How To Piss Off Muslim Women: 30Mosques Crashes A Female Prayer Space

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.


Filed under Commentary

20 responses to “How To Piss Off Muslim Women: 30Mosques Crashes A Female Prayer Space

  1. ugh. i hate to say this – but as far as disregarding womens feelings go, this is pretty derned typical … thanks for this peter … it may be harsh and all, but it needs to be said – with no apologies necessary….

  2. Seems like his attention was good. Muslim women are generally less represented. But like you said, he could have went about it in a better way.

  3. Wow. I’m quite shocked. I have yet to read the blogpost in mention, but I had been prior reading their earlier days for this roadtrip. I do hope it’s not as bad as you’ve written it =(

  4. ha, i guess the irony and sarcasm in the piece were completely missed. the writer could have at least contacted me before putting this together… my email is on the site. kudos for not reading between the lines. – Bassam Tariq,

    • Hi Bassam,

      I got the sense that there was a certain degree of self-deprecation in your piece. However, intruding upon women’s space does not become any less problematic just because it is later written about with “irony and sarcasm.” And some things simply aren’t funny.

      Your conclusion (i.e., ‘I should not be here’) seemed rightly placed, but your means of arriving at it were unacceptable and unnecessary. Your characterization of the women as “hyper-sensitive” was also disrespectful. Was that supposed to be “ironic”?

    • By the way, I’ve been impressed with your project in general, and am a fan. I just thought this particular post was very poorly done.

    • Jocelyn Roberts

      As salaam alaikum,
      bismillah ar rahman ir raheem,

      (reposting my comment from MMW for Tariq to read inshallah)

      I’m an anthropology student and a revert who attends the masjid these two brothers decided to write about (and I’m speaking for myself and not as a representative of the masjid itself). I’ve also conducted participant observation there, and I can vouch that when the sisters know exactly what you’re doing they are open and honest (at least with a woman).

      The main issue I had with Tariq’s mostly unannounced visit is that he violated the rights of the women there by not securing permission to take those photos, which many of our own local ummah addressed on his post. Sure if we had been on the street this type of permission is not necessary.

      But beyond that, he left out the fact that our masjid is too small for ALL of us. Maybe the men weren’t overcrowded this one night and the women were. It happens. If Tariq were familiar with the community he would know that there are many occasions where the BROTHERS have no free space and the women have a lot, such as during the Friday Khutbah and Jumah prayer. He would also know that we are in the final stages of completing a much larger community center and this problem will soon not exist. (I have no idea if the community center will have gendered space or just a common space, by the way.)

      Still, one positive thing the divided space does at our masjid is it provides us with a known entity – static space. Most of us know that on busy nights maybe we should break our fasts at home and just come for tarawih because families with small children usually leave after isha. But on, say, a Wednesday, we have plenty of room to break our fast. During fard prayers outside of Ramadan, there’s rarely more than 10 women in attendance so we indeed have the luxury of space compared with the brothers.

      I’m also not sure from whom Tariq received permission but I can guarantee you it was from a man and NOT a woman, and this is also where his male privilege crops up. How difficult would it have been to make an announcement so that all the women present knew what was going on, and had a chance to complain?

      Additionally, the main controversial picture with the uncovered women seems to have been taken FROM THE KITCHEN WINDOW THAT LOOKS INTO THE WOMEN’S SIDE (a non-gendered space usually covered by a curtain)! So I have doubts as to how often he was actually IN the gendered space and was instead snapping photos from the boundaries of the women’s space (I also saw pictures that appeared to be taken from another entrance to the women’s side). These women had a right to tell him to leave because I’m sure he looked like a creep shooting photography from the window. I probably would have thrown my shoe at him if I had seen him taking a picture from the kitchen, astaghfirullah.

      Regardless, he went in with his own bias and assumed that we were all unhappy to be there. How does he even know that? He didn’t conduct any sort of survey or in-depth interviews with a good cross-sampling of the women there. Certainly some women want rid of gendered space in masajid, but I know women who would feel disenfranchised if that were the case at ICLR, and their feelings are legitimate even if they are not popular. I personally would feel extremely uncomfortable with a completely “co-ed” masjid because I’m not there to mingle as I might in the rest of the duniya. I’m there to focus on my akhira and connect with Allah SWT inshallah.

      Furthermore, Tariq didn’t even care about the rights of the few women in our masjid who wear niqab (but alhamdulillah I didn’t see any of them in the photos), and he also didn’t care about the rights of the few women who believe that photography is haraam or at least disliked (and I’m not certain at all who does and doesn’t believe that because it hasn’t been a topic of my research).

      Finally, and pardon me for being really long-winded here but I’ve had a while to digest what happened and I want to say my piece, I’m concerned for any future research project I might do. If I choose to go forward with my second project, I now may be faced with the prospect of cleaning up Tariq’s sloppy “journalism” and addressing several legitimate privacy concerns. Indeed, if the attitude of our ummah is that they are no longer comfortable with what they consider to be prying eyes, I may have to terminate all future research because, in anthropology, we absolutely must have the consent of everyone involved in participant observation. It ultimately doesn’t matter if it’s inconvenient for me and my plans.

      I ask Tariq to please consider doing some research before he decides haphazardly to try and break ANY barrier during his journeys, especially if he wants to break the “gender barrier” again. Dare I suggest that he even consider taking a sister or two with him next year? After all, I wouldn’t even try to “hang out with the men” for an anthropology project because, right or wrong, that goes against the culture of our masjid.

      If you read all of this, Jazak Allahu Khair for sticking with me. :)

      • >>completing a much larger community center and this problem will soon not exist.

        I’ve been Muslim for over 20 years and in many cities, and that problem *always exists*. Its like building new freeway lanes: the more you expand it, the more the users expand into it :-)

    • Sakinah

      You wrote and published an article to the public and you want people to contact you before putting together an article …..once something is in the public domain it is open to being critiqued.

  5. Response to muslimerican rant against 30Mosques visit to Little Rock

    Aug. 24, 2001 by Aishah Schwartz

  6. Bismi ALLAH.
    Al Hamdulilah for the Muslimah who is constantly striving to educate herself and take a stand on ignorance which is not only a human habit but definitely in many case a cultural one! Al Hamdulilah

  7. Amina Wadud

    It would ALMOST be funny: except the same things functions with these writers of the 30 blog and that is–women have no agency. For even if the president ignores the women’s wishes and gives permission to the bloggers, at least they should have ASKED them and then respected their answer rather than assert their privilege (again). Privileged to have the quieter more spacious part in the men’s section but also privileged to enter the women, smaller and noisier section–if their curiosity warrants it.

    And imagine, right here in America women are fighting for equal access to mosque space: quieter and larger. Because, well quite frankly, if it is “convenient” for men and male bloggers to also grant themselves full access to these women’s spaces, WHY SHOULD THE WOMEN have any objections to it?! Dr. Amina Wadud

    • Jocelyn Roberts

      The masjid president stated the day after this whole drama occurred that he never approved them going over to the women’s side. He announced that he only approved them to work in the masjid in general.

      Allahu alem what really went down. Regardless, signed consents for photography are pretty much required for this type of work, regardless of who approved what.

  8. I have to admit, I was disappointed that the expected etiquette wasn’t followed or that permission was taken from the women to be photographed in this case. I think the project overall is a great idea – it was a success last year and this year, I was excited to find out (from Sr. Fatemeh) that they had stopped by the Salman al Farsi masjid in Corvallis, which, as people may know, was attacked after the failed Xmas bombing here in Portland. I have a strong connection to Corvallis and that mosque, so it was nice to see – though I still have to finish reading the post for that stop on the tour.

    In so many cases, there isn’t enough space, as was mentioned, in the women’s sections, so I would assume the space they do have is very much precious. There a lot of issues regarding space in the women’s section (had a recent episode here with a convert sister), so it is definitely an issue we need to address in our communities and not shy away from.

    Thanks for your insight Br. Peter – you’ve always had my respect since I joined/rejoined Twitter :-)

  9. I’m torn between being upset at the insensitivity over the approach to the women’s prayer area and being annoyed that Muslims still feel the need to separate men and women in this way. Too many Muslims still operate under this notion that women are best not seen or heard, and it’s not helping us grow as a community. I wonder if the segregation didn’t contribute to the notion that these men felt they had the right to grant access to what was designated as women’s space. It’s harder to see women as people when you don’t see them at all.

    • Jocelyn Roberts

      Salaam, Nakia!

      Isn’t it the same insensitivity that caused the brothers involved with 30Mosques to feel that the permission that mattered was the one from the men, too?

  10. Salam Peter,

    Read your article on AltMuslimah and thus to here on your blog.

    Regarding Bassam and Ali, I disagree with the very idea of an exclusive public space which they could “intrude”. Public is public. I also think that perpetuating separate female spaces merely enforces the “Separate, but equal” canard in our community. The more people who break down the barrier, the better. There is no expectation of going hijab-less in public and breastfeeding is not something that even other women want to have done in full view of them anyway.

    • Salaam,

      I tried to make it clear that criticizing Tariq’s approach in no way amounts to an endorsement of female-only spaces. And he was in a female-only space, which is by definition not public, especially considering the audience-based dress requirements that many Muslim women observe. You may disagree with women’s spaces per se, but that is not what my article is about. It is about a space that exists, and is used in a certain way by the women who have a claim to it. Just because you think they should use it differently does not then allow you to justify disrespecting their boundaries. Tariq was a guest, and he abused his partial welcome in this case. Taking photos of women without their hijab – without their permission – and publishing them online is a major ethical lapse, period.

    • Jocelyn

      Wait, so you have decided on behalf of the women that they should submit to shared spaces and give up gendered spaces? Isn’t that just as paternalistic as deciding we should be in a separate space?

      Furthermore, how would you know the breastfeeding habits of women from every Islamic culture out there? “breastfeeding is not something that even other women want to have done in full view of them anyway”… That is not a universally true statement. There is nothing wrong, per sharia, with a sister exposing breast to feed her infant in front of other sisters/small children, so who are you to say that she can’t feed her kid in the masjid? You want to enforce what you believe to be the only correct way to breastfeed a kid?

      Paternalism is not limited to men who fit a certain stereotype, you know.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s