Without a Prayer: Eid for Muslim Women in South Africa

Without a Prayer: Eid for Muslim Women in South Africa October 12, 2010

Several weeks after Eid al-Fitr, it’s a good time to analyze the recent media embroglio about women and Eid prayers in South Africa. The ways in which South African Muslims interact with the media has changed drastically in the last few years with the rise of social media, and this has reflected itself especially in what has been called “the desktop gender jihad” (women using the internet to fight, lobby and advocate for their rights).

The Masjid-ul-Islam Eid prayer. Photo via Farhana Ismail.

In the weeks following Eid al-Fitr, a group of South African women from different cities and affiliated with different groups put their heads together to make a statement: Women have the right to attend Eid prayers. Traditionally, South African Muslim women in the north have been barred from attending the prayers, as part of the dominant mindset of women as a source “temptation” and “distraction.” Muslims in the South, especially in the Cape, have always had women as part of their congregations. These differences are sometimes attributed to ethnicity and sometimes to madhab (school of law).

The campaign to attend Eid prayer was carried out using various media channels, including radio and television interviews, newspaper articles, blog posts and social media updates.  I’d like to look at how Muslim women used the media to further their campaign, as well the counter-attacks launched by a number of Muslim media agencies.

South African Muslims love pamphleteering. The first pamphlet was undertaken by members of the Masjid-ul-Islam (a Johannesburg-based mosque that is inclusive to both men and women), entitled “Eid Bytes,” consisting of a number of prophetic traditions relating to women and the Eid prayer. Then, numerous articles appeared in small but widely read community newspapers in Johannesburg, such as the Fordsburg Independent and The Rising Sun, putting out a message in the public space: Muslim women will not sit back and accept a status quo that usurps their right to participation in religious life.

Another significant highlight in the campaign is the contribution by journalist and Islamic scholar Quraysha Sooliman, who wrote extensively about the matter during Ramadan using both traditional knowledge and journalistic know-how to educate as many women as possible.  She and Farhana Ismail, another community journalist, were catalysts in giving the campaign momentum through their community paper articles, radio and television interviews. For me, these women are Muslim women with voices, loud voices, speaking for themselves.

Sooliman, who writes with power and confidence, routinely asks pressing questions in the media about the logic of some of the scholars.  In one article, she responds to a fatwa  by Mufti Abdul-Qadir Hussein on the Channel Islam International (CII) radio station:

We would like to ask the Mufti if all the scholars and muftis and Imams in all the other parts of the world are wrong in allowing women to attend the mosques and in demanding that they participate in the Eid salaah, and only Indian-Pakistani and a handful of South African scholars are right? And by the same token is the Mufti suggesting that all South African women have no morals and respect for the etiquette of the mosque? Is it correct to make such sweeping generalizations, or should the scholars rather focus on teaching the community the correct etiquette through encouraging them to attend?

Ismail was on the receiving end of the said mufti’s ire when she went live on CII after securing an interview to discuss the matter. Hussein was outraged that she had been allowed to air her views, and immediately went on a rampage, calling all women involved in the matter “the party of Satan.”

The pamplet cover.

Another jarring example of public libel is the booklet making its rounds, entitled “A Dumb Woman’s View and its Refutation.” (pictured right) To make matters worse, the booklet is pink! It serves as an attack on Sooliman’s work, and repeatedly calls her “dumb,” “stupid,” “intellectually deficient,” “corrupt,” and a number of other expletives. The level of engagement is shocking, and speaks of frightened and injured male egos.

It has become common for men to target women who question, think independently and make informed decisions, and attack their personalities, their faith and their morality. This was quite apparent when the radio station allowed the mufti to slur women involved in the campaign. The station even went as far as to include the story in their news bulletin as a headline! To their credit, however, the station did open their lines the next morning for the listeners to voice their opinions, and the results were roughly equal in those for and against women’s inclusion.

The Voice of the Cape, a Cape Town-based radio station, a voice of sanity amidst the chaos, featured an article on their website delving into the issue. The article looks at the history of Northern Muslims and asserts that the dominant narrative has been one of women’s exclusion because of patriarchy and not religious tradition. The station is part of the Cape scene, where Muslim women are always accommodated in ritual life, and their support for Muslim women in the North has always been received graciously.

While Muslims consider Islam to be a religion that promotes the equal rights of both men and women, there remains a dominant patriarchal ideology among local ulema—one of the main stumbling blocks to elevating the status of women in society. This is the view of Professor Abdulkader Tayob from the Centre for Contemporary Islam at the University of Cape Town (UCT), in his analysis of an academic debate on the permissibility of women attending the Eid salaah:

The sensitive issue has ignited much discussion in Gauteng after a well-known mufti publicly condemned women for attending the Eidgah (Eid prayer, usually in an open field), sparking outrage from a network of progressive Muslim women who then issued a rebuttal to the scholar. The current debate not only centers around why women have been excluded from this sacred prayer, but also questions the prevailing sexist attitudes that exist amongst the ulema, which go against the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

South African Muslim women have an increased visibility in the media, on the internet and in public.  Community members were made aware of the campaign via media channels; the media also played the role of the battle ground, where the different sides went to war with each other with numerous rebuttals and counter-rebuttals. One message was clear: women are questioning the use and abuse of authority by the clergy, especially in the media.

Has all of this translated into concrete change? I would say yes. Not only was this the most talked about affair in the Muslim community, but the Eid prayer I attended saw a one-third increase in female attendants, as did the service attended by Sooliman. Women were also accommodated for the first time in various other smaller congregations, and a few women even attended an Eid prayer reserved solely for men in the Indian dominated community of Lenasia, a small town just outside Johannesburg. Their voices are being heard, loud and clear, and they resonate with many.

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