India: A women's mosque in Shillong

"The Masjid was inaugurated on August 29, 2008 and about 150 women took part in prayer on the very first day. ‘It’s a gift to our mother and sisters for the Ramadan’, said Sayedullah Nongrum, MLA and Secretary of the Shillong Muslim Union since 1982."
"North Eastern states in India are comprised of more than 213 ethnically diverse groups and communities with distinct languages, culture, and social identities different from mainland India. Women in this region enjoy greater mobility. ‘Purdah’ and caste system is not so prevalent here.
Women’s participation in economic activities is quite high and the Asia’s largest women’s markets ‘Ima market’ (‘Ima Keithel’ or Mother’s Market) is situated in Imphal, Manipur. All these factors have definitely left a positive impact in the life of Muslim women of this region. But patriarchal notions predominates all the liberal values and have restricted women’s mobility even in this part of India.

Like rest of India, women’s access to public religious places like masjids is restricted by the Muslim society of North East India. Women offering prayer five times a day in mosques is a taboo in almost all societies in India. It is often preached that women world is inside the four corner of the house of her husband and she should be happy with the ‘household’ work only.

The establishment of a masjid exclusively for women in Shillong, Meghalaya is an answer to all these stereotyping tactics against women. The Masjid was inaugurated on August 29, 2008 and about 150 women took part in prayer on the very first day. ‘It’s a gift to our mother and sisters for the Ramadan’, said Sayedullah Nongrum, MLA and Secretary of the Shillong Muslim Union since 1982. Shillong Muslim union established in 1905 took the initiative in establishing a masjid that had facility for women as well.

Shillong Muslim Union was founded by Khan Bahadur Amjad Ali with the aim of catering the religious, socio-cultural needs of muslims in the entire East Bengal from Siliguri to Cox Bazar and from Chittagong to Dibrugarh in the present Assam. After partition of India, it narrowed down its jurisdiction to Assam. When Meghalaya was created in 1972 its jurisdiction was curtailed to only Meghalaya. Sir Sayedullah, Moinul Haque Choudhury had presided this organization.

Shillong Muslim Union has established Unshyprio College which teaches Science, Art and Commerce and is considered as one of the best ranked colleges in the city. The most impressive part of the working of this organization is that they are secular in their activities and students across all culture and religion can come and study here. In fact right now non-Muslim students have outnumbered Muslim students in this college.

Shillong Muslim Union has a women wing too called ‘Shillong Mahila Majlish’ established in 1958 with the Zubeida Ataur Rehman as the founding president. It is a socio-religious organization meant for the upliftment of the muslim women. This forum became a meeting place for muslim women in Shillong. This year the organization celebrated its golden jubilee and brought out a souvenir.

Justifying women’s access to the masjid, Nongrum said, ‘I have seen Muslim women offering prayers with great difficulty in absence of space and privacy especially while at work or when she is out of the home. Many times I offered my office room to use for offering prayers. If our women ca go to market which is considered to be the worst place for a muslim women under the Sharia, we the menfolk are not objecting to it then why not women going to a masjid and offer prayer there? Why the fanatics are objecting to it? ‘

Mr. Nongrum strongly believes that the interpretation of Islamic laws is not free from the patriarchal notion. He said ‘I don’t believe in the interpretation of the fanatics. Purdah means the inner shyness of women. If the shyness is retained she can go anywhere. There’s nothing forbidden in going to a place and offer prayer.’ He said that about 40-50 women attends prayer everyday and the number is increasing day by day. Nongrum lamented that fanatics are forbidding women to come and pray in the masjid and he challenged the fanatics and said ‘they should come here and show me the scripts which prohibits women to go to a masjid. If men and women can pray together during hajj, why not in Shillong masjid?

Women, who participated in the prayer meeting on the 29th August, 2008 expressed great satisfaction and delight over the establishment of the masjid. Syeda Mushfiqua Haque and her daughter in law said ‘when we went for the prayer, we felt that we have achieved something and it gave us satisfaction of being empowered’.

The opening of this masjid in Shillong is a step toward gender equality. If such initiatives are taken in every field and create space for women; Muslim women in this region too can contribute to their community and society.

17 November 2008

By: Anju Azad