News We Can Use: the BBC’s Look at Gender and Class in Egyptian Mosques

A recent BBC News article has provided an astonishing suggestion that, far from being the monolithic oppressed group that many readers of mainstream Western media have come to expect, Muslim women can come from a wide range of possible experiences and backgrounds.  Who knew?

Journalist Christopher Landau begins his article by telling us,

The role that women play in mosques varies substantially around the Muslim world. Visits to two mosques in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, show just how different women’s experiences can be.

The article looks at one mosque in an affluent suburb of Cairo, and another in a poorer part of the city.  The first mosque has a strong children’s program run by a large and very active team of women volunteers.  (Although he specifies that the children he sees are boys, the writer does not mention whether there are also programs for girls.  I’m assuming that girls are involved too, but I thought this was an interesting omission.)  He interviews a woman in charge of running the educational programs, who envisions an even greater leadership role for women in the future.  At the second mosque, Landau remarks that there is only one woman involved in its leadership, largely because many of the women in that poorer area do not have time to volunteer.  He also interviews a retired scholar from al-Azhar who affirms the importance of women having access to the mosque.*

The role of economic class in the opportunities for women within each of the mosques is clear:

The disparity between the two mosques I visited is striking.

In one, women play an active role and dream even of running those activities still the preserve of men – perhaps, one day, even leading prayers.**

In the other, one sole woman tries to run women’s activities, but in an area where there is little tradition of women being involved in their local mosque.

Some of the factors seem to be financial: Al-Seddeeq’s volunteers are women who are wealthy enough to be able to choose to spend time at the mosque rather than needing to work; in the crowded streets of Old Cairo, few women have such an opportunity.

This acknowledgement of the ways that multiple forms of oppression can interlock with each other – that gender oppression can happen through, and be compounded by, oppression rooted in class – is a rare insight in many media articles.  It was really refreshing to read an explanation for low female participation was was not solely attributed to inherently oppressive religious structures.  Even within one city, the mosques, the Muslims, and the Muslim women are all seen as diverse, and in societies that are changing.  The history of male dominance in Islam is discussed only in the context of that being a history that all religions share.  (I would have preferred it if he said something like “Islamic structures” or “Islamic institutions,” but the point is the same.)

In fact, this article followed most of the rules that Sobia and I wrote about in our post on How to Write about Muslims.  Muslim women are understood to have agency, and not to need saving by someone else.  Landau talks to Muslim women and to a qualified scholar.  He acknowledges that there is diversity within Muslim communities, that the cultures are always changing, and that religion is not the only factor at play in Muslim women’s lives.  And there’s not one mention of a headscarf!  It’s not to say the article is perfect (and I don’t know enough about the communities he’s writing about to comment on his accuracy there), but I thought this was a good example of how we can talk about inequalities within Muslim communities without simplifying the context or the causes.

* I was surprised to see the scholar say that women are “commanded” to go to the mosque, and I would be interested in more background on that.  Most scholars I’ve seen say that, while all Muslims are commanded to pray five times a day, going to the mosque is not emphasized for women the way it is for men.  I’m not sure whether this scholar meant that men and women face exactly the same requirements about attending mosques, or whether it was more generally that women should be part of the mosque community.

** Regarding leading prayers, it wasn’t clear to me that this was one of the areas of leadership that the woman interviewed in the affluent mosque was aiming for.  Although she did say that “I think women can do what men do. Some roles, it’s better for women than men,” the idea of a woman leading prayer still comes across as radical in most communities, unless the woman is only leading other women.  It is possible that the speaker (or some of her peers at that mosque) did indeed hope for a woman to one day be able to lead prayers in that mosque, but my own feeling was that this might have been the journalist’s extrapolation, and might not have reflected the actual goals of the women in that mosque.

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