For the past week, leading up to the blessed day of Eid-al-Fitr
(the Festival of breaking the fast), a day of celebration for every Muslim, a group of dedicated women and men, used their time and access to technology to vigorously campaign for the attendance of South African Muslim Women to the Eid Prayers, through educating the general public of the myths and misconceptions surrounding their absence from the gathering. Needless to say, the campaign was met with staunch opposition from the Ulema
(religious clergy) of South Africa, primarily those of Indian origin who were schooled in the Deobandi
Today, the morning after Eid or the second day of Eid, depending on how you celebrate, has left me amazed, at the power of technology. I am receiving e-mails of the success of the campaign, congratulations and some hate-mail too. The word spread as far out as Mafikeng, where for the first time in the history of that town, women attended the Eid prayers.
Our campaign was inspired by a similar one carried out many years ago by veteran Muslim women activists, led by Farhana Ismail, who took to the streets, distributing thousands of pamphlets, similar to the one I posted previously. Friends and I had discussed launching a campaign for Eid-ul Adha (the festival of the sacrifice), but all thanks to a pro-active and very knowledgeable sister, Quraysha Yousuf, who is schooled in both the classical Islamic traditions as well as secular knowledge, we decided to use the last week of Ramadan to launch the campaign. Although I call it a campaign, it was not in any way coordinated as such. We relied on word-of-mouth, or rather, word-of-email, facebook and blogs.
On Eid, before the crack of dawn, my husband and I awoke together. He left the house to observe the Fajr (dawn) prayer at the masjid (mosque), whilst I said my prayer at home, having the power of choice to do so. We sometimes do the Fajr prayer together, but on Eid morning, I urged him to the masjid to participate in the congregation, not wanting him to miss out on the reward of doing so, on such a special day. When he returned, together we readied ourselves for the Eid prayer, donning our best clothing, as is the custom of the Eid. Of course, I didn’t perfume or overly adorn myself, because we were going to pray. I would do so later, for the private family celebrations.
It was still dark outside, but the atmosphere of Eid and our shared preparation for the prayer gathering, lent our room a warm glow. In my heart, I was already saying the Takbir of Eid (litany of the greatness of God)
اللّهُ أكبر اللّهُ أكبر
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar
Allah is Great, Allah is Great
Allah is Great
لا إلَهَ الا اللّه
La illaha il Allah
there is no God, but Allah
اللّهُ أكبر اللّهُ اكبر
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar
Allah is Great, Allah is Great
و لِلّه الحمدَ
to Him belongs all Praise
I opened our balcony door, and could already hear it over the loudspeaker from the Eid Musalla (open air field where the Eid prayers are said) in our neighbourhood, which unfortunately does not allow women to participate.
My husband and I would have to make the short drive to a near-by suburb which does facilitate women’s attendance. This prayer gathering is organized and co-ordinated by Masjid-ul-Islam (Mosque of Islam). From my experience, this is one of the very few masaajid (mosques) in Johannesburg which affords women equal access, participation and respect as it does to men.
As we approached the field, I delighted in seeing so many men, women and children, dressed in their finest but modest attire, come out to thank Allah for the day He ordained as a celebration to us. (Muslims are crazy! We pray 5 times a day every day, but on our festive days, we pray 6 times!) As we made our way to the area laid out with mats for prayer, the men and women forked to the right and left, respectively, the children, some who were still wiping the sleep from their faces, could choose which parent they were most of fond of that morning.
Some congregations facilitate women behind the men; others separately but to the side, usually with a partition/screen in the middle, and yet others – in a totally separate area in space and distance. I am not averse to any of these settings, but prefer the first and second because they are in accordance with the practice of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who never excluded women from the main congregation, not even with a curtain.
I have prayed in many masaajid around the world, most markedly are those which have no barriers between the men and women, the best example which is the third holy of holiest – Masjid- ul-Aqsa in Jerusalem. In Turkey at the famous SultanAhmet or Blue Mosque, women have the option of praying in the main prayer hall behind the men with no segregation except a thin rope, or they can opt to pray in the upstairs gallery, which overlooks the entire masjid. In the Ommayad masjid in Damascus, the same practice prevails. Even in Makkah, at the Haram (sanctuary), women have the option of praying in female-only screened-off areas, or family sections where the women line up behind the men.
At the gathering I attended, the fairer sex stand to the left of the men, completely separate but not severed from the congregation, whilst still adhering to the principles of Islamic modesty. This Eid the coordinators had appointed a woman to deliver a short lecture. Lucy-Bushill Matthews, a British con/revert to Islam of 20 years and author of the book, “A Converts Tale” inspired us for 15 minutes on the concept of “fitrah“, which in English can only best but not justly be defined as “a person’s natural inclination to God” or ” a person’s innate predisposition towards good.” It was as if Lucy had read my mind. I had been thinking throughout the past week about this idea of “fitrah“, in the face of all the discussion of women being the cause of a similar-sounding concept known as “fitnah” (evil/mischief/temptation) by men who oppose women’s presence in sacred spaces. I am very grateful to sister Lucy for reminding me about our inborn disposition for altruism, at a time when I was feeling particularly degraded as a women, by so-called religious men and their followers, who could not think of my gender as anything but a sex object not even worthy of entering Allah’s house.
After the talk, the Imam led us in the two ra’kat (units) of prayer, interspersed with the 12 takbeerat (proclamation of the greatness of Allah, signified by raising the hands to the ears/shoulders during prayer). Afterward, he gave the Eid Khutbah (sermon) in Arabic, which basically spoke about the significance of Eid, he then said a long and moving prayer, to which we all raised our hands in supplication to Allah. When he signalled that the proceedings were over, everyone stood up and began wishing each other “Eid Mubarak” (a blessed Eid). I love this part the most – when no matter who is sitting next to you, you embrace her with her sincerity, as your sister. After the men greet the men and the women the women, families proceeded to congratulate each other on having completed the month of fasting and the prayer of Eid.
As I greeted my husband and we exchanged prayers for each other, I thought to myself – we had both fasted, we had both stood for the long nightly prayers, we had both increased our adhkaar (remembrance of God), we had both read the Quran, we had both helped each other try to gain nearness to Allah, and so we both deserved to come out on Eid morning, and thank Allah for the day, as the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his followers, men and women, did a century and a half ago. I believe this right belongs to every person who observes Ramadan, not just the men. The women in most cases, deserve it more, for not only did they fulfil one of the pillars of Islam, they also prepared the futoor/suhoor (dawn/dusk meals) for their families and communities.
On our way home, I witnessed a marvellous sight. The Somali and Ethiopian Muslim communities had just completed their Eid prayers, and were leaving the area. Hundreds of women dressed in long, loose, brightly coloured clothing filled the streets. It was coolness to my eyes, and I was suddenly filled with hope.
May Allah preserve us to see another Ramadan and another Eid-al-Fitr, and may He give back to women their right of the Eid prayer that man has usurped (in some parts of South Africa at least).