- “When I was growing up in Saudi, this is the way we used to do it!
All the mosques were like this: the women and men side by side.”
- Another auntie told me years ago that the first time she saw women
praying behind the men was when she emigrated from Iran to the United


“Mommy, why are women in the back”?

“Mommy, why are the women in the back?” my daughter asked me when she
was just three years old. I wasn’t prepared for this. The truth is I
had been hoping that she wouldn’t ask me because I wasn’t convinced
that the women should be behind the men during prayer. I also knew
that it wasn’t a requirement for congregational prayer. I felt
conflicted because I wanted my beautiful, brilliant little girl to
come to love prayer and praying in congregation.

I wanted her to absorb the etiquette of prayer, imbibing its peace,
humility, grace, mindfulness towards God, and connection with others.
I wanted her to see and feel others relying on God for happiness and
purpose. I knew, yet I did not want to acknowledge, that I had to pay
the price of accepting to pray with the women (in the back) if I
wanted us to have access to all the benefits of congregational prayer.
And yes, it does leave a sad feeling in my heart.

I stumbled through an answer that didn’t feel entirely comfortable:
“Muslims try to follow the example of the Prophet Muhammad and his
companions as much as possible, and this is just the way they did it
back then.” I added that not all mosques were this way but most of
them are. I felt discontented with my answer, but those were innocent
days when she just loved sitting in my lap and hearing my voice tend
to her. It really didn’t matter what I said; what mattered was that I
was acknowledging her inquisitiveness and was happy to be with her.
Now she is nine years old and is naturally and gradually seeking out
some independence, and I can’t say with any degree of confidence that
she has absorbed all that I wanted her to absorb with regard to
congregational prayer. There are two significant times when she prays
in a large congregation: every Saturday at the mosque after school and
at the Muslim Youth Camp in California. These two settings are very

At our Saturday school there are a few men who come for duhr prayer
and happen to join the jama’ah. There are fewer boys than girls, so
there is a bit more supervision for the boys, demanding a higher
degree of attention to the prayer. The boys are also invited to give
the call to prayer (adhan) or iqama, which certainly sends the message
that this is their role. Moreover it is not presented as an admirable
responsibility but just part of the routine. The kids are itching so
much to get out and play that they begrudge the requirement to pray in
the first place. I think the girls relish their secret space in the
back of the room where they can whisper, while everyone prays sunnah.

At the Muslim Youth Camp, I have had the opportunity to shape its
environment as a board member of the camp. Last year under a huge oak
tree, we placed a low bench as a divider between the men (on the left)
and women (on the right). When the first adhan was called, several
boys automatically sat in the front rows on both sides. (I wondered
what they thought the divider was for!) It is natural that they would
assume they could occupy the space up front. Being one of the camp
directors, I had the authority to move them. I did, and they looked
very confused. I think they were just as confused to have a woman tell
them something regarding prayer as they were that women would be in
the front. A couple of younger boys expressed consternation at the new
arrangement, but I knew it was simply because it was unfamiliar to
them not because of some ideological commitment on their part. It only
takes a decade to set a precedent, which becomes the benchmark for
normative behavior for a whole new generation. My impression is that
after the first reconfiguration, the side-by-side setup really didn’t
matter to the men and boys.

Meanwhile, many of the women and girls were very excited about the
change; my friend was enthusiastic about the new arrangement at the
camp and was the only adult woman to join me in the front row. As she
sat next to me, she said, “When I was growing up in Saudi, this is the
way we used to do it! All the mosques were like this: the women and
men side by side.” Another auntie told me years ago that the first
time she saw women praying behind the men was when she emigrated from
Iran to the United States. (Can you imagine? We put women in the back
in the U.S.!) I went to the front row for nearly every prayer just
because I knew that the others wouldn’t do it without an authoritative
figure giving them “permission” to do so. I was surprised at how many
young women were comfortable in the back. Being that most of them were
teenagers, it is not surprising that many of them chose to blend in
and did not want to put themselves front and center. Of course, it was
also advantageous to sit in the back when they didn’t want to pay
attention to any lesson being taught before or after the prayer. Then
there’s the consideration that conformity is the antithesis of
individualism that characterizes American teenage years.
Congregational prayer is conformity. There was bound to be some
resistance to it.

One of my fondest memories of MYC 2009 is the eight-year-old girls
being the first to gather, sitting in the front row for a duhr prayer.
They were continuing their weaving craft, and almost without their
being aware of it themselves, they quietly and melodiously sang the
dhikr we traditionally do between the adhan and the iqama. They sang
and weaved, as everyone quietly gathered, fully aware of the coming
moment when they would all stand before Allah, the most high.

Amira Quraishi is currently and Instructor at Swarthmore College,
teaching courses on Islam. She is a PhD candidate at the University of
Pennsylvania in Religious Studies, where her dissertation research is
on the intersections between Islamic law and Sufism. She has been on
the Board of the Muslim Youth Camp of California since 2005 and its
Head Counselor since 1995. She has also been the Advisor to the Johns
Hopkins University Muslim Association and on the Interfaith board of
chaplains there. She is happily married, raising two daughters with
her husband, Husam Ansari.


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