The Family Dimensions Of The Right To Worship

The Family Dimensions Of The Right To Worship
Saba Nazir and Umar Sheraz write about how prayer offers an opportunity for families to bond. They also highlight the problems for women who intend to pray in public or in mosques.

My early childhood was spent in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and I have some very pleasant memories of the Friday prayers. Friday is a public holiday in the UAE and every Friday my whole family (brother, sisters and mother) would get together and offer Friday prayers at the King Faisal mosque. After the prayers, we used to visit a nearby park and had fun at lunch together.

Fast forward to the present day and millions of Muslims in Pakistan, including myself, are faced with a strange dilemma. In Pakistan, Friday has been a working day for nearly two decades now, and a whole generation has now grown up without being together with their families on the Friday congregational prayers. In many instances, young boys have been deprived of the right to offer Friday congregational prayers as they have no elder to escort them to the masjid, as male elders have to attend to their jobs.

These congregational prayers have a more social and spiritual aspect than the act of praying itself. Unfortunately, at a time when our society is finally waking up to strengthening families and female empowerment, the right to worship is a topic which has still not found voice within our national dialogue space.

The congregational Friday prayer is obligatory upon every adult sane Muslim. Allah refers to the Muslims in the Quran, “O you who have believed, when the call to prayer is made for Jumma‘ah [Friday prayer], then proceed to the remembrance of God and leave trade. That is better for you, if you only knew” (Quran 62: 9). Prayer is generally considered an intimate spiritual affair with God and while there are spiritual effects of prayer, there is a large body of research which continues to reveal the powerful benefits of religious service attendance for individuals, couples, and entire families.

Irrespective of the religion, when we pray with our spouse, parents, or children, it helps to create a special form of communion with one another. A study in the Journal of Family Psychology which included a sample of 198 religiously-diverse families from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths identified several common themes related to prayer and family relationships and has linked prayer and religious service attendance to stronger marriages.

Families use prayer time as a way to transmit religious traditions to younger generations. When parents pray with their children, they are not only teaching them how to pray but also modeling and emphasizing the importance of prayer in the hopes that their children will begin a practice of private prayer and bond with Allah that they will carry with them into adulthood.

A well-orated Khutba or a bonding with Allah during congregational prayers can enable family members to address problems or stresses they are facing, as well as facilitate in reducing tensions in their relationships. Congregational prayers can help family members bond with one another and created a sense of family unity. 

Unfortunately, a whole generation has missed out on this wonderful opportunity of family bonding and the current generation of pre-teens and teenagers is set to miss out as well. On Fridays, the kids are in schools and their fathers at workplaces; a sorry fact that can only widen the generation gap. My father used to escort my children to the Friday prayers but due to weakness and old age, he is unable to do so. I am now deeply concerned about transmitting this religious tradition to my younger generations and there is a need to raise awareness of this religious need, so that we can bring together a spectrum of people as one community, united in prayer.

There is a need to review the Friday holiday or even consider a half-day on Friday. Even from the economic point of view, it is an unproductive day as a lot time is spent on preparing for and observing Jummah. In 1997, when the Friday holiday was annulled, the argument was that Pakistan needed to come at par with the international community in business and trade matters as Friday is a working day in most parts of the world. There is a need to review this assumption, since the ground realities tell otherwise. In the past two decades, we have not been able to take any advantage out of this move due to a plethora of reasons.  This includes time zone differences between Asian and Western parts of the world and overall dismal productivity of the workforce on Fridays. It is time to look beyond political allegiances and reconsider the Friday prayer, from a basic human right to worship, with families.

The problems of praying women

There is another aspect of the right to prayer, which is felt by Muslimahs every day in Pakistan. Salah is a spiritual prayer which has been mandated by Allah for all Muslims and Muslimahs. But outside the home, providing a dignified and proper place to attend to this need is a collective duty of any civilized society.

Visit any bazaar and you will find a lot of shops to shop for our daily necessities. But in the same bazaars, there is no proper place where women can offer prayers. Shopping malls have woken up to this essential need and now offer separate and dignified places for women to offer prayer. Even in bigger cities, local mega markets like Saddar, Commercial market or other mega markets, masjids which provide any place for women to offer prayer rarely exist. In smaller local bazaars and markets no such luxury of offering obligatory prayers for Muslim women exists.

It is not unusual for practicing Muslimahs to request prayer mats and prayer space from shop keepers, as the time for Salah is limited. It is unfortunate that in the Land of the Pure, the designers of bazaars never accounted for the female Muslim population and their need to connect with their Maker, during time of Salah. The troubles do not end here.

If luck is on her side, a Muslimah might find 1 or 2 mosques in a bazaar to offer a prayer, but even there, women are not sure if they can get any separate place to offer prayer or if they will have to offer obligatory prayers in the vicinity of males. Many a time, the prayer rooms for females resemble storage rooms, which are dusty, smelly and compact (with no space for more than 5 people). They will usually be adorned with a dusty carpet, which is rarely cleaned. It is not unusual to find that if 5 women pray in the prayer room, any other women will have to wait for them to first finish their prayer, and then they can offer their obligatory prayer. The availability of chairs for the elderly females or access for the disabled are a luxury.

A proper isolated place to perform ablution (Wudu) for women, is a luxury, which few masjids can afford. If a Muslimah requires ablution, she often has to choose between missing her prayers, or the extreme scenario of performing the ablution in the males region. Related to this is the issue of availability of washrooms for women, which are not present in many masjids which provide spaces for female worship. Like most public washroom facilities, the toilets and ablution area for women are unclean and unforgettable. Once a masjid becomes known for offering a public washroom facility, it takes on the role of a female public washroom and becomes a disadvantage for the cause of prayer. Cleaning and maintaining the washroom becomes a liability for the masjid administration.

Given these and a plethora of other issues, it is not unusual for practicing Muslimahs to keep a prayer mat with them or pray in a vehicle or even combine prayers beforehand.  It is saddening to observe, that in a country which is built in the name of Islam and is synonymous with religious zeal around the world, the praying process can become a misery. Salah is perhaps the most important part of our religion, which Muslims cherish but they have to miss because of a lack of facilities.

Other parts of the Muslim world woke up to this reality decades ago. It is surprising for women accustomed to easy access to prayer rooms, in most mosques, in the Middle East or South East Asia, to come to Pakistan and realise the problems associated with offering a basic tenet of Islam.

A rethink is required from our society and the flag-bearers of women empowerment as to why it is so difficult to perform a simple act of worship? Why do these issues never get explored or debated on a national and regional level and in our Parliaments?

It requires some very basic interventions and a commitment to address local issues, to resolve and improve the prayer conditions for women. After all, there is ease of prayer for women in Masjid Al Haraam and Masjid Nabawi, which must be the shining examples to look up to.

Separate paths or back doors are required in the women's praying area. Hygienic places are required to perform ablution because most women are reluctant to perform ablution and wash up at poorly maintained public places. Just as cleanliness is maintained in the male region; cleanliness must be maintained in the female prayer area as well. There should be a speaker in the women's separate chamber. The Holy Quran and Islamic books are a rare site in the female prayer section which needs to be addressed. The prayer room should be able to accommodate at least 20 people at a time. Basic human necessities like a fan and proper lighting should be taken care of. There should be chairs and proper access in the room for the elderly and disabled.

This will require a collective effort and the matter should not be just left to the whims of masjid administrators or the government.

Umar Sheraz is a futurist based at the Centre for Policy Studies, COMSATS University, Islamabad. Saba Nazir is a freelancer with interests in Muslimah futures, identity, and gender empowerment.