On Sunday, the Muslim Women’s Council had a public consultation on proposals for a women-only mosque in Bradford. It follows the opening of a women’s mosque in the US earlier this year. There are also plans for something similar in India.

You would think that in a city where there are many people of South Asian and Muslim origin, this would go down a treat. The proposal has been met with a mixed response. Bradford West’s newly-elected MP Naz Shah has already come out against it, writing in the Guardian that she does not want to see “greater gender segregation, or women’s involvement pushed to the margins”.

When this idea was first proposed a few months ago, the topic was discussed on the BBC Asian Network’s phone-in show.  On their Facebook page, one comment read: “Islam has given rights to women but within limits not to abuse and go on the feminist band wagon. I know of plenty of mosques in Bradford that cater for women so I don’t understand why the need for women only run mosques?”

Another read: “Hmmmmm a mosque for woman [sic]! Aren’t woman [sic] better praying at home? They have a lot of family commitments hence it’s never been made [obligatory] for her to pray in a congregation. Women are not obligated to pray in congregation, they cannot be Imams. In fact, the best place for them to pray is in their homes, not that this means a ban from our mosques! Therefore, not sure how this can be called a mosque.”

You know what the disheartening thing is? These were women commenting, not men.

Although Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said, “If the wife of anyone of you asks permission to go to the mosque, he should not forbid her,” another hadith quotes him as saying, “It is more excellent for a woman to pray in her house than in her courtyard, and more excellent for her to pray in her private chamber than in her house.”

Men receive more blessings and rewards from God if they pray in a congregation whereas women are told that staying in the home is best for them. With this entrenched in the psyche of many Muslims, it is no wonder that women are often excluded from the mosques, where even if they are (begrudgingly) permitted to enter, the facilities for them will be poor.

For this reason, Hind Makki, an American Muslim interfaith activist based in Chicago, created the Side Entrance Tumblr blog, which showcases women’s spaces in mosques around the world. The photos of women’s facilities range from fantastic to pathetic.

I have often gone to my local mosque to hear a (male) scholar give a talk on various topics; the women would be seated upstairs, watching the scholar on a live television feed. Sometimes it would be a struggle to hear him speak as the babies and children would be running around making too much noise.

Female leadership

Some men –and women – object to women leading prayer and giving sermons; others worry if women-only worship catches on elsewhere, it could divide communities along gender lines. As opposed to what? Men and women are already segregated in the mosque! Considering that the genders are segregated in many aspects of life, surely then the men will not object to having their own, private space. Right?

What we must bear in mind is that a separate space means that the women have more autonomy. Even though the women are shunted to the back of the room in the mosque, or seated upstairs hidden out of sight, the men know that, at the end of the day, the women are there, under the same room, where the men can control exactly what sermons are being read out, and what women are learning. A women-only mosque is dangerous for men because it could take away the control they have yielded over women.

A more progressive idea, in my view, is the London-based Inclusive Mosque Initiative, where everyone, even gay Muslims, are welcomed with open arms, and women lead men in prayers. Perhaps this (controversial) model only works in London, which has always felt like a separate country. To those of us north of the Watford Gap, such a model is light years ahead.

Moreover, not all women would be comfortable praying alongside men. The idea should be to have a space where women can feel comfortable and included in an environment where they have traditionally been excluded. This is why the mosque in the US seems to work; in this BBC interview, we can see and hear a woman doing the call to worship – something women never do – and some of the women do not even have their hair covered.

In a statement on its website, the MWC write: “Muslim women have been marginalised for many decades by Mosques in the UK which are male dominated, patriarchal spaces. This has led to a frustration amongst women who would like to be included in religious spaces.”

Sounds great. But the statement goes on to say, “We disagree with the view of women leading mixed congregational prayers and this will not take place under the MWC umbrella… Our intention is not to be divisive, nor to go against the values and principles of Islam, but to provide a space for the community which shows how women can lead and be included in places of worship and also impact positively on their families and communities.”

This is sending mixed messages. Either you believe women can, and should, be in positions of leadership or you don’t. Just because an initiative is led by women doesn’t necessarily mean that it is going to be radical or progressive. Women, as we are aware, can often be the vanguards of patriarchy.

I am not against the idea of a women-only mosque as such; rather, I am more interested in what types of views they will promote and whether they really will challenge the status quo. It remains to be seen as to whether this initiative is going to be a force for the good.

Perhaps this is not something that should be a long-term solution – it is a reaction to an age-old problem. When you marginalise and disenfranchise a section of society (in this case half the population) it is not a surprise when they decide to create their own space.

Segregation should not be the answer but this is a small step in what could possibly be a radical shift for the next generation of British Muslims. It depends on which scholars and imams they decide they get on board.