Unmasking Unmosqued: Finding a Space for Women

As many of our loyal and long-time readers are well aware of, we’ve often covered the issue of women’s space and place in mosques. Whether we were looking at Chinese female imams and all-women mosques or the effect of mosque space on women’s love lives and, well, humanity, we’ve explored the various issues of gender, sexuality and politics found between the walls of many mosques. Mosques, much like any other space, are complicated meeting points of identity, belief, and mores, with potential to inform, impact and change not only our individual lives but also our social relations and standing. For this reason, the discussion of mosque space, not just as a physical space but also as the point of arrival of Muslims into their respective communities, and the formation of their relationships with one another, remains a conversation that requires to not only be heard but amplified.

Recently, a trailer made rounds in the Muslim online circles for an upcoming documentary, entitled UnMosqued, on the role of mosques in American Muslim communities.

From the film’s website:

UnMosqued is a documentary film which aims to highlight the growing need for reform in many of the mosques found in America. The purpose of the documentary is to engage a group of people who have been disconnected from their local mosque and explore the various reasons that have led to this sentiment. (…) Masajid may not be doing enough to attract and retain the youth, which further alienates the future members of the community from using the mosque space for their spiritual growth.”

New York City’s 96th Street Mosque. Image via the Unmosqued movie website.

From what has been made available to audiences, it seems the documentary is interview-based, featuring primarily New York and New Jersey-based religious community leaders. Despite the strong response to the documentary from many Muslims in online spaces and despite the resonance of what is being said in the documentary’s trailer itself, it does seem as though there are some key oversights as well as some misrepresentations. I discuss these misrepresentations and issues in length on my personal blog, in a different form of this article, with the biggest takeaway being that the 2011 American mosque survey cited by the filmmakers on their website actually describes mosque and community trends that counter the claims being made both explicitly and implicitly by the filmmakers – as well as claims and “matter-of-fact” attitudes that many young Muslims may have about the form of mosques in America. Ethnic domination at American mosques has actually decreased since 1994, according to the survey, and mosque attendance has increased steadily. This, paired with the exponential increase in mosques in America since 2000 (by a whopping 74%), seems to indicate that the American mosque is not an empty and culturally reclusive building – but rather a growing spiritual and social center. This does not, of course, negate the countless negative, “unmosquing” experiences of Muslim Americans but it does offer a challenge to generalizations being assumed about the nature of the American mosque.

Yet, what is most fundamentally and strikingly missing from the documentary is the role, treatment and participation of American Muslim women in American mosques.

American Muslim women are amongst a handful of demographics within the Muslim community who have consistently faced varying degrees of marginalization and discrimination. The trailer only mentions women twice: once, a testimony by an actual woman (who has not been profiled on the website as an interviewee) and the second time by Mohammad Langston, who mentions being asked “why women are treated like dogs in mosques,” without any real expansion or clarification on that thought. In a couple of the interviews on the website, women’s issues and roles are discussed, however briefly, in terms of just “women’s rights,” and still not by women themselves. It’s important to have men acknowledge the lack of physical and social space afforded to women in our mosques – but without including women leaders and speakers in the documentary, what message is being sent to the audience?

While there is yet to be any survey on female participation in mosques from which we can gather some cold, hard survey numbers, we know that the physical space, alone, afforded to Muslim women in mosques speaks loudly about the perception of what their role in the mosque is seen to be. Women’s bodies, their purity, and their ability to contribute to their community are all under the constant gaze of many mosques. Maryam Eskandari is a visionary American Muslim architect focusing on re-building and re-thinking Islamic architecture and places of worship. In her 2011 Master’s thesis, “Women Places and Spaces in Contemporary American Mosque,” she writes, after surveying 32 mosques out of over 100 visited mosques in 2010:

“Through the numerous case studies and investigations of the American Mosques that I documented, it is clear that the community does not provide adequate spaces for their women members…A lack of attention to the needs of American Muslim women in the states has caused a gender conflict over the adequacy of spaces for Muslim women within American mosques.” (Abstract)


“Cultural convention is lost in translation particularly in allowing women the access to attend the mosque. Misinterpretation of legal practices become a nuisance when space and gender “clash with time” (Donald L. Millers) and becomes visible through religious practice. “Many Muslim [men] do not see any need for a woman to go to a mosque when she can stay at home with the children and pray, even though a mosque may be within a block of her house” (Kahera 2002, 122). In his book Deconstructing the America Mosque, Kahera explains that the medieval Muslim world “developed a legal discourse that was cognizant of the use of public space with regard to age, sex and gender but gave preference to men…many contemporary Muslim jurists share the same medieval views”( Kahera 2002, 124). Therefore, the distorted medieval view that women need to stay at home is still debated.” (pg. 100)

In a conversation I had with Eskandari, she vividly recalled not only finding very few mosques in the United States, out of the almost 400 she’s visited, that provide any sort of safe space for all Muslims, but also running into archaic attitudes from mosque boards of directors about her role as a mosque architect.

By marginalizing the obstacles faced by Muslim women in American mosques, the documentary Unmosqued misses a crucial opportunity to address this issue in the context of a (popularly perceived?) larger problem of community direction and growth, and thereby acknowledge that the situations of many Muslim women across the US in their mosques is not just a “women’s issue” but a community issue. When any part of our community hurts, the entire community hurts. In addition to this, by offering very little commentary on the issue of women in mosques, the documentary also frames the mosque as the space of the Muslim male, trivializing of women’s space. If we’re going to have this conversation – and we must – then we must also acknowledge that the majority of our mosques are not, as Eskandari put it, safe spaces: they are not places where just any Muslim can go and pray.

And just as there are absolutely awful mosque experiences, there are also absolutely amazing experiences as well. And then there are those experiences that fall in between the nooks and crannies of good and bad. Additionally, despite the centrality of the mosque to Muslim communities across the world for centuries, there are other avenues for our communities to grow spiritually and socially. In some contexts, Muslim Students’ Associations have garnered a particular culture of religious community and social centricity, which parallels a community’s mosque, in the college and university settings. Despite the popularly acknowledged exclusivity that can come with many MSAs (or not!), they have become integral for many Muslims as areas of spiritual growth and signify that we have more avenues for addressing relevant, social issues than maybe some of our local mosques.

As Muslim American religious space, in all of its forms, increases and expands, so too does the need for a conversation that does not, in its character, prioritize the needs of some Muslims over other Muslims – be these immigrants, ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ, youth, or converts. We’re building the structures, but we’re lacking the foundation.  And this foundation cannot be complete without every part of the community. It comes down a very simple but incredibly powerful sentence by Amina Jabbar in a recent MMW post: Muslim men don’t know how to relate to Muslim women. Our mosques have created rigid barriers between men and women and in turn these barriers have led us to see women as almost “separate” from the community as a whole.

I hope that the filmmakers, who are still working on the documentary, take this great opportunity to bring in significant voices from the gendered underbelly of our community and our mosques. And I hope they do so in such a way that we know that when a woman (or anyone else!) has no place to pray, it is the responsibility of our entire community to find and give her that place.

  • zaheera

    i am a proud muslim woman in Africa. I believe Islam gives much protection to my rights and priviledges. I embrace praying at home, as is recommended, so that my children learn from my lap, play around me and pray with me. We are a proud muslim family in Africa. Our mothers, sisters and daughter have place in masajids, but we choose to pray at home for convenience and to protect our modesty. Please put this comment in your documentary and look more to the history, sunnah and reasoning Islam protects and places us women in a high place of respect. May the Almighty guide you and your viewers.

  • http://bio.prlog.org/mwa-net/50001433-aishah-schwartz.html Aishah Schwartz

    Assalamu Alaikum.

    It was not long into reading this article before I was struck by a quickness to presume to know the full intention of the documentary’s producers in the author’s comments. As I continued reading the article, the intensity of my first impression grew; that being that this article, all the way up to the last paragraph, was based-on a movie trailer — a documentary in production.

    A movie is not inexpensive to produce. What do you suppose is the primary purpose of a trailer? To serve as a mechanism through which investors can gauge their investment decision(s) based on feedback to the trailer, which in turn can also serve to increase a production’s budget. In other words, it’s all about marketing. And in this case, I would venture to say that the result of releasing the documentary’s trailer was astounding! It generated “buzz”. The ensuing conversation that has spread across the internet in responding articles, essays, and reader comments, surely cannot be lost on its producers, directors and writers, insha’Allah.

    That said, I think the article could have been written in another tone to get its message across in a way that wasn’t so blatantly presumptive and accusatory. By the way, this article is also demonstrative of the tone in which revert Muslims are spoken to when they attempt to integrate themselves into their local Muslim communities. I speak merely from both my own experiences and through the experiences shared with me throughout the eleven (in April) years I have been Muslim, by other revert Muslims. So I, in no way, lay claim to what all other Muslims experience, nor do I dare speak for them. Suffice it to say, this is also something that also needs to be addressed in American Muslim mosques (and elsewhere, I’m sure), in addition to some of the very well thought out suggestions made in this article.

    Now the conclusion of this article was spot on. Great job. Maybe if enough of us comment and send emails, the end result will be a documentary that will not only enhance the conversation, but produce results as well.

    And to “Ahmed”, author of the blog promoting Unmosqued the Movie, I note there is no contact information. What would it hurt to let readers contact you directly? Join the conversation.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mmw/ Krista

      I think it’s important to note that the information that Sana was working from isn’t only the trailer. There’s a lot of information on the Unmosqued website as well – interviews with several religious leaders that will presumably be part of the documentary. None of them were women either, and a lot of the gendered experiences that Sana writes about are missing from almost all of that analysis.

      Anyway, I do hope you’re right that some of what people are saying about gender will be taken into account when the final version of the documentary is produced. I don’t think Sana was jumping to conclusions though – as it is, the lack of attention to gender in the promotional material for the film is still an issue of concern. Insha’Allah, there will be more positive things to say once the final documentary comes out…

  • http://unmosquedTheMovie.com Ahmed Eid (Unmosqued)

    This is Ahmed, the producer/director of Unmosqued the Movie.

    I agree with the above statement. Let is be known that the author also reached out to us for an interview with the producers of the movie on Feb 2 2013, and we said we agree and would gladly answer any questions she had. A few weeks later, after not receiving anything from her at all, this article was published without any effort on her part from understanding our intent and our vision for the film.

    Anyone who wants co contact me can do so at Ahmed@unmosqued.com. I’d be more than happy to answer any questions about the film.

    • Sana

      I actually did send an email but received no response. That was also for a different article (generally looking at mosques in America), not this one. But thank you for also assuming that I had put in absolutely not a single ounce of effort in my critique. Really, thank you.

      Secondly, the article is a response to – as mentioned – the ‘materials being offered to the audiences by the producers’ thus far. I was commenting on the trailer and the website — which do speak abundantly about how the film has been thus far envisioned as well as how it’s been used to gauge audiences.

      I’m not sure where anyone got any hint of my ‘quickness of presume of the intention of the documentary’ — I was, in fact, joining in on the conversation with my initial thoughts. I didn’t think offering an initial critique would result in assumptions about my own intentions with this article. Considering that this is a website dedicated to Muslim women in the media and this is an upcoming film about Muslim spaces, I don’t think there’s anything shocking about critique being offered here. Either you take it as part of the conversation and work on it from there, or you just ignore it.

  • bilal

    Sana Saeed’s writing style in general – seems to be very possessive, constantly redirecting the audience to her ‘been there done that’ attitude: “we’ve often covered the issue of women’s space and place in mosques” “we’ve explored the various issues of gender, sexuality and politics found between the walls of many mosques” “I discuss these misrepresentations and issues in length on my personal blog”. ‘We’ and ‘I’ are the start of most sentences in her rant(s). She further quotes an interviewee and complains that his statement is “without any real expansion or clarification on that thought”… DUH, ITS A PREVIEW! Also, her numbers are way off – Mosques have not increased “by a whopping 74%” as she states ‘as a matter of fact’ without a single reference. The nationally recognized pew research/cair study suggests otherwise.

    • Sana

      It’s possessive to talk about the sort of stories we’ve covered here at MMW and address our audience? Um, ok.

      Secondly, 74% rise in mosques is from the 2011 American Mosque Survey (also mentioned here for your easy access http://cnsnews.com/news/article/survey-shows-74-percent-increase-us-mosques-past-decade)– which I actually read. And reference above.

      Secondly, my critique is on the trailer and website — no one else found the “women are treated like dogs” comment, which is shown in a very abrupt and out of place manner, weird? I just thought it was a poor way to include anything gender related in the trailer.

    • Sana

      I also suggest that if you’re going to critique an article, try not to attack the author. Next time, please do engage with the arguments being made. Or else you just sound like a hater.


      • Chris

        I agree with you. There may be different points to agree or disagree on in the article, but when there is such personal attack going on, the desire to debate gets suffocated. At least in my opinion. By the way, I think it is absolutely legitimate to write a piece on a film as presented to the public for now, as long as it is made clear what the critique or review is on, precisely (which I feel it was).

  • Sya

    Bilal, those ad hominem attacks we can really do without.

  • Vanessa Karam

    A friend posted the Unmosqued trailer on fb today, and I was very interested. I spent quite some time on the associated website (before reading Sana’s piece) and was also disappointed by the lack of even one female interviewee or almost any reference to the huge issue of inadequate space, lack of voice, participation, etc. of women in American mosques. That doesn’t mean that I am opposed to the Unmosqued project; in fact, I think it is quite inspired, clever, and necessary. But, if it continues to marginalize this vital issue, I don’t see how it can be adequate or relevant or transformative.

    I wish that those who are upset with Sana’s critique, including the producer/director, would say something of substance about this issue. I see that there is some discussion about women in the mosque on the Unmosqued fb page; that’s a hopeful sign.

    So there I am, digging for scraps, hoping to find a reference to the issue of women in the mosque on the website, in the trailer, on fb, in ICNA uploads on Youtube, and gratified when I find something (actually counting them out on my fingers; I didn’t get beyond the one hand). Then, I have to look up from this rather pathetic pursuit and remind myself that this should be, as Sana points out, a community issue, i.e. something that is discussed on the same level as youth involvement, choice of language, need for service projects, and the like. That would be just and right. And if that’s where the project is headed, then wonderful–I take it all back. In the meantime, thank you, Sana, for taking this up. Based on what we can see so far, this needs to be said.