30Mosques Crashes A Female Prayer Space

This was written by Peter Gray and originally appeared at his blog.

Wouldn’t it be amazing to zigzag across the country, visiting mosques and writing about the people that use them? Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq thought so. Now they are on the second leg of a Ramadan road trip fueled by faith, food, and good old-fashioned male privilege. Recently, in an attempt to explore the gender divide in Muslim places of worship, the duo documented the women’s area of a mosque that hosted them in Little Rock, Arkansas. This could have been a great opportunity for Ali and Tariq to reflect on their privilege. Instead, they chose to exert it over the women they visited, leaving a number of them upset – and rightfully so.

Bassam Tariq wrote a blog entry about the experience, which had good intentions but went horribly wrong. In the opening paragraph, he descibes what motivated him to focus on the women’s area:

[...] I realize how tired I am of photographing men, hairy men, brown men, Arab men, black men, men wearing kufis, men laughing, hobbit looking men, bald men, Aman and the occasional ambigious man boy. And that’s how I decided it’s time to spend a day in the women’s area.

The women of that mosque must be thrilled to know that Tariq visited them out of boredom. After all, everyone appreciates being told, “Hey – I’m getting tired of my regular friends; let’s hang out!” Surely he understands that women deserve attention because of their intrinsic value – not because they make useful substitute-men.

But it only gets worse from there. In his next sentence, Tariq explains, “In my headspace, Muslim women exist only as my wife and my mother” [sic]. He suspects that “perhaps that is one of the reasons why it has taken a while to finally jump into the women’s side.” Perhaps. His aloofness toward Muslim women would certainly account for the social incompetence he displays around them in his visit.

Unfazed by his narrow perspective, Tariq enters the ladies’ section. There he strikes up a conversation with one of the younger women and begins taking pictures. He is startled to learn, however, that not everyone appreciates his non-consensual photography. Shocking!

“You are not allowed to be here,” one woman tells him. He protests that he “got permission earlier” and that “a lot of the women are okay” with his photos. But who gave him permission to enter? And why is he ignorant of the most basic ethics of photography?

Rationalizing his intrusion, Tariq remarks that “it didn’t seem like the women were that distraught with me being there.” (They were clearly distraught enough to ask him to leave.) Adding insult to injury, he accuses them of being “hyper-sensitive”:

We all live in America, we walk through malls, classrooms, hallways and parks with people from the opposite gender. But at the mosque, we become hyper-sensitive.

Tariq fails to understand that in mosques, women’s prayer rooms come with an expectation of privacy. Perhaps these spaces would not exist in an ideal world. Perhaps they are contrary to Islamic tradition. But they are here now, and real people use them. Despite their many problems, the one benefit that these areas offer women is the ability to do things like breastfeed and loosen clothing away from the prying eyes of men.

But women’s privacy appears to be an afterthought for Tariq. He scribbles notes about how “half-covered” ladies “seem very comfortable” in the space he is invading, and then acts surprised when those same women ask him to leave. Later, he reflects:

Granted, the women’s area could be a safe space. There are a couple of women that wear the face veil and there privacy needs to be respected. This is there space to be comfortable, why would they be okay with someone like me ruining it? [sic]

Should it have taken a bumbling foray into the female prayer room for him to arrive at this obvious conclusion?

The only positive thing about the entire blog entry is the attention it gives to two common problems in women’s prayer spaces: overcrowding and noisy children. Yet even this manages to elicit an ill-advised comment from Tariq: “Well the kids have to go somewhere right?”

For all his navel-gazing and contemplation of ridiculous questions (“Is a man’s concentration in prayer more important than a woman’s?”), Tariq appears to have learned nothing from his experience. With stunning disregard for the ladies of the Little Rock mosque, he has published photos of them on his popular website – photos taken without their permission, and which depict some of them without headscarves on.

If Bassam Tariq wanted to learn about the women’s side of the mosque, he could have asked a Muslim woman to document it for him. He could even have gone in himself, after getting the ladies’ permission and formally introducing himself to them. Instead, he inserted himself into a place where he was not welcome, and engaged in the most irresponsible, selfish kind of voyeurism. Tariq owes an apology to the readers of his blog and the Muslim women of Little Rock.

  • Dina

    what a great article!! great perspective.

    my favorite quote:
    “Perhaps. His aloofness toward Muslim women would certainly account for the social incompetence he displays around them in his visit.”

  • Jocelyn Roberts

    As salaam alaikum,
    bismillah ar rahman ir raheem,

    I’m an anthropology student and a revert who attends the masjid these two brothers decided to write about (and I’m speaking for myself and not as a representative of the masjid itself). I’ve also conducted participant observation there, and I can vouch that when the sisters know exactly what you’re doing they are open and honest (at least with a woman).

    The main issue I had with Tariq’s mostly unannounced visit is that he violated the rights of the women there by not securing permission to take those photos, which many of our own local ummah addressed on his post. Sure if we had been on the street this type of permission is not necessary.

    But beyond that, he left out the fact that our masjid is too small for ALL of us. Maybe the men weren’t overcrowded this one night and the women were. It happens. If Tariq were familiar with the community he would know that there are many occasions where the BROTHERS have no free space and the women have a lot, such as during the Friday Khutbah and Jumah prayer. He would also know that we are in the final stages of completing a much larger community center and this problem will soon not exist. (I have no idea if the community center will have gendered space or just a common space, by the way.)

    Still, one positive thing the divided space does at our masjid is it provides us with a known entity – static space. Most of us know that on busy nights maybe we should break our fasts at home and just come for tarawih because families with small children usually leave after isha. But on, say, a Wednesday, we have plenty of room to break our fast. During fard prayers outside of Ramadan, there’s rarely more than 10 women in attendance so we indeed have the luxury of space compared with the brothers.

    I’m also not sure from whom Tariq received permission but I can guarantee you it was from a man and NOT a woman, and this is also where his male privilege crops up. How difficult would it have been to make an announcement so that all the women present knew what was going on, and had a chance to complain?

    Additionally, the main controversial picture with the uncovered women seems to have been taken FROM THE KITCHEN WINDOW THAT LOOKS INTO THE WOMEN’S SIDE (a non-gendered space usually covered by a curtain)! So I have doubts as to how often he was actually IN the gendered space and was instead snapping photos from the boundaries of the women’s space (I also saw pictures that appeared to be taken from another entrance to the women’s side). These women had a right to tell him to leave because I’m sure he looked like a creep shooting photography from the window. I probably would have thrown my shoe at him if I had seen him taking a picture from the kitchen, astaghfirullah.

    Regardless, he went in with his own bias and assumed that we were all unhappy to be there. How does he even know that? He didn’t conduct any sort of survey or in-depth interviews with a good cross-sampling of the women there. Certainly some women want rid of gendered space in masajid, but I know women who would feel disenfranchised if that were the case at ICLR, and their feelings are legitimate even if they are not popular. I personally would feel extremely uncomfortable with a completely “co-ed” masjid because I’m not there to mingle as I might in the rest of the duniya. I’m there to focus on my akhira and connect with Allah SWT inshallah.

    Furthermore, Tariq didn’t even care about the rights of the few women in our masjid who wear niqab (but alhamdulillah I didn’t see any of them in the photos), and he also didn’t care about the rights of the few women who believe that photography is haraam or at least disliked (and I’m not certain at all who does and doesn’t believe that because it hasn’t been a topic of my research).

    Finally, and pardon me for being really long-winded here but I’ve had a while to digest what happened and I want to say my piece, I’m concerned for any future research project I might do. If I choose to go forward with my second project, I now may be faced with the prospect of cleaning up Tariq’s sloppy “journalism” and addressing several legitimate privacy concerns. Indeed, if the attitude of our ummah is that they are no longer comfortable with what they consider to be prying eyes, I may have to terminate all future research because, in anthropology, we absolutely must have the consent of everyone involved in participant observation. It ultimately doesn’t matter if it’s inconvenient for me and my plans.

    I ask Tariq to please consider doing some research before he decides haphazardly to try and break ANY barrier during his journeys, especially if he wants to break the “gender barrier” again. Dare I suggest that he even consider taking a sister or two with him next year? After all, I wouldn’t even try to “hang out with the men” for an anthropology project because, right or wrong, that goes against the culture of our masjid.

    If you read all of this, Jazak Allahu Khair for sticking with me. :)

  • http://wbabdullah.wordpress.com W.B. Abdullah

    Well said! Very thoughtful piece and a bit of nasiha for curious brothers…may Allah forgive us our sins and help us all to become better brothers and sisters towards each other, amin!

  • http://pressroom.prlog.org/mwa-net Aishah Schwartz

    Response to muslimerican rant against 30Mosques visit to Little Rock – http://aishahsjourney.blogspot.com/2011/08/response-to-muslimerican-rant-against.html by Aishah Schwartz

  • http://www.yasmin-raoufi.blogspot.com Yasmin

    Thanks for sharing this very interesting article. Its surprising that Peter Gray’s perspective is much more rational and respectful to Muslim women than Tariq’s.

  • Heather

    Thank you, Jocelyn. Your perspective on this as a member of the community is *extremely* important and relevant, and will end many ‘debates’ about what happened and how it was interpreted by Tariq before they can begin.

    His first responsibility to this community whom he has offended – astaghfirullah – is to *immediately remove the photos* if he has not done so. I’m a journalism/media student, and to use identifiable images taken in a NON-public area in which people have a reasonable expectation of privacy, without written releases from those pictured, would have had me before university judiciaries. Rightfully so. It’s not only morally offensive within our religion to do this, but in a journalistic sense, it crosses established ethical lines.

    You just don’t do this kind of thing. Not without advance permission from the WOMEN, not without a plan for carefully controlling any photos to exclude those who do not wish to be photographed, not without transparency with the women’s community after to make sure nothing unwanted is said or shown, and certainly *not* by an unaccompanied male stranger.

  • http://www.muslimmouse.blogspot.com AnonyMouse

    Wow… I’m quite surprised at how viciously this article criticized Bassam. To be honest, I’d probably be really miffed if I was in the room at the time (as I am a niqaabi and don’t appreciate random dudes snapping pictures in what’s supposed to be my private space); and I don’t necessarily agree with the questions and comments he made in the post.

    But at the same time – he was just being honest. What he expressed in his post is possibly what most random Abdullahs and Muhammads think about “what goes on in the women’s side?” It’s not necessarily right, and he probably should have thought about it more deeply and come away with more meaningful conclusions… but once again, he was being extremely honest. You can tell from his writing that he was trying hard not to do anything “wrong” either.

    So maybe it would be better to break the news to him a bit more gently – after all, it’s rare that a Muslim guy has the guts to really say what he’s thinking and feeling about Muslim women’s “space.” I personally am glad that he made an attempt at looking beyond the curtain and was honest about what he came away with. I’d rather that he wasn’t punished for his honesty, but rather advised slightly less harshly.

  • wale balogun k

    I really appreciate this discussion, particularly Jocelyn’s and AnnonyMouse’s reaction to the issue.

    I align with the point that Tariq shouldnt have been taking pictures in the masjid in the first place, given the Islamic injunction on pictures. And for a brother to be at the sister’s side is totally uncalled for.

    Having said that, I think he should be decently cautioned just as AnonyMouse said. May Allah (swt) forgive us all our short comings. Salam Alaykun

  • H

    Well written. Glad to be hearing the voice of a sister in all of this.

  • http://www.muslimahmediawatch.org Krista

    @ H: The writer of the post is a guest contributor, and is male. (There are some good reflections from sisters in the comments here though!)

  • Nadia

    Although I agree with most of the points made, it should be pointed out that Tariq obtained “permission” from the mosque’s imam to enter the area and take photos. Whether or not this was a smart move to make is something that can be discussed at length, but my point is that the imam clearly did not think that this was an invasion of the women’s privacy and gave himself clearance, for whatever reason, to allow this to happen. There needs to be a clear discussion in the Little Rock Mosque (and others as well, I imagine) as to who has the right to “allow” someone to enter a certain space in the mosque for this or a similar purpose. I also believe the pictures should be immediately removed, and frankly I was surprised to see them on the blog after reading this post. If only he had discussed this with Muslim women he is comfortable with, his wife and mom, this may not have happened.

  • Jocelyn Roberts

    Nadia, that’s not correct. I just spoke to our Imam and he said that no one approached him for permission that night.

    Anyway, this is not something the Imam can give permission for. I had to get permission to conduct my research through the Executive Committee, so that is who they should have received permission from.

    My guess is maybe they approached an old Uncle at the masjid and just assumed he was the Imam, which is even worse because Allahu alem, maybe the one who gave them permission wasn’t even in a position of authority to do so.

    Ask Tariq the name of the one who gave him permission and we’ll soon find out who it was, inshallah.

  • Peter


    These are some great comments. I especially want to thank Jocelyn for sharing what she did.

    Bassam Tariq told me that two members of the mosque board, as well as “the women in the kitchen” (whatever that means) gave him permission.

    He seems to assume that this “general permission” (his words) allowed him to take pictures of any/all women in the females’ area – and post them online – without specific consent from the women in the photos. He expressed that “if any1 wants their photo taken off, we’ll honor that.” [http://twitter.com/#!/curry_crayola/status/106581154559299585] That is obviously not anything close to informed consent.

    Tariq also told me that cameramen from BBC & PBS were in the women’s area too – as if their credentials somehow absolve him of ethical responsibility. (‘But everyone else was doing it!’)

    The president of the masjid, Amir Qureshi, has apparently demanded that Tariq remove the pics immediately. [http://30mosques.com/2011/08/mind-the-space/#comment-286603206]

    It is disappointing that he has not been straightforward, and refuses to admit initial mistakes or even remove the photo(s) now that he’s been informed.

    If Tariq (or anyone other man) wants to go into women’s private space, he needs much more than “general permission.” He needs everyone’s permission. The moment one woman asks him to leave, he should leave – not complain that he ‘had permission’. That means his legitimate ‘permission’ has just been revoked. He should not take pictures – unless explicitly asking every woman being photographed BEFOREHAND. And most of all, when he fails to follow this basic etiquette, he should not write a bemused blog post accusing the women of “scorning” him and being “hyper-sensitive.”

  • Lara A

    Salaam Alaikum,

    I’ve found this discussion to be very thought provoking.

    Like many women, I get a bit “Where’s our chandelier then?”, when confronted by the vast difference in space and quality between men’s and women’s areas at mosques. There are far too many mosques where women aren’t even allowed, which I find abominable, in the fullest sense of the word.

    One of my favourite mosques, the Umayyed in Damascus, consists of one big hall, with an ankle high barrier marking the men’s and women’s areas. Everyone can see the imam and no one falls to the ground in shock at the sight of *gasp* women. I like the feeling of equality that praying in such a mosque brings.

    On the other hand,the 30 mosques post reminds of the times I’ve spent in women’s prayer spaces. That feeling of sisterhood and seclusion is a good thing. It’s true they do provide a way to sit in the mosque in a more relaxed manner. When I went to jummah prayer at the mosque in Milan (not nearly as fancy as you might think), the women’s section was a room at the back of the hall. Here, I actually felt the women had a good deal, as it was a very hot day and we had much more space to spread out compared to the men, who were all crammed in together.

    I do think 30 mosques had good intentions by wanting to highlight women’s issues with mosque attendance. I just wish, that rather then treating the women as zoo exhibits (however unintentionally), they had actually spoken to the women from the mosque first and used the women’s words, so that the women themselves were playing a more piviotal, rather then a passive role.

  • whydoesitmatter

    If I was there at Little Rock Mosque and this idiot walked into the women’s section, I would be furious. I don’t care who he got permission from. If women observe the hijab and a non-Mahram walks in without permission from every individual in taht area, he has no right to be there. He deserves a nice big round smack upside the head.

    This commend has been edited according to MMW‘s Comment Moderation Policy.