By Amardeep Bassey
The irony of leading the men who once
balked at her mere presence in the mosque isn’t lost on Maysoon Shafiq, as she
prepares to fulfil her ambition of becoming the country’s first female mosque
But it’s the reaction of other women that
has been the biggest concern for the 31-year-old mother of three, as she
completes a trailblazing six-month intensive programme training women for
leadership roles in Britain’s mosques.
Organised by the Muslim Council of Britain,
the course offers a unique chance for women to develop skills which could
benefit them in senior positions on a mosque leadership committee, such as
public speaking training and event planning.
“It’s more a cultural taboo for women to
attend mosques than because of any religious instruction,” says Maysoon, a
financial services worker born and brought up in Huddersfield.
“In the prophet Mohammed’s time his wife
Ayesha was recognised as a leader of the early Muslims, but that tradition has
been lost and I want to bring it back in the 21st century.”
Few mosques in the UK have women on their
trustee or management boards which are usually elected by the congregation.
Currently, men outnumber women on all charity trustee boards by two to one,
according to the Charity Commission.
Announcing the new course in March the
Muslim Council Of Britain (MCB) said: “This lack of diversity is unacceptable
and it is essential for the management boards of mosques and third-sector
organisations in general to reflect the communities that they serve in order to
According to its own research, the MCB
claims more than a quarter of the UK’s 1,975 mosques in Britain don’t have
prayer area for women, and 28% do not offer any facilities for women
Maysoon has a legal background, having
worked in the sector for 10 years, and has a Masters Degree in education (she
also speaks six languages). Using her experience, Maysoon is currently teaching
at the Abu Bakr mosque in West Yorkshire.
“I just teach in the mosque, but I wanted
to take it further,” she says. “I didn’t want to limit myself because I could
see that the mosque needed a female voice amongst all the elderly men who run
“The same men who would make it quite clear
with some of their comments and reactions that they felt uncomfortable with
women coming to the mosque to pray as is their right.”
In August, Muslim women in Scotland
launched a campaign for equal prayer space and inclusion in decision-making
bodies. The Scottish Mosques for All campaign said: “It is unfortunate that
many mosques fail to provide basic access for Muslim women to use the facility
to pray, or the quality of the space can often be inadequate and not suitable.
“It is also unfortunate that many mosques
have limited or no women present at mosque trustee or managerial level, either
intentionally preventing women from taking up these roles or not sufficiently
providing a welcoming atmosphere where women feel comfortable to get involved.
“The place and role of women in mosques is
in real crisis in the UK and elsewhere, and this status quo must change.”
Another organisation, Open My Mosque, is
calling for a commitment from mosques to gender equality, and the
Bradford-based Muslim Women’s Council is raising funds for a mosque led and
governed by women, “based on the principles of openness, inclusivity, social
justice and sanctuary”.
“The mosque was traditionally a place for
the Muslim community in its entirety to pray and meet and mingle with others,”
She added: “The mosque was a community hub
where sisters could relate to each other and bond. Now if women have a personal
problem its very awkward to speak to a male imam and instead women are told to
discuss things with his wife or sister.
“We have no female religious role models or
even strong leaders that we can look up to and aspire to be and I want to
Maysoon expects some “pushback” from some
of the men, and the MCB training programme recognises that by offering training
on conflict resolution.
“We’re told to try and put a positive spin
on any pushback we get from some of the men and to try and always be
“Some men might try to provoke me so they
can say I’m not suitable to lead but I’m ready for that and I’m quite looking
forward to seeing the look on some of their faces when they have to take
instructions from me.
“I don’t have anything against the men at
the mosque at all because they too are a product of their upbringing, usually
in Pakistan, and I want our interaction to be smooth and even fun.”
What Maysoon says she finds more daunting
is dealing with women who simply can’t fathom the notion of a woman being in
charge of a mosque? “That’s going to be more tricky, and will be the first war
I need to win,” Maysoon says.
“I’m expecting more of a mixed reaction
from other women than men. They have been brought up to believe that the mosque
is the dominion of men only and some will never accept a woman being part of
the set-up even when they see it.
“It’s not even a theological issue, what we
need is a cultural shift.
“The course has provided me with an aspect
on the scholarly approach to women in mosques and although I can’t take the
role of an imam and lead a mixed congregation I am more aware of women’s rights
“The training also showed me how to
successfully start and grow projects and an understanding of board room
She added: “When mosques offer space for
women, they should see it as a right, not a favour.
“All I can do is smile and explain that
it’s the 21st century and that ultimately it is good for everyone if more women
like me take up leadership positions.”
Maysoon says she plans to organise simple
coffee mornings and outings to local amenities to try and break the ice with
her fellow female worshippers.
“I want women to feel like it’s a safe
place where they can be themselves and have social interaction that isn’t just
about religion within the precincts of a mosque.
“It’s about changing their mindset so that
they recognise that they can have influence and help shape the workings of
their local mosque.
“In time I’d like to offer activities like
self-defence classes for women and also teach them English and other skills
that will help them in their lives outside the mosque.”
A spokesperson for the MCB said some of the
themes covered in the events include, purpose and leadership, safeguarding and
“communicating and influencing in the mosque context”.
Maysoon said her family and friends
encouraged her to attend the MCB course, which began in March and finishes this
month. “My husband has been a massive supporter and my two children Ifrah and
Aahil tell everyone they are very proud of their mom, which is very inspiring.”