on field studies conducted by the Haj Research Institute on the number of women who come to pray at the mosque. If this were done, the equality of sexes promulgated by Islam would be achieved.

It would also protect women from prejudice and ensure that no men prayed behind them. Moreover, women would be able to pray in comfort, sit closer to the Kaaba and achieve maximum devotion and closeness to God.

I request the officials of the presidency to look into this suggestion with open minds and open hearts. I am sure they will not accept the panel’s proposal which violates the spirit and message of Islam that was sent for all of humanity without any discrimination.