On a midsummer afternoon, my family and I ended up in the heart of old Lahore. Since we were coming from Data Darbar the plan was to start on foot near the site of the burned Shahalmi gate and make our way inwards to Wazir Khan Masjid. However we ended up getting a little lost in the maze of crisscrossing alleys, but we were soon helped back on our way by some of the local shopkeepers and it was upon their insistence that we visited the Sunehri Masjid first. The mosque was a small and somewhat run down building perched on a low rise above the street. While we were walking in, other people beside us started coming in for their afternoon prayers. And as is the norm, the men walked straight into the main courtyard whilst the handful of women that came went into a door near the entrance and upstairs, into a small room allotted as their prayer space. Since the mosque was obviously in use and it would have been rude to wander amongst the nimazi’s, taking pictures, so we left. Continuing on the path we finally found Wazir Khan Masjid. The entrance from the street is not evocative of the splendour of the actual mosque. The large courtyard leads into the inner sanctum of the mosque. The vaulted ceilings and walls inside are covered in detailed frescos-a testament to the Mughal brilliance in art and architecture. Whilst admiring one particular floral motif near the dais the call for prayer sounded from nearby and my mother expressed her wish to pray there. Since there seemed to be no imam (or anyone in particular) leading the prayers there we took up a spot in the front, close to the dais, and began to pray. At the same time a small group of men had walked in and without any comment they took took up their place further down the same row, a little way away from us. After everyone was done praying they dispersed without saying a word to rebuke us. This in particular struck me as an odd yet welcome occurrence. As only an hour or so ago we were directed into segregated sections at the darbar and denied the right to pray in the mosque there. Thus, the act of praying in public alongside the men without any fear and without being relegated to some tiny room in the back was a novel experience. It was liberating to just be able to do as I please and connect with my religion in my own way as opposed to having to seek permission from someone else to do so. On our way out, I was wondering why this was the case here: was it because Wazir Khan Masjid now functions as more of a tourist attraction than a public mosque and as a result the conventional segregations present in other mosques weren’t applied here or was it because the authorities (religious or governmental) there had a more inclusive attitude. Whatever the case may have been, it was that visit which inspired me to look into the relationship women have with the mosque and into the existence of mixed prayer spaces, in this country. The concept of purdah was formally introduced to the subcontinent by the Mughals (who themselves adopted the concept from the Christians after the Arab conquest of Iraq). It wasn’t purdah in the current sense of the word (burqa/hijab) rather it adhered more strictly to the concept of ‘chaar dewari’. The Mughal women were expected to stay in their lavish zenanas and only travelled in covered palanquins to other similarly closeted locations. The purdah was even adopted by upper class Hindu women, thus transcending religious boundaries to become a marker of status In the Holy Prophet Muhammad’s (SAW) time women openly prayed in the mosque, while in the company of men. They were never denied entry nor moved to a different section, rather they were actively encouraged by the Prophet (SAW) to come pray at the mosque. Even today in the most holy site of Islam, the Kabah, men and women pray in a mixed congregation. So then why has it now become the norm that women rarely, if ever, go to the mosque in Pakistan? An obvious answer to this quandary is that they are not a welcome presence in the small neighbourhood mosques where there is no space for them. When they have to venture out to a few of the bigger mosques in the city, which have female only sections, many of them choose to pray at home- and can they really be blamed for it in a country where women are routinely harassed on the streets. Therefore, to understand the current state of affairs the relationship between women and the mosque must be examined in a historical and social context. Historically the mosque has served as a centre for public life in the Muslim community. Especially in the Prophet’s (SAW) time where it functioned as a prayer space, community centre, courthouse and parliament. The fact that women had unrestricted access to the mosque meant that they were actively involved in the public sphere. However, this tradition changed during the rule of the Caliph Umar ibn al-khattab. It was he who first limited the access of women to the mosque. It is not entirely clear why he did so but the two most prevalent theories are: (1) the women in his time were in increasing danger of being sexually harassed/assaulted on their way to or from the mosque, this was further compounded by the actions of some women who apparently came to the mosque specifically dressed to ‘seduce’ men. Or (2) Umar ibn al-khattab was not fond of his wife’s habit of going to the mosque alone and while he could not outright forbid her from going (as per the Prophet’s (SAW) example), he instead implemented gender based segregations in the mosque such as partitions and barriers. This segregated setup continued on through the reigns of the Caliphs Usman and Ali but slowly women began to fade from the mosque ergo also receding from public life, up till the point their presence in the mosque became a novelty as opposed to the norm. According to Dr. Nevin Reda, a professor at Emmanuel College, University of Toronto and a classically trained Islamic scholar, there is concrete evidence in the Quran that supports the unfettered access of women to mosques. She talks of both general and gender specific verses in the Quran that deal with women and the mosque. Some which are as follows: O children of Adam! Take your adornments to every mosque … (7:31) O Mary! Humble yourself before your Lord, prostrate yourself, and bow down with those who bow down. (3:43) All Muslims are being commanded to go to the mosque, in the first verse, and this obviously includes women too. While in the second verse, the mother of Christ is addressed and by extension all muslim women, even here she is told to ‘bow down with those who bow down’ meaning she is not praying alone and Dr. Reda’s analysis of this verse (specifically the aforementioned section) shows that ‘ma`a al-raki`in’ is the term used. ‘Raki`in’ is the masculine plural form. It may or may not include women, but it must include men. Therefore, Mary was told to pray amongst a group that included men. The Quran further states that anyone who prohibits believers from going to the mosque shall be met with severe punishments in this world and the next. Thus these verses – combined with the Prophet Muhammad’s (SAW) example – grant women the right to public prayer spaces. Yet the image persists that women’s relegation to the home is somehow wholly Islamic. The reason for this can be that there is an increased reliance on and conformity to the Hadith. This in itself is not problematic as the Holy Prophet (SAW) is held up as the best example for Muslims. However, the Hadith are not always reliable. This is because the first compilations of Hadith were done well after the Prophet’s (SAW) death. This means that the Hadith can be tampered with or forged entirely. While many indeed are authentic, some have proven not to be. For example, “Verily! The woman is not an Imam over men”. This Hadith in its chain of transmission included Abdullah ibn Muhammad al-Tamimi, who is known to be a forger. Dr. Reda argues that not only was there no form of gender segregation within prayer during the Prophet’s (SAW) time but the arabic word for row, ‘saff’, has only been used with regards to battle rows in the Quran and is in no way connected to prayer. However, even within the Hadith there are those that explicitly state women should be allowed into mosques, and are in accordance with the Quran on this issue. So perhaps it is the patriarchal setup of society that chooses to ignore the rights of women and in its place push forward only that which reinforces the second class status of women. The concept of purdah was formally introduced to the subcontinent by the Mughals (who themselves adopted the concept from the Christians after the Arab conquest of Iraq). It wasn’t purdah in the current sense of the word (burqa/hijab) rather it adhered more strictly to the concept of ‘chaar dewari’. The Mughal women were expected to stay in their lavish zenanas and only travelled in covered palanquins to other similarly closeted locations. The purdah was even adopted by upper class Hindu women, thus transcending religious boundaries to become a marker of status. So those families which could afford to have their women folk stay at home did so. But interestingly enough Indian Muslim women despite being cloistered in Purdah were not completely without agency, in his book ‘White Mughals’ William Dalrymple states that owing to Islam moulding itself to the more liberal Sub-Continental environment, Indian Muslim women were still more powerful than their Middle Eastern counterparts. The Mughal women were often educated and very wealthy, as a result of which some of the great buildings of that time were built at their behest. Some of Lahore’s oldest Masjids were built because of women. The Mai Moran Masjid was built on the request of Raja Ranjit Singh’s queen Moran Sarkar, a learned Muslim dancing girl the Raja fell in love with. In fact, the Maryam Al-Zamani Masjid was built by the emperor Jehangir in memory of his mother. The mosque’s present day custodian says that the mosque was only used by the women of the royal court and there is an underground tunnel that runs from the mosque to the Lahore Fort, which was used by the ladies of the court to come and pray at ease. A few inhabitants of the area also contributed that it is rumoured that Noor Jehan and her entourage had the secret tunnel constructed. However now even this mosque has become the domain of men. On one hand Muslim women were patrons of brilliant Mughal architecture yet on the other hand, as was the historical trend, they were seldom in the public space. The advent of the British Raj led to the increased adherence of Purdah, especially within the Muslim community. This was probably because the Muslim minority felt their way of life was under threat and in an effort to preserve that they clung tightly to established traditions. Thus after partition the purdah may have declined in India but it was carried over to Pakistan by the migrant Muslim population. Still, it must be said that the following years, owing to global societal changes and the changing demands of the economic workforce, brought greater independence for Pakistani women and a decline in the traditional form of Purdah. But alas the dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s efforts to promote his brand of Islam subsequently led to the increased Islamisation of Pakistan, in the same vein, and spawned a regressive set of laws that limited the protection offered to women in the public space. The return to a very militant and stringent form of Islam, courtesy of Zia-ul-Haq, ensured that some women again found themselves being restricted to their homes and consequently being left out of religious places of worship. While writing this piece, an argument that I frequently came across was that women nowadays choose to pray at home in lieu of going to the mosques that do accommodate them in some manner, thus there is no need for considerations that would allow them into any mosques. This to me is an inherently flawed argument. It is as if someone does not vote in one election and are therefore forbidden from doing so ever again. If someone is not exercising a particular right, that does not mean that they should be deprived of it. So just as we would not be deprived of the right to vote despite not using it, similarly we should not be deprived of our right to go to the mosque. In light of the evidence – both Islamic and historic – there is a definite precedent that not only allows women in the mosque but makes it their right to be there. It is a divine right granted by God to all Muslim women and furthermore in this country – a democratic nation (against all odds) – women by virtue of being citizens of Pakistan have every right to exercise this. The writer is currently pursuing her B.A in Economics and Politics from SOAS. She is interested in current affairs, feminist discourse and literature Published in Daily Times, January 12th 2019.