Praying in Public Spaces: The Real Challenge for Pakistani Women


Artwork by REYA AHMED, India

Driving down the historic Mall Road of Lahore is a form of time travel. It is a reclamation of our past values; a part of Lahore that strongly holds on to its culture, traditions, grandeur and history of unfettered resistance.

I drive past the Lahore High Court into the narrow roads of an adjoining area to my workplace. The law firm is flanked by a mosque, Masjid-e-Nimra, on one side. It is Friday and I see all my male associates leaving for jummah (Friday) prayers. A swarm of men head towards the mosque as the sound of adhaan calls the believers to pray. The believers—all believers, everyone, all men and women. But there is not a single woman in sight. And then I think to myself: why are women so absent from this part of the religious canvas?

The history of Pakistan has been marred with political and religious interplay that has impacted the dynamics surrounding the public participation of women in the country. The most debilitating impact of this interplay was in 1979, when General Zia-ul-Haq promulgated several religious ordinances that largely focused on policing the conduct of Pakistani women. The notion of purdah (curtain) called for a clear demarcation of the public and private domains in order to separate women from the world of men. An overarching policy of the moral regulation of women subsumed the national agenda. What followed was the displacement of women from the public domain into the enclosed spaces of the private sphere.

The veil had become the national identity of the Pakistani woman. Purdah was no longer a notion dictating national policy; it was the new norm. And just as every power-hungry regime faces a backlash to its authority, so did General Zia’s. Women rose in rebellion, challenging those norms. The Women Action Forum (WAF) was one of the few organizations that triumphantly displayed resistance in the face of political oppression. It was during this time that the famous Iqbal Bano, a classical singer, emerged as an iconic figure who stood in open defiance to the regime. In 1985, when Iqbal Bano sang Hum Dekhenge (We Shall Witness) written by the revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, she became forever etched in history as the woman who embodied resistance in the face of fascism. Bano’s version of the poem has become widely revered as the early tidings of a mutiny, orchestrated by the voice of a woman—the very subject that the newly enacted laws were made to subjugate.

Time is the greatest healer, and since the 1980s the overbearing restrictions which had relegated women to the spaces of their homes have eased, at least to some extent. As a Pakistani woman, I can travel alone in the urban centre of Lahore, where I live. But social disparity takes a toll on development when such changes take place in selective areas only. In my grandmother’s village, a two-hour drive from Lahore, this disparity manifests in public spaces. Walking down the road alone may not be an insurmountable task, but being stared down by judgmental gazes is certainly a by-product of the independence I claim when I choose to be unaccompanied by a male relative.

Sure, remnants of the State’s past exist, but today I see women battling for public space, reclaiming what was once theirs, filling all the negative spaces created at the behest of gender segregation. Yet religious structures are far too reliant on gender segregation where the Muslim woman has been marginalized as the Other. Many mosques in Lahore seem to be the exclusive domain of men alone. Mosques located in pocket neighborhoods are devoid of any praying space for women.

Local frameworks have not adequately addressed the issue of creating reasonable and inclusive public spaces for everyone within the religious discourse.

While many malls in Lahore have prayer areas exclusively for women, this is not enough to fill the void created by the lack of spaces in mosques. Because mosques are not only religious institutions, but are equally important structures for social space and community. Symbolically, a mosque not only binds Muslims in a tightly knit community, but also confers on them a sense of belonging. Excluding women from mosques also excludes them from this community, from this belonging.

When the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) migrated to Makkah from Madinah, the first task incumbent upon Muslims was to create a foundation for community building. The Prophet’s Mosque was created not just as a centre for religious activities, but also as an educational institution and a social support centre for the Muslims who had migrated from Madinah. There are numerous reports that attest that women did venture to mosques to attend salah prayers during the time of the Prophet. While there is no religious obligation for women to pray in mosques, that alone cannot be used to preclude women from a space that is central to their cultural and religious identity.

In addition to creating more inclusive religious spaces, women must also be allowed to partake in managerial roles in mosques. Islamic history shows numerous examples of women who not only occupied space within the realm of religious activities but also served in pioneering roles on the political forefront. For instance, Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, served as a scholar and authority on the knowledge of Islam after the Prophet’s death. Her contributions to Islamic jurisprudence have been tremendous. Another notable figure is Hazrat Hafsa, who was the only person entrusted with the master copy of the Qur’an for safekeeping at a time when preserving the authenticity of the Book was of utmost importance after the Prophet’s death.

Today, the women of Pakistan have successfully ventured into legal, political and educational institutions. Nevertheless, the idea of purdah, at least in the religious sector of the public sphere, has rendered their presence nearly invisible.

The negative space created by a lack of female involvement in mosques in Pakistan speaks volumes about the gender discrimination levelled against women.

This lack of female participation can be, in part, attributed to the smaller and inferior spaces allocated to women as praying areas in mosques. With an overbearing message of preferential male treatment enmeshed within its layout, the mosque becomes predominantly associated with a hegemonic structure of male dominance. An exception to the traditional structures of mosques might be the Badshahi Mosque located near Lahore Fort or the Grand Bahria Town Mosque located in a residential town area, where thousands of men and women come in congregation to offer Eid prayers. But offering Eid prayers twice a year is not enough to brush away the structural inequality that exists; praying spaces for women in the public domain are not a priority.

While the adage of women staying within private circles is reminiscent of a traditionalist interpretation of Islamic edicts, a modernist take on these principles advocates for gender equality as the essence of religion. This is reflected in the current revolutionary stances taken by a few Islamic scholars, for instance amina wadud, who led mixed-group prayers for men and women in the United States and United Kingdom. Internationally, we are witnessing changes in the areas of praying spaces worldwide: women-only mosques have been created in various countries (for example in France, Germany and China) where there are also women imams (prayer leaders). But this begs the question of whether such mosques have helped bridge the gap in gender inequality, or simply reinforced a hegemonic norm of patriarchy by cementing notions of gender segregation.

The constitution of Pakistan clearly stipulates religious freedom for all its citizens. In this context, the State of Pakistan may have achieved formal equality as it does not expressly bar women from mosques. But while formal equality is a superficial indicator of a country’s development, it fails to factor in the multiple intersectional identities or circumstances that may render a certain group vulnerable despite the appearance of equal opportunities. In order to establish a level playing field for everyone, states must take affirmative measures to raise the status of the underprivileged.

For instance, in the case of religious freedom, a more holistic definition of this right would include greater accessibility to religious facilities. Religion is an important part of a person’s identity and culture. When women are denied the all-encompassing right to religious freedom, they are also stripped of their right to self-determination.

In this regard, the State fails to achieve substantive equality as the women of Pakistan continue to live at the precipice of marginalization. Additionally, in creating gender-neutral laws that pay little heed to this marginalization, the State indirectly discriminates against women.

An exclusionary state policy simply reinforces the narratives of a biologically determinist justice system, relegating women to the private sphere based on the physical difference between the sexes.

In contrast, it is evident from examples in early Islamic history that the exclusion of women from the socio-political and religious landscape does not derive from the Shari‘ah.

In fact, marginalization is the fruit of a social mindset that has been heavily reinforced by patriarchal rhetoric in the face of political maneuvering.

Lahore truly is an enigmatic place—its monuments bear testament to its resilience to innovation, to an underlying mindset that has fallen prey to a political ideology. Be that as it may, I am hopeful of changing times. Maybe the exquisite canvas of Masjid Nimra will soon be complete, and just like its name—nimra, female leopard—this mosque will become a symbol of feminine courage and resistance.