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.
*UPDATE – This post has been slightly revised in some places where the tone was especially harsh.