One thing about the Nation of Islam (NOI) mosques that I have always enjoyed in comparison to mainstream Islamic mosques is that the gender separation is side-by-side rather than front-to-back with the women always in the back on the same level or in the back on a balcony or in a completely separate room in the back.
A few Sundays ago I went to the local NOI Mosque #97 and enjoyed the khutba (sermon) all in English and culturally relevant. I enjoyed it from the same room as the men, with complete access and in reach of the imam. Men were not given the prime seating in the front with women relegated to the back of the room. The front rows and all rows consisted of men and women equally. This is a complete departure from what I am used to in mainstream Islamic mosques I used to frequent.
I am an “unmosqued” Muslim, but an NOI friend recently asked me to take her to one of the mosques I used to frequent. So, last Friday I took her to the Islamic Center of the Inland Empire. At this mosque, the gender separation began at the door where women place our shoes to the left of the main door and men place theirs to the right. We all entered the same main door, but women with children proceed to a separate room on the left, while other women head upstairs to the balcony, and men walk straight ahead to the main hall where the imam is.
As we listened to the imam over a speaker and watched him on the television screen, I kept thinking how invisible and disconnected I felt as compared to the NOI mosque where I frequently made eye contact with the imam as he spoke. When the imam began speaking in Arabic toward the end of his khutba, I totally tuned out. I wondered how many could actually understand him since there were many Pakistani women in the balcony with us. Another difference I noticed was the hospitality.
At the NOI mosque, the women greeted each other and me with holding of hands and kisses to the cheeks while giving each other “salaams.” At the other mosque, there was not so much as eye contact or a smile between us and the women. Those who knew each other convened to talk, but there was no random hugging or “salaaming” going on. Taking her to this mosque reminded me of just how cold and lifeless the mosque was for me. Even so, we are planning on going to another area mosque, Dar al-‘Uloom, to start Ramadan. It will be interesting to see her perspective on that mosque (where I was married) and to see how I will feel returning to it after so long. Oh, how I long for a mosque without mandatory gender division.
Jameelah X. Medina, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and orator. Her latest book, ABCs of Living a Good Life: 26 Things I’ve Learned along the Way, is available for free on her website:www.jameelahmedina.com. She is also the owner and operator of Dr. J’s Apothecary where she makes all-natural products for health and wellness.