The uses of history

What history proves: Indian mosques barring women is only a recent trend

The existence of mosques with zenanas and women's-only mosques shows that arrangements were made for female worshipers.

Recent protests against an age-old ban on the entry of women in the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar distrct and in Mumbai’s Haji Ali dargah have sparked a debate on restrictions on women in places of worship. On Monday, a group of Muslim women moved the Supreme Court demanding entry to all mosques in India. While some scholars insist that the scriptures prohibit the entry of women into the sanctum sanctorum of a dargah (which is where the Sufi preceptor’s grave is), for both mosques and temples, there is no religious prescription against the entry of women.

Theoretically speaking, nothing in Islam prohibits women from worshipping in a mosque. This is perhaps the reason why going through the annals of Indian history, one finds that women being allowed to enter mosques was quite common. Not only were separate zenana sections provided in mosques, “women only” mosques were also built in the country.

Bijapur has two striking examples of this. Situated in the oldest part of the city, known today as the Ark-killah or the citadel, the Makka Masjid was built in all probability by the Bahmani rulers of Bijapur in the 14th century. Devoid of the opulence that generally characterises the Adil Shahi buildings of Bijapur, Makka Masjid is largely austere, save its well decorated central mihrab or prayer niche. British surveyor Henry Cousens in his report on survey of Bijapur in 1916 points out that the most interesting feature of the mosque is the absence of a minbār, a pulpit from where the imam delivers sermons. The fact that the mosque has no minbar makes it a women’s mosque as no imam was required to address the gathering. Furthermore, walls enclosing the mosque have been made high enough to ensure the privacy of worshippers.

However, the women of Bijapur do not worship at the Makka Masjid there. The caretaker of the mosque is an old woman who said, “Aurataan ghar main hi namaaz padhti” (women offer namaz in their homes). Makka Masjid stands deserted for most of the week. The only time it sees a paltry gathering of women is when jummah (Friday) prayers are offered.

The Anda Mosque in Bijapur. Photo: Ruchika Sharma.
The Anda Mosque in Bijapur. Photo: Ruchika Sharma.

The other mosque in Bijapur made only for women worshippers is the Anda Masjid which was constructed in the reign of the famous Ibrahim Adil Shah II of Bijapur and by one of his nobles Aitbar Khan in 1608. The mosque’s ribbed melon dome, enclosed in a quadrangle of beautiful trellis work, is a sight to behold. The mosque is a two-storied building, where the upper floor was a prayer chamber for women and the ground floor was a sarai or rest house. As in the Makka Masjid, the minbar is absent in the Anda masjid too, signaling that it is a women’s mosque.

Ironically, the Anda Masjid today has banned the entry of women. Its ground floor is used as a madrasa for children and the upper floor is the prayer chamber for men.

Zenanas in mosques

While women’s mosques in history are few and far between, many historical mosques in the subcontinent provide a separate zenana section to accommodate the female Muslim worshippers. From the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque in Delhi to the Taj-ul-Masajid in Bhopal, the presence of zenana sections signals that participation of women in prayers at mosques must have been a routine affair in the bygone era.

The zenana sections were usually located on mezzanine floors in mosques, and in some cases the entire first floor was reserved for the ladies (like in Afzal Khan’s mosque in Bijapur)

Delhi’s Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, a magnificent mosque built out of recycled material, has a raised roof on the north end of its liwan (prayer chamber) as its zenana gallery. The secluded gallery is reached by a narrow staircase through the wall, much like in Bijapur’s Anda Masjid. Similarly, the Atala mosque, in the Uttar Pradesh town of Jaunpur, is another mosque made of recycled material. In 1308, the pillared hall at both ends became two storied, with the upper storey reserved for the women and adorned with beautiful perforated screens.

An even more splendid zenana is provided by the Sharqi builders of Jaunpur in the Lal Darwaza mosque, built in 1447. On the north and south side of the central prayer chamber, under the dome, the only double storey in the entire building has been introduced. Constructed for the use of the ladies of the court, the mezzanine floors are accessed by staircases in the towers of the entrance gateway. Both the mosques, despite being replete with zenana sections, have now become no-women zones.

A more interesting example is the Jama Masjid of Champaner near Baroda, built in 1523, where the women’s enclosure is in the main prayer hall itself, formed by screening off the northernmost mihrāb (prayer niche) and entered through a separate entrance on the northern wall of the mosque.

Other examples of mosques which provide a zenana section are the Adina mosque in West Bengal’s Pandua town, dated 1374-'75 and the 20th century mosque, the Taj-ul-Masajid in Bhopal built under the aegis of Shahjehan Begum.

A new phenomenon

But even as both Islamic theology and history encourage the participation of women in prayers at mosques, their entry to most mosques in the country today is forbidden. Right up till the 20th century in India (in the case of Taj-ul-Masajid), zenana chapels were provided in order to facilitate women offering prayers in mosques. Following this tradition, other Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey have proper zenana sections and do not forbid the entry of women in mosques.

The tradition of banning entry of women in mosques, ironically even in historical mosques replete with a zenana, is a recent feature in India. Most modern-day mosques in the country do not provide for a separate zenana, even when a simple barricading of a section of the prayer hall is all that is needed. The tradition of not praying in a mosque is so ingrained that even functioning women’s mosques, such as the Makka Masjid in Bijapur, rarely host a gathering.

Clearly, as the case of Taj-ul-Masajid proves, well into the 20th century, mosques were being built with zenanas. It is difficult to establish when exactly the practice ceased. Furthermore, there is no blanket ban on women praying in mosques as functioning zenanas exist in the mosques of Kashmir. It is safe to say that refusing entry to women in mosques is at best an arbitrary rule.

Bijapur's Makka Masjid is said to be built on the plan of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Photo: Ruchika Sharma.
Bijapur's Makka Masjid is said to be built on the plan of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Photo: Ruchika Sharma.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.