A worshipper sits on a bench in Masjidul Muslima in Kendhoo, Baa Atoll, reading the Quran. Simply and tastefully designed, the spotlessly clean mosque with its spacious, immaculately swept garden basks in the afternoon sunshine, a picture of serenity.
Masjidhul Muslima is one of the several exclusive women’s mosques in the Maldives. Women’s mosques and female imams are virtually non-existent in the rest of the Muslim word, except for parts of China which in 1997 was recorded as having 29 mosques. The Maldives has 210, probably the highest number of women’s mosques in a single country in the world at present.
But in June, the Islamic ministry announced that it was closing down all the women’s mosques in the Maldives. The official reason given was that the government wanted to cut down on expenditure and “the best place for a woman to pray is at home.”
In fact the government spends very little on women’s mosques. Apart from a token monthly salary for some female imams, the only government contribution to women’s mosques is an annual calendar, a few Qurans, and cloth for cleaning the floors. Almost all the women’s mosques in the Maldives have been built by the communities themselves and maintenance is carried out by volunteer worshippers.
Women’s mosques have existed in this country for as long as any living Maldivian can remember. According to a registry of currently operating mosques, the oldest is Masjidul Salat in Thakandhoo, Haa Alif Atoll, which was inaugurated in 1926. It is likely that women’s mosques evolved in the last century or so, since historical writings before that make no mention of these unique places of worship.
Women’s mosques are a common feature of north Maldives with some islands boasting more women’s mosques than men’s mosques. Dhidhdhoo, in Haa Alif Atoll, has no less than four women’s mosques.
A 61-year-old retired female imam said that one of the women's mosques on her island predated its oldest inhabitant. However, with the growth of the population, the community decided to build a second one. Both men and women worked tirelessly to raise funds and to construct the mosque, which stands proud today, grander than even the men’s mosque. The communities take great pride in these mosques and female worshipers clean and maintain them lovingly.
“Our women’s mosque is such a pleasant place that sometimes even men go there to pray, when there are no women in the mosque,” the former imam told me.
For the women of these island communities the women’s mosque is a safe, peaceful place, where they can pray without fear or intimidation at any time of the day or night. These mosques are revered by all members of the community and, to date, no harassment is known to have taken place in any of them. In contrast, many homes are too noisy, crowded and unfit for worship. Women’s mosques, as well as being a place of worship, offers women a space for social interaction.
These mosques exist in most parts of the country but are notably absent in the far south. There is no women’s mosque on Foah Mulah and only one in the whole of Addu Atoll. Instead, on Hithadhoo, every house has a namaadhu-ge or prayer room, where women and children worship. A Hithadhoo elder has pointed out that this tradition may be a legacy of the Buddhist practice of building a shrine inside the house for worship.
The namaadhu-ge also serves another function. When children see their mothers praying, it helps them to learn to pray at an early age. “The namaadhu-ge is an age-old tradition passed down from generation to generation,” a Hithadhoo woman told me. “Even the smallest house has one.”
In 1987, a women’s mosque was opened in the adjoining island community of Maradhoo and this lead to Hithadhoo women demanding their own mosque.
“We told them women’s mosques were un-Islamic but they persisted,” recalled a former Katheeb or Island Head. “Fortunately, the funds never materialized and Hithadhoo, to this day, doesn’t have a women’s mosque.”
Addu people’s religious education has traditionally been different to the rest of the country. The atoll is believed to have converted to Islam at least half a century before the rest of the Maldives and has a history of exposure to visiting scholars from the Middle East. Many people also go to countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan to study Islam, and bring back with them religious sensibilities that are hostile to women’s mosques.
Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari, who heads the Islamic ministry, hails from Addu Atoll. While his ministry is gearing to ban women’s mosques from the rest of the country, it has not bothered to consult the women whose lives are going to be impacted. Instead, the ministry is recommending that women pray in the small designated corner of men’s mosques, behind the male congregation. But many women, used to the independence and security of their own mosques, are likely to feel intimidated in men’s mosques.
Although the Islamic ministry advocates women to pray at home, there is no evidence that women were banned from mosques by the Prophet Muhammad. Indeed, no restriction or segregation is imposed on them in the largest Islamic gathering in the word, the Hajj pilgrimage.
If the Islamic ministry goes ahead with its proposed ban, it can only be read as a government crackdown on women’s right to worship in a safe and secure place that they have build for themselves.
“Many women, especially older ones, will be heartbroken,” the former imam told me. “For them, the exercise of walking to the mosque, worshipping there, and the social interaction are an important daily routine.”
The Islamic ministry recently threatened to ban Airtel dish antennas, but the outcry from angry citizens successfully thwarted it. It remains to be seen whether we'll hear enough noise to prevent the impending ban on women’s mosques too.