“Muslim Women Banned for No Legitimate Reason”: Containing COVID-19 is Not An Excuse For Sexism

To slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the U.S., mosques—like other houses of worship—have adhered to Centers for Disease Control protocols and made the difficult decision to limit prayer services.  

In Dallas, the recent DFW Imam Advisory describes three levels of restricted activity: The lowest level of restriction prohibits specific people from entering the mosque including those older than 60 or younger than 12; those with health issues, symptoms of illness, and anyone who has traveled in the last 14 days.

And, all women.

Gender-based discrimination in mosques is nothing new,” Karmally writes.
Pictured: Protesters against the ban on women entering the Haji Ali Daragh mosque in Mumbai, India, on April 28, 2016. (The Atlantic / Twitter)

For decades, as a Muslim woman, I have been directed to pray in side rooms, back rooms, up fire escapes, in windowless basements and airless outdoor buildings in Texas heat.  I’ve been told piety for women means praying at home, preferably in a closet

Now I’m told my gender is itself a health risk.

The local prohibition of women mirrors a national Islamic ruling on COVID-19 that states: “Elderly adults, women, children and individuals with symptoms of disease shall stop coming to mosques for daily as well as Friday prayers.”

Gender-based discrimination in American mosques is nothing new. A national survey of mosques found that the majority have physical barriers to demarcate women’s prayer areas. 

These spaces are rarely equal and often substandard. Most mosques in the survey—63 percent—scored “fair” or “poor” on a scale for a women-friendly mosque. No wonder female attendance in American mosques hovers around 35 percent, falling short of male attendance.

Excluding women from the mosque does not conform with medical guidelines, Islamic principles or good public policy.  The other exclusions are reasonable: the elderly are a high-risk group, children under 12 are notoriously bad hand-washers and people with symptoms or recent travel history are potentially disease carriers. The ban on women has no reasonable or religious basis.

The Quran establishes that men and women are spiritual equals:

“The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give charity and obey Allah and His Messenger.”  

“Once the immediate pandemic health crisis is over, Muslim women who have been banned for no legitimate reason should evaluate whether a community that casts them out is one worth rejoining.” (Flavio Spugna / Creative Commons)

Because Islam compassionately exempts women from regular mosque attendance—men are obliged to attend at least weekly—this exemption is often used to justify discrimination. However, the Prophet himself made no gender distinction in times of plague or in instructing worshippers to stay home in dangerous weather

The mosque is the center of spiritual learning and growth for all. Sexist policies contrbute to the systematic erasure of Muslim women within their own religious community.

More recently, many mosques locally and nationally have cancelled all services for all congregants—regardless of gender. I credit Muslim male leadership for quickly responding to a worsening situation.

However, at some point the lower level of restriction—and its explicit ban on women—may go back into effect. As a public health crisis looms large, it may not be a good time to bring up concerns of sexism. Perhaps there is never a “good” time to address discrimination, so the time is always right, and right now.

Gender discrimination rooted in the misogyny of South Asian and Arab culture is the hallmark of suburban mosques in the metroplex, despite notable efforts to curb sexism in immigrant Muslim communities.

In contrast, Masjid Al Islam, the biggest community of African-American muslims in Dallas, cancelled services for all worshippers without reference to gender and did not sign onto the DFW Imam Advisory.

The ban on women entering the mosque may continue for months.  Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise. Once the immediate pandemic health crisis is over, Muslim women who have been banned for no legitimate reason should evaluate whether a community that casts them out is one worth rejoining.

The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving.

During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media.

If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.

You may also like:


Sameena Karmally is an attorney, founder of the DFW Muslim Bar Association, and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.