“Saved By the Curtain”
By Tasneem Vali
Detroit, MI shaped my concept of gender segregation. I went to the University of Detroit, graduating with a degree in Architecture in 1995. The architecture building on campus had only three bathroom stalls for women and that too was a converted space from a former powder room. The building had three floors and each floor had at least 20 stalls for men. So as a freshman I diligently would climb/descend stairs to use the facilities during our all-nighters, which were usually all semester. By the time I was a sophomore the women in architecture staged a revolt; we would use any restroom we pleased and the men would have to knock and make sure the facility was empty for them to use.
I didn’t visit a mosque regularly then, but now 20 years later I live in Winnipeg, Canada and pray at the Winnipeg Grand Mosque. It is a 20,000 sq. ft. space. The main prayer area is well lit with huge windows and skylights; there is local talent on the walls in the form of calligraphy – it is a serene place. On Fridays the partitions open into the gym area to accommodate a multitude of worshippers. There is a library and meeting space as well as a mezzanine area with two classrooms.
When we first went to the mosque we couldn’t find a women’s entrance, which gave me hope. I would not have to be part of a revolt. There are three entrances and families, women and men enter through them, any of them. The main prayer area is well maintained and can be divided into classrooms. One of these dividable spaces is designated for women. The mezzanine is open to the main prayer area below, and also serves as the women’s additional prayer space. There is a huge screen in the main prayer space that projects the imam during prayer and is clearly visible from the mezzanine. During Ramadan 1435, I would go for Dhuhr and stay till Asr, reciting Quran, attending an impromptu halaqa, but most of all enjoying the tranquility and peace that comes only in a place of worship that respects your rights.
After a few afternoon seclusions on the mezzanine floor I decided to stray downstairs into the main prayer area. I was not prepared for the ensuing war. It was quite interesting and actually made me think about why this mosque does not have a problem of women feeling like they are second-class citizens.
The war I allude to was a ‘curtain war’. The sisters’ area in the main prayer area was separated by nothing when I first started praying – I could see the imam clearly. There was even a nikkah performed with everyone in the main prayer area. The bride was not told to go upstairs or to the back. Amazing eh?
Then a few days later a fine latticework cotton mesh was hung up. So now I could see the imam like a cross-stitch pattern, it could be worse right? A few afternoons later the cross-stitch imam now became a fuzzy, hazy imam. My curiosity piqued, so I asked the caretaker about the curtains. He was clueless, he said people usually bring things and leave them at the mosque. Two uneventful afternoons later, the curtain morphed into a silky opaque panel with cherry blossoms – the imam was a silhouette.
The opening accommodated four panels; there were two hazy imam panels in the center, one cross-stitch imam panel on the right and one silhouette imam panel on the left. Ingenious, you could select which imam view you preferred.
Ramadan was almost over and I had not yet gone for Taraweeh, I decided the last 10 days I would make the effort. When I walked in Isha salat was just concluding, so I decided to wait outside before I went in to get a spot for Taraweeh. Lo and Behold! When I walked in there were all three curtains together all at one time. So the ladies could choose what level of privacy they preferred. The kids were all in complimentary babysitting arranged by the mosque management and the Taraweeh was beautiful.
This mosque was amazing, never before had I experienced women at a mosque solving their own issues – this was architecture school deja vu. The men did not dare tell them to use only one entrance, or to not let kids run around in the main prayer area, or to stay back, the men would ask politely what the women preferred.
I was saved from being unmosqued by the curtain. Never in my life would I have imagined a 7’x2’ panel of cloth would preserve my iman. Allah works in mysterious ways, you plan and He plans and He is the best of all planners.
Forward to 1436, I have discovered a mosque in Winnipeg – the Winnipeg Central Mosque that has no barrier, the women simply pray behind the men. Having lived in Dubai, Detroit, Toronto, Chicago, Karachi and now Winnipeg – this was the last place I imagined would be a bastion that made me reminisce about the Prophet’s mosque when Islam was a young religion. Winnipeggers pray in any of the four mosques in the city, we own them all.
The curtain at the Grand Mosque keeps changing with the mood of the congregation. Currently if you are tall you will see cross-stitch imam and if you are on the shorter side you will have to do with silhouette imam. But then, there is always tomorrow when a woman could decide she wants an unobstructed view, and remove the curtain altogether. It is interesting to see that our university students actually flip the curtain over so they have an unobstructed view. I am hopeful; they will carry on my revolt.
Alhamdulillah this leaves us to concentrate on getting donations for our Eid hampers, iftaar to benefit a local charity and a clothing drive – yes all organized and managed by women.