Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American freelance journalist, once wrote,
“I am Muslim. I’m a feminist. And I’m here to confuse you….I’m a bumble bee who carries ideas — pollen — from one place to another in the hope that they will blossom into a wild and challenging orchard. The pollen might be sweet, but I “sting like a bee” because like the great Muhammad Ali, I will not hesitate to knock you out. Confusion is both my right and left hook.”
I believe I had my “Eltahawy” moment last Sunday, the day before Eid al-Adha, an important religious holiday for all Muslims. It was my first Eid without my family, in a city and country whose customs and traditions I was unfamiliar with (this lays the foundation of the story I am about to share with you). I missed the thought of my father coming home from the mosque after completing the morning Eid prayer, the Salat al-Eid, and the smell of ghee (clarified butter) perfuming the air as my mother cooked a large feast in the kitchen for our family and friends. I mostly craved that sense of togetherness on such a special day, a feeling that does not come often when we’re all individually leading such busy lives.
I hoped to celebrate Eid in the same fashion here in Kolkata (well, to some degree!), complete with a feast with good friends and a visit to some of the city’s most beautiful and historical mosques. The first on the list was the Tipu Sultan Shahi Mosque, built in 1832 by the youngest son of Tipu Sultan, the de facto ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore. Prior to our visit, I (naturally) researched the history of this architectural and cultural relic. A quick Google search brought up the following message: “People of all sections of society and religions are allowed to visit and take pictures of this historical premise.”
Krupa and I had a long day ahead of us since we also needed to do some food shopping for our fellows’ Eid dinner that Sunday evening. Our plan was to visit the mosque first and take a hundred or so photos. The pictures we found online were absolutely breathtaking so we were both very excited to witness this spectacle with our very own eyes. With our cameras in one hand and our headscarves in the other, we thought we were fully prepared for our visit. We later discovered, that was not the case.
After a few minutes of walking from the Rabindrasadan metro station, I caught my first glimpse of the mosque’s four minarets. As we approached the path to the entrance, we noticed a little pond with a small bridge nestled in the garden at the entrance. We took a few a photos of the garden and proceeded to enter the mosque from the side. There, we noticed a group of men sitting on the front steps, conversing amongst each other. I asked one of the men to confirm if that was the entrance to the mosque in Bengali and received a rather rash response:
“There are no women allowed here.”
I was sure he was wrong and so I repeated my question, this time with an older man. He explained to us that women were generally not allowed in any mosques; women are supposed to pray in their homes. I was a bit furious at this point and explained I understood the traditions as a Muslim woman myself (which surprised them) and that women were, indeed, allowed to pray in mosques in the States. The first man ignored my statement and commented on the fact that we were not wearing headscarves, which we immediately put on. Unfortunately, even then, we were neither allowed inside or did we feel comfortable being there anymore.
I was not sure how to feel or act at that moment. Were we wrong for being ignorant Americans or were they wrong for misinterpreting the Qu’ran? As Eltahawy wrote in her message above, I was ready “to sting like a bee”, as a Muslim and as a feminist. There is not a single verse in the Qu’ran that prohibits a woman from entering mosques. In fact, there are several hadiths (anecdotes about the Prophet Muhammad, pbuh) that prove that women prayed in mosques during the life of the Prophet (pbuh):
“Do not prevent the female servant of Allah from going to the mosque of Allah.” (Sahih Muslim Vol.1 Chapter 177 Hadith No.886)
While it would have been easy for me to recite a few verses to the men, I knew my opinions would fall on deaf ears. As a woman I had no right, as a foreigner I had no right. The situation was unpleasant, yes, but I think both Krupa and I learned plenty from our experience that day. What was customary and familiar to us would not necessarily be accepted in other cultures. However, we were graciously invited to visit a beautiful prayer hall nearby later that day, which was open to men and women (separate quarters of course). I planned on praying there for Eid but made the last minute decision not to.
I celebrated Eid in our flat with the fellows that Sunday evening, over a wonderful potluck dinner. Those comforting feelings of joy, that sense of community, of acceptance, the things I had associated with the holiday, I found that evening at our dinner.
As I am writing this entry from my balcony, I can hear the evening adhan, or Islamic call for prayer, from the mosque nearby. Though Islam is practiced differently here, the call for prayer is still as beautiful and serene as it is in New York and anywhere else in the world. With my eyes closed, I soak in the moment, as I would back home.
Photo: Exterior, Tipu Sultan Shahani Mosque, Kolkata