When we discuss the position of women in Shia communities, we certainly tend to fare better than other Muslim denominations. Our mosques, for example, will always have dedicated spaces for women; in fact, we would never dream of making mosques “men only” zones. Women are not coerced to cover their faces or stay in the home, and both boys and girls are given equal access to education. It is surprising, therefore, that in mosque decision-making processes as well as in jamaat programmes, women remain acutely under-represented.
Previously, whenever I have tried to discuss the under-representation of women in our communities, the immediate response I have received is a defensive one; my claim is either promptly dismissed as nonsense or refuted with eagerly cited examples of X, Y or Z situation where women are represented in our communities. I have to respond by explaining that despite the relatively preferable situation of women in our communities, it is still problematic that we have, for instance, yet to see a mosque with a female president – in fact I know of both men and women who believe women should not become mosque presidents, as though their gender makes them fundamentally unsuitable for leadership. Even the representation of women on executive committees remains far from proportionate, and I am aware of executive committees where even though women get ‘seats’ in a consultative capacity, due to not being formally recognised as members they do not get to vote, effectively rendering female representation perfunctory and non-existent in such executive committees. All or most mosques will have ladies’ committees, but the inevitable result is that the women get assigned to all women’s activities whereas men take control of the overall running of the mosque, with little to no input being received from the women of the community. I have also yet to attend a jamaat programme, open to both men and women, where a female scholar has addressed the congregation. We need to consider this in the context of our world today where we see practically every Muslim television channel featuring female presenters and speakers; we accept that women can address global audiences over satellite television, but we are somehow reluctant to invite women to address the congregations at our mosques. Therefore, regardless of how we fare in comparison to other Muslim communities, the fact remains that within our own communities the under-representation of women is a serious issue which is rarely assigned adequate importance.
Some may argue against the claim that women are under-represented in jamaat decision-making processes by pointing out ‘equal access’ – indeed, the structure of mosque membership is rarely openly discriminatory towards women. Both men and women can become paying members, some say, but women just don’t want to become members. Those pursuing this line of reasoning seem not to realise that while in theory both men and women can become members of a jamaat, in practice in the overwhelming majority of families, the male spouse, as the primary breadwinner, is the named, paying member, and ultimately the one who gets a vote in mosque decisions. Moreover, especially during a recession, the financial burden placed upon a family when not one but both spouses must become paying members in order for each to have a recognised vote does, in itself, act as a deterrent to women signing on as members. This situation has served to marginalise our women in a way that is real and severe, and yet seemingly justified; the need, in such a situation, is therefore not to claim in theory that women can have a vote if they choose to pay for it, but rather to consider in practice how voting for women can be actively encouraged and facilitated. Given the disproportionately low number of female named members of jamaats, surely this must be a priority. Our brothers must also no longer be allowed to use the excuse that if women really wanted to participate, they could choose to do so, suggesting that lack of female participation is merely a matter of the choices women are making themselves. Regrettably, this view does not take into account the effects of women having been marginalised for years and decades, which has resulted in a vicious cycle – women have been unable to vote, whether due to not being named, paying members or because of other barriers, and so they have become disenfranchised from mosque politics, and so they lose interest in having their views represented. The solution to this, and to the ensuing lack of representation of women in mosque politics, is not to dismiss the disenfranchisement of women as a matter of choice, but to recognise it as disenfranchisement and to actively remedy it by making women feel that their views and their voices are valued.
Unfortunately, in some instances, the opposite has happened. In one jamaat, where the constitution entitled a member’s spouse to have the same rights (including voting rights) as the paying member, these rights were denied to spouses, overwhelmingly women, in practice; of course this may have been out of ignorance rather than deliberate discrimination. However, when the lack of women’s ability to vote became an issue, rather than applying in practice the voting rights that were afforded to female spouses in the constitution, the constitution was amended so that only paying members were given voting rights, and spouses would need to pay 50% of the annual membership fee in order to obtain the right to vote. In practice, this change meant that spouses of existent members, the majority being women who have for years been using jamaat resources without any charge, would effectively be charged for no benefit other than the right to vote. Rather than remedying the injustice of previously denying women in practice the rights afforded to them in the constitution, the situation was made worse by making voting rights even less accessible to the women of this congregation.
It may indeed be the case that there are mosques where women’s voting is facilitated and made more easily accessible; we need to use these examples not to deny that the under-representation of women is a problem in our communities, but to learn from them and apply their structures in our own mosques and congregations. While some mosques may have comparatively higher percentages of women who participate in decision-making processes, overall in British Shia jamaats the representation of women is far from proportionate. The time for denial and defensiveness has come to an end – it is about time we recognised as a problem the fact that not enough women are getting a say in how their mosques are run and worked to remedy this at the structural level, by actively encouraging and facilitating, through concessions where necessary, the participation of women in mosque decision-making processes. Though many women may already recognise this issue and may want to improve the situation, we are faced with a conundrum. Given the current composition of executive committees and voting members in our mosques, this situation will ultimately only be improved if our brothers accept and acknowledge as their responsibility that voting and membership rights must be made more readily accessible to the women of our communities, not just in theory but also in practice. We claim that women and men are equal in Islam, so rather than putting obstacles in the way of proportionate gender representation, let’s begin to genuinely implement this equality in our communities.