Mosques in Afghanistan bringing women out of their homes
Kabul (Pajhwok): It’s half an hour before the Friday prayers in Kabul. Women section of Abdul Rahman mosque which is one of the biggest mosques of Kabul is bustling with women, some clad in traditional blue Burqa, most with big black scarves and lose black gown while still few with long tops over jeans.
As it is still time to the mandatory prayers, a group of elderly women are softly chatting among themselves, rising food prices, marriages or other family issues. Some young girls are hugging and greeting their friends, while others are clicking selfies with their mobile cameras. Most others are intently praying.
Mosques in Afghanistan conjure the image of citadel of conservatism and even extremism for the outside world. In fact, it has historically been out of bound of women although religious texts do not forbid them.
Away from media glare, however, mosques in Afghanistan are giving women an excuse to come out of their homes, particularly to those who rarely have it otherwise. Mosques are turning into a place to socialize and become more aware not just about religious matters but also social and political issues. Increasingly people are realizing the importance of such outings as it gives them a sense of confidence perhaps they never had before.
Till only 15 years ago, under Taliban women were not even allowed to participate in any social activity in public in Afghanistan. Even in the capital Kabul, women could not venture out of their homes without some male companion. They were forced to live within the four walls of their homes in the name of religion.
Women reoccupying public spaces:
Kabul streets today wear a different look as gradually women are re-occupying their spaces in almost all walks of lives. Some young girls and women are slowly but steadily changing the trend by going to coffee houses and restaurant to socialize. But these are mostly educated women from middle or upper class families.
Women from even most conservative families are meanwhile visiting mosques. Before each prayer every day, but mostly on Friday’s or in month of Ramadan young and old women can be seen on some of the Kabul streets, hurrying towards mosques. The turn out on Friday afternoon is bigger as it is public holiday, like most Muslim countries.
During last month’s Ramadan, women could be seen coming back to their homes as late as 10:00pm after performing their night prayers (Taraweeh).
Esaq Haidari Arab, spokesperson to Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, says, “In Kabul alone there are 30 mosques that have allocated space for women.” The Ministry, however, does not have province wise exhaustive data. But there are many mosques in Kunduz, Mazar, Herat and Badakhshan provinces that have women sections, Arab adds.
The Ministry does not have any specific policy regarding female mosques but wherever communities take initiative they help them setup a space for women in the mosque, according to the government’s spokesperson.
All the 30 mosques in Kabul are mosques open for both men and women and they are only segregated into different parts of the mosque. As sanctioned by mainstream Islam thus women offer prayers in single but segregated congregations, led by male Imam.
There is still no report of any women only mosque with female Imam in the country, although few weeks back there was media report of women leading prayers for women in Kunar province.
Women’s Religious Isolation:
Mosques had become the place from where all sorts of fatwa against female were issued till not long ago in the country, restricting their basic rights of movement, of going to schools and justifying even their stoning in the name of religion.
Modaser Islami, a women’s rights activist, says, “Women are kept in religious isolation and denied their rights sometimes based on false religious argument. Since women are not involved in religious affairs and don’t have adequate knowledge of it, they have been accepting subjugation in the name of faith.”
“It is hence important that women are brought out of this isolation,” he adds.
A place for socialization:
Although women come to mosques mainly for prayers, but it also gives them an opportunity to mix with their peers.
Socialization in mosques can address psychological need of women as talking often gives catharsis. It is turning into a boon for elderly women specially who have less chances of meeting people of same age in house as there are no other community programs for them.
Bibi Haji is around 50 years’ old woman, who is sitting in one of the Kabul’s mosque in Demazang area with some of her friends after finishing her prayers, talking softly and smiling. She says, recently her son died and she was under depression for many weeks.
“Doctor advised me to go out sometimes and meet people. I was not sure where to go and hence decided to start praying in mosques daily. I am glad I start coming here as I could meet women of my age and talk to them. I also talk to them about my pain and share memories of my son. It gives me peace when I find them listening to me”.
Also mosques are empowering women by gradually helping them enter in a place, otherwise dominated by men.
Mohammad Baqhir, an IT specialist in one of the private universities in Kabul says that his mother has been going to mosques regularly for three years now. “I see a big difference in my mother’s views on different issues. She is illiterate and earlier all her talk was about family issues and our relatives, but now she has developed a broader view of the world.
Government and NGOs promoting awareness through mosques:
Realizing its social impact, now even government and NGOs use mosques to make people aware about social and health issues.
Esaq Haidari Arab, the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs spokesman, says, “Mosques also preach about benefits of Polio vaccination and other important issues and rights of human beings from Islamic perspective,” adding, those women visiting mosques can benefit from these.
Najiba Rahimi, a social organizer, working with an NGO in Mazar Sharif, adds “For our public awareness meetings and also to involve women in the community decision making here in Mazar we organize meetings and gathering in the female section of the mosque; and even use it as a training place for women where we invite trainers to train women about issues such as gender equality.”
There are, however, concerns of radicalization inside these mosques. In fact many civil society activists who grew up seeing the ugly abuses of religion are worried at rising religiosity, which they fear may lead to extremism.
Spokesperson of the Hajj and religious affairs, Arab shuns those fears, adding, “Most of the mosques are registered with us and we work in collaboration.”
Rays of home, Imam and his wife leading changes:
Afghanistan still remains a country where men feel embarrassed to pronounce even their wives’ names in public or walking with them on the streets. Mr. Hussain Wahizzada, Imam of Mohammadia Masjid in Kabul is quite different though.
He proudly speaks about his wife MuhadasaWahizzada, who with his support holds meeting twice every week with women, discussing about religion, ethics and many other issues that concern them, or they want to clarify about.
Muhadasa who has religious studies qualifications equivalent to bachelors’ degree and was earlier teaching in one of the private universities in Kabul conducts such informal classes on each Wednesday and Friday.
She informs how many women who seek advices about personal, family or religious matters insist on her asking her husband for the amicable resolutions of matters based on Holy Scriptures. “They underestimates my knowledge perhaps as our society is not yet ready to accept women teaching about Islam,” she laughs off though she sounds irritated about it.
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