Three prominent themes emerged from the analysis of the research participants’ discursive reflections on the mosque: their motivations for attending, their views on gendered religious spaces and practices, and their perspectives on the imam role and the importance of male allies.
4.1. Motivations for Attending the Mosque
Previous research has found that mosques are important spaces for Muslim women in Western contexts to learn about Islam, pray, socialize, engage in community activities (e.g., fund-raising), and gain a sense of community and belonging (Nyhagen Predelli 2008
; Shannahan 2014
). The interviewed women in this study confirmed that they have religious, educational, social, and community motivations to attend the mosque. A prominent motivation was the emotional religious experience afforded by the mosque. Several of the women emphasized the Friday communal prayer as important to them in a religious sense. By praying together, women feel a religious connection to God and to fellow Muslim women. For example, a Shia woman in Oslo described how she feels a sense of urge to go to the mosque; her heart tells her “you must go to the mosque”. She achieves a sense of tranquility by listening to the imam’s prayer. Another Shia woman in Oslo recounted that she “feels closer to God” when hearing the prayer in the mosque. She experienced the Friday prayer as “a form of therapy” and noted that it helps her cope with everyday challenges related to work and family.
Resonant with findings reported by (Jouili and Amir-Moazami 2006
), obtaining religious knowledge for one’s own sake was very important, with women recounting how they seek a better understanding of Islam via partaking in mosque sermons and listening to the imam and invited speakers. Some of the women expressed a reflexive, critical engagement with religious knowledge imparted by imams in the mosque; for example, a Sunni participant in Oslo noted how she listens to the imam’s instructions and advice and that, when at home, she reads about what he said and checks its accuracy: “So I am completely certain that what the imam says is correct”. Similarly, a Shia participant in Oslo observed that she obtains knowledge from the imam and checks what he said by reading the Quran at home: “Is it what Allah has said in the Quran? I can find out”. The women are thus actively reflecting on whether to accept the authority of imams and the knowledge imparted by them. Women also consulted other sources of knowledge, including television and the Internet. One participant, who noted that learning from the imam is important to her, consults a variety of sources, including other women: “many of the women who attend possess knowledge. So I go to the mosque just to get knowledge […]. And I have learnt a great deal [from it]; I also watch Islam on the telly, but I also read a lot by myself”. The usage and checking of multiple sources of religious knowledge indicates an individualistic and self-reflexive approach to religion that resonates with larger trends towards individualization in Western contexts. One participant also suggested that, although women cannot formally be imams, an individual woman can be an “informal” imam in her own right: “If you have learnt Islam properly, then you are an Imam in yourself. Right?” In her view, through reflexively developing her own pious self, a woman can become her own religious authority, independent of any formal religious authority see also (Mahmood 2005
; Jouili and Amir-Moazami 2006
; Dessing 2012
Obtaining religious knowledge and also broader societal knowledge was seen as a tool for empowerment by some of the participants. For example, one interviewee stated that “as long as one has knowledge, one has power”, while another highlighted the mosque’s ability to bring women in the local community together and provide them with knowledge. Whilst noting her own reflexive engagement with religious knowledge, a further participant also emphasized the mosque as a social space where women can be empowered to participate in society more broadly. The ability to transmit religious knowledge to one’s children was also a motivator for some of the women.
The notion that the mosque is a community centre for socialization, learning, support, and belonging shone through several of the interviews. These aspects were highlighted as particularly important to women; the mosque fulfils their needs to meet up with other women, sharing problems, getting to know their community, and learning about Islam and wider societal issues. However, not all the participants expressed the same need for the mosque as a social space. One interviewee, a young Norwegian-born Shia in higher education, noted that, while the mosque is an important “social meeting place for housewives”, she herself is not very keen to partake in women’s conversations. Her main motivations for attending are to pray and to learn. However, she often finds that the sermons and lectures in her mosque are repetitive and even uninspiring, as they tend to deal with the same topics (e.g., fasting, prayer, and marriage). In her view, this is because “you have to keep it simple so that it fits for everyone”. Her account differs markedly from the other participants who emphasize that they learn a lot from attending the mosque, thus illustrating that women have different needs depending on their knowledge about Islam.
The participants in this study were overwhelmingly supportive of the activities run by women’s groups in their mosques. A Sunni interviewee from Leicestershire noted that gender relations in the mosque are changing, and that the creation of the women’s group is an indication of women’s increased participation and influence:
“Ten years ago nobody would have thought of having a sub-committee of women who would have equal voting rights; and look at what we have achieved today. And it is more the [changes in] interpretation of our religion. Unfortunately, the male interpretation sometimes puts our religion in a negative light”.
The quote illustrates how women engage in debates about Islam and gender, and that mosques are spaces in which existing hegemonic gender norms and structures are contested. In this example, women fought for their say, and men accommodated their wishes. At the very least, the women’s group symbolizes a step towards the religious accommodation of more inclusive practices within mosque governance. That women have voting rights in the mosque (albeit limited to women’s own affairs) was viewed as a positive step forward for women’s participation and influence. Notably, the male-dominated mosque board is still in charge. The women’s group is required to put forward its activity proposals to the main mosque board. One participant saw this requirement as reasonable: “so at least they [the men] know what the women want, we can put forward to the men as well, this is what we want, this is how we are”. As the discussion below shows, however, other participants were more critical of the need for men’s approval.
Support for women’s groups was widespread, but not uniformly positive. One participant stated that the women’s group in her mosque does not give her “much of a good impression” and wanted to distance herself from what she saw as “bad culture”. While the participant herself wears the headscarf, she noted that her mother and sister, who do not wear the headscarf, would feel uncomfortable in the mosque due to cultural pressure from other women: “So they, they do not dare to come to the mosque, because they know how the culture is, and they will be looked down upon”. The interviewee also mentioned “cultural prescriptions” about the colour and length of clothing as limiting women’s freedom. Nevertheless, she also said, “I would feel very lonely if I did not attend these gatherings. Even if I am a bit different from them”. For this participant, tensions between what “culture and tradition” appears to demand of women and what “Islam” is perceived to prescribe, are difficult to negotiate see also (Jouili and Amir-Moazami 2006, p. 628
). Her experience suggests that the mosque is also a space that may enable “the policing of women’s dress, women’s voices and women’s interactions with men” (Karim 2009, p. 177
), as cited in (Shannahan 2014, p. 7
4.2. Gendered Religious Spaces and Male Power
The interviewed women appreciated their local mosques because they offer permanent women-only spaces. Participants observed that mosques without dedicated spaces for women, or with only temporary and/or small spaces for women, produce barriers to women’s participation. ‘‘Now we have got our own dedicated ladies gallery, it means that the mosque is much more accessible to us than it was perhaps before […] because we know that space is ours, regardless”, noted a Sunni woman in Leicestershire. In her mosque, the women’s gallery is accessible via a women-only entrance; men enter the larger and principal prayer room via the main entrance. Sermons (and also lectures by male speakers) are transmitted to the women’s room, while prayers or lectures by female speakers are heard by women only. Male voices are thus explicitly privileged in the mosque, echoing the privileging of male voices in Roman Catholic Christianity and Orthodox Judaism (Manning 1999
Gender segregated prayer rooms is established practice in mosques that are open to women in Europe and elsewhere (Hammer 2012
; Nyhagen Predelli 2008
). Notably, the participants in this study did not perceive such practice as a barrier to women’s inclusion. To the contrary, gender segregation was seen as providing opportunities
for women to participate in institutional religious life (see also Nyhagen Predelli 2008
; Nyhagen and Halsaa 2016
). For example, a Sunni woman in Leicestershire observed that her mosque provides a “ladies gallery and ladies facilities as well, so ladies can also attend the prayers. So that is quite good in that it gives the women the opportunity to pray with the imam in the mosque”. Furthermore, gender segregated spatial arrangements were interpreted as providing equality
between women and men. A Sunni woman in Oslo recounted that, in her mosque, the imam’s Sunday lectures are received by women and men who inhabit different floors. All the men occupy the main prayer room, while the women watch the imam via a video projector in their own room. She noted, “So, we have gender equality, there is no different treatment. There is no oppression, because at the [mosque] there are very educated people, and the imam is very, very good”. In this view, despite the gendered spatiality of the mosque, there is equality between women and men. That women are on their own also offers a safe space for women, away from the male gaze.
By inhabiting their own gendered space in the mosque, Muslim women are claiming their own participation and belonging as religiously and socially legitimate, which in turn may challenge the long-standing, overall male domination of mosques in Western Europe. At the same time, by accepting the gender segregated spatial practices that are justified on the basis of religious prescriptions and cultural traditions, including the allocation of smaller and inferior spaces, women are accommodating to ‘gender-normative religious practices’ (Darwin 2018
) that maintain gender inequality. However, women may also engage in ‘gender-transgressive religious practices’ (Darwin 2018
) that contest and transform hegemonic gender norms. For example, a Shia woman in Oslo noted that the noise from conversations in the women’s room is so loud that it disturbs her religious experience. She and other women who wish to focus on the religious service have started to occupy back rows in the men’s prayer room: ‘So in our mosque they have introduced a system where you go [and] sit on the men’s side. That is, women go and sit down in the men’s section so that they can follow what is being said’. When women enter the room, men move forward, and the women occupy rows at the back. About twenty women regularly partake in prayer in this way in the men’s room. This practice indicates the increasing and changing role of women in Muslim congregations. It also demonstrates that some Muslim men are willing to accommodate women’s presence, also when it contests hegemonic prescriptions about gender segregation during prayer. Nevertheless, this kind of accommodation of Muslim women’s participation is highly unusual within mosques in Norway, the UK and Western Europe more broadly. Moreover, while it challenges the male-centeredness of the mosque, it also reproduces a gendered spatiality in which men occupy the front and women are at the back of the room.
Many of the women in this study problematized the relationships among gender, religion, and power. They indicated that men’s power in the mosque and in the wider Muslim community is challenged and contested, but also that male power is deeply entrenched and difficult to change. A Sunni participant noted that “now the women are in power as well” in her mosque, while another said that, although women have equal rights in Islam, “at the end of the day we are all human beings and men don’t like to give up their power”. At times, women offered quite different reflections on specific practices. A further Sunni participant from Leicestershire, for example, questioned the practice that women must obtain men’s approval for their activities: “If we [women] need to do anything, we have to ask the chair person, we have to ask him. Why can’t we just go ahead and do it? […] I am always in conflict with the ladies, why do we have to [ask], why can’t we decide?” That the male-dominated mosque board requires the women’s group to obtain its approval shows that men’s power is entrenched. It also suggests that men may be reluctant to relinquish their power. The interviewee was also critical of women who accept the policy that men must have the final say. However, her views contrasted with that of another participant from the same mosque, who framed the consideration of women’s plans by the main mosque board as supporting equality and equal rights between women and men, rather than as a case of women having to request permission from the men: “[…] we can have voting rights, we can vote on our own committee, we can make decisions of our own, so we can fundraise for our own activities. Basically, we have equal rights over all decisions made in the mosque”. She clarified that each sub-committee (e.g., women; youth) has representation on the main board, and that the voices of sub-committees are heard via their informal board representatives. Although confirming that the women’s group must seek permission from men, the participant insisted that “it is a very democratic process”. In her view, gender unequal authority and decision-making structures do not negate the value of women’s participation and influence in the mosque. Her interpretation thus prioritizes the actual involvement of women, rather than who is making the final decisions. Together, the above examples illustrate that changes in power structures depend on men’s willingness to include women and to relinquish some of their power to women. Support from male allies appears crucial to the inclusion of women in mosque governance. However, women’s own aspirations (or lack thereof) for leadership and authority should not be discounted.
Reflections about gender, religion, and power were also offered by interviewees from Oslo. Similar to (Jouili and Amir-Moazami 2006, p. 628
), findings from their study of German and French Muslim women, Norwegian Sunni and Shia participants talked about tensions between what they perceived as “authentic” Islam and its affordance of equal status and rights to women, versus “cultural–traditional” understandings of Islam which subordinate women to men. A Sunni woman observed that Muslim men seem threated by women’s rights:
“They [women] demand their rights. But the men have not learnt a lot […], they are scared of giving rights. They might think that if we give women freedom, then they might acquire wings and fly away. And that isn’t true, because we, if we know about Islam, then we also know our limits. We know how far we can fly. Or how high we can fly. And the men are a bit scared about this”.
According to this interviewee, if men feel threatened by women’s rights, they have no reason to do so, as women are only demanding the rights they were originally given by Islam. And because women know their “limits” as prescribed by Islam, they will not pose demands that surpass these rights.
Other Sunni and Shia women in Oslo confirmed that mosque debates about gender relations demonstrate tensions between a perceived “authentic” Islam that affords equality and rights to women, versus “cultural” practices that demand women’s subordination. For example, a Sunni participant observed that Islam itself does not oppress women, and that tensions only arise when people interpret the Quran in the wrong way. Noting that women and men are equal in Islam, a Shia participant said: “Men have power. But that is completely wrong. Because Mohammed did not do this himself [he treated his wives equally]. But today, it is like the men are saying ‘oh, we have the power’, but they don’t really have the knowledge”. Similarly, another Shia participant noted that “if you go to the Quran, then there is gender equality. But not in the real world […]. Men always want to be above, [to] have power over women”. These interviewees thus adopted a “religion is innocent” discourse, where patriarchy, and not Islam, is the culprit of any infringements to women’s rights (see also Nyhagen and Halsaa 2016, p. 208
4.3. Views on the Imam Role and the Importance of Male Allies
Mosques are typically governed by male-dominated boards, and the main religious leadership role is held by the male imam. Many imams have been “imported” to Western Europe from countries in Asia and the Middle East, often lacking necessary language skills and socio-cultural knowledge (Gilliat-Ray 2010
; Vogt 2000
). In response to demands for “home-grown” imams, imam training is offered at institutions such as the Markfield Institute of Higher Education
in the UK. Gilliat-Ray (Gilliat-Ray 2010, pp. 164–65
) has noted that “Muslim women seek the counsel of imams on issues concerning marriage, children, education, divorce, and so on, yet few imams have been trained in counselling skills, or have the ability to relate Islamic law to the realities of contemporary Britain”. Nyhagen Predelli
(2008, p. 250
) reported that imams in Norway thought it important for women to attend mosque for learning and social activities, yet recommended that it is best for women to pray at home. There is, however, hardly any existing research on women’s access to and use of male imams from women’s own perspective (see Taj 2013
), nor of women’s views on female imams. This study addresses that research gap.
The interviewees imparted a mixture of positive and negative views of their local imams. The Sunni women were particularly appreciative of their local imams and spoke about their admiration and respect for them as providers of reliable and trustworthy religious knowledge and as supporters of women’s inclusion and participation in the mosque. A Sunni woman in Leicestershire, for example, said that she attends the mosque as it offers services for women and because the imam is very open and supportive of women’s activities. She admires the chief imam as he can be asked any question and always provides good answers: “we ask him, and he puts us straight”. Men ask questions directly to the imam, while women put their questions in writing and pass them on to the main prayer room. Another participant spoke of the imam as “brilliant; he answers your questions in a simple way and makes you understand and makes you feel like you want to come back […]. And every time I am going, I am coming out with more and more strength and knowledge”. Similarly, this woman imparted her admiration for the imam: “The imam, every Friday, when I go to the mosque, he does his speech. I only go for the speech; he has a lot of power in his voice and you want to sit there and listen to him”. Another participant described her imam as “a very good imam who has always included the women”. A Sunni woman in Leicestershire also spoke of the mosque’s chair as promoting an inclusive approach towards women; she admires him as someone who “is always pushing the involvement of women, not just in the mosque, everywhere […]. Most men don’t bother, they are just talking for men, or for themselves”. Together, these statements demonstrate women’s appreciation of imams who possess religious knowledge and are inclusive towards women. They also indicate the importance of male allies for women’s inclusion in the mosque. Importantly, women do not take such support for granted; it is noted and valued.
Sunni women in Oslo spoke in similar ways about admiration and respect for their local imam as a source of religious knowledge and supporter of women’s inclusion. Noting the imam’s influence on her faith and her admiration for him, one participant said: “Many people talk about strict imams, but I feel that [my imam] is a very nice person and you get answers to everything you ask. It is very easy to communicate with him”. Another Sunni woman in Oslo emphasized her local imam’s support for the establishment of a women’s group at the mosque. She recalled that the imam came and sat in front of all the women, giving advice on their leadership election. His advice was to elect a leader who “is kind, and that you can cooperate with”, regardless of the extent of her religious knowledge. The women went on to elect her—a woman who was “not so much practicing the religion, and I didn’t wear the hijab, I wore Western clothing and still do”. This imam is viewed as caring and engaged, and that he speaks out against “gender-policing” (Shannahan 2014
) of women’s clothing is appreciated. The participants emphasize the imam’s support for women’s inclusion in the mosque; in short, he is perceived as women’s ally.
Some of the interviewed women expressed more critical views, especially of imams whom they perceive are supporting conservative views that prescribe male power and authority as representing “true Islam”. According to these participants, such conservative views are rooted in “cultural traditions” that have emerged as a result of patriarchal and false interpretations of Islam. These women are engaging in a discursive “politics of authenticity” (Jouili and Amir-Moazami 2006, p. 637
); see also (Jacobsen 2011b
), where practices that subordinate women are challenged via appeals to a “true”, “original” or “authentic” Islam that is seen to afford women’s rights and gender equality. Such critical views were expressed by Sunni and Shia women alike in both Oslo and Leicestershire. For example, a Sunni participant from Leicestershire recounted the discrepancies she finds between what she reads in the Quran and what some imams impart about gender relations:
“And when it comes to the Quran a lot of things I do read; and it does say equal things for women and men. But what happens is most of the imams they think no; it is to do with the culture as well and what country you come from, how you understand religion, and they shove the women in the background because they are afraid that the women will come forward and probably take over”.
Her practice of self-reflexive knowledge acquisition supports the earlier finding that women seek autonomy and empowerment via multiple routes to knowledge, including their own reading of religious texts. Furthermore, her statements suggest that some imams (and also other men) seek to protect male power and privilege by actively marginalizing women; “But it is the men that don’t want the women to step forward. I think they are afraid for themselves”. A similar analysis was imparted by a Sunni woman in Oslo: “Men are worse [than women] because they are more dominating. They have learnt religion from their parents, from their local imams. An imam who reads the Quran but does not understand what the Quran says”. Again, we see how women actively engage in a discursive positioning of “authentic Islam” as supportive of women’s rights and gender equality in order to defend women’s inclusion and participation in the mosque and beyond.
Some of the interviewed Shia women also expressed critical sentiments about ‘traditional imams’, but from a different perspective. A Shia woman in Leicestershire, for example, stated that she is critical of mullahs (imams) who insist that it is women’s responsibility to take care of the house: ‘it is not their [women’s] obligation. You believe this if you don’t read Islam, and if you only hear what the mullah says in the mosque’. Her interpretation of ‘authentic Islam’ was also shared by a Shia woman from Oslo, who stated that a wife’s only duty to her husband is to satisfy him sexually. To do housework or raise children are not formally women’s duties; however, if they are taken on, they will be rewarded. These views are characteristic of some Shia traditions (see Mir-Hosseini 2000, pp. 61–72
). Within traditional Islam, women’s place is considered to be in the home, but modernist interpretations of Islam support women’s rights to education and employment (Ahmed 1992
; Esposito 1982
While the interviewees expressed mixed views of imams, they all agreed with the existing hegemonic Islamic norm that only men can be imams and lead prayer for men and gender-mixed audiences. They did, however, support the work of female teachers and scholars towards women and children.6
The rule that women cannot be imams was seen as rooted in religious prescriptions that are not up for debate. For example, a Sunni woman in Leicestershire stated that “in our religion we can’t have a lady imam, that is strictly no. You have lady priests [in Christian churches] but we can’t have, we can’t lead the congregation, we have to follow”. Similarly, a Sunni woman in Oslo declared that “the imam is he who leads prayer, and a woman cannot lead prayer”. Participants noted that women are not obliged to pray in the mosque (as are men), and that they are not allowed to pray during menstruation. These reasons were used to legitimate that women are not suited to become imams. “We are not pure, we are not allowed to pray”, said one interviewee, while another noted the inconvenience of having a woman leading prayer when she would have to be regularly absent from the mosque due to her period. These women’s views were echoed by a further participant who also noted that women are expressly forbidden to pray during the menstrual cycle: “[women] are not pure, we are not allowed to pray. We can enter the mosque, but we can’t pray or lead prayers, so for that reason if there is a woman imam then it is not sure that she will be able to lead prayers as needed”. The notion of female “impurity” during menstruation was not challenged by any of the participants, and the possibility of post-menopausal women being imams was not entertained. One participant also mentioned women giving birth and breastfeeding as practical hinders for women.
The last woman quoted above also noted that she had never heard a demand from women “to be able to stand in front of a congregation and be imam”. While indicating that the idea of female imams is a “non-issue” among mainstream Muslim communities, this example is also illustrative of a larger point; namely, that the interviewed women are engaging in a complex discourse of equality as difference, where gender equality as “equal value” is compatible with gender differentiation in the religious sphere, in the family, and within society more broadly see (Nyhagen and Halsaa 2016
In contrast to other women in the study, a Sunni participant from Leicestershire was aware of an event in Oxford, UK, where a woman, Amina Wadud, had led a gender-mixed Salah
(prayer) see (Hammer 2012
), thus demonstrating that the issue of women leading prayer is at least to some extent debated. Neither she nor her mosque approves:
“So it was literally told to the community that it was going on and a woman [was] performing prayer. And behind the woman, the men and women [were together], this is not right, this is not right. What God and the Prophet’s rules were, that the man should be performing, and the men and women came behind to pray, but women can’t perform [prayer], because it is not right. God does not allow it, simply, and the priest [imam] doesn’t allow you. So, we won’t debate about it”.
The same participant also suggested that women have all the equality they need and want: “We have got all the freedom [we need], we are going to mosque, we are performing our prayers, we are joining events, we are celebrating everything, we are praying and we are getting chances to express our feelings, how we feel and what should be done”. Despite observable gender differences pertaining to spatial segregation in the mosque and the leading of gender-mixed sermons and prayers by men only, the interviewed women claim equality with men. As suggested earlier, within a discourse of equality as difference, it is possible to reconcile notions of equality (as equal value) with difference.