The buildings that made us; females and the fight to take up space

(This article was originally commissioned and published by The Wellcome Collection)


In a world that has been historically built by men, quite literally through both their physical labour and their invested power structures, you must stand up and fight for your territory, constantly battling for an inch here or a meter there, if you’re lucky. Just like any other war, we are fighting for land and borders but in the battle of the sexes it looks more like property and rooms as opposed to countries and continents. Perhaps I was a privileged child, or maybe I was just lucky, but it wasn’t until my teenage years struck that I really understood the value of real estate and how fundamental this fight was.

As a young child my gender had never posed a problem and I ran happily through my local mosque and community, crossing enemy lines and back again to play in male and female spaces, unfettered access to all areas, but as the first signs of puberty began to blossom, I was suddenly denied access.

I still cannot remember the exact moment it happened, only that I felt a distinct sense of loss and that somehow, my world had become smaller. All of a sudden, I was restricted, the very buildings I had previously ran through shrinking down around me, confining me to reduced spaces. Becoming part of those spaces and joining the ranks of women also came with a set of behaviours I was instantly expected to adhere to. I was changed; had been changed by the spaces I now existed in.

I believe female only spaces are incredibly empowering and in them lies a certain freedom that arrives only when women are together and free of male company and opinions, however, when those female spaces exist because male spaces have expanded and excluded the feminine, pushing them into corners, they become a different beast altogether. They become tentative spaces, the occupants unsure of their right to exist in them and when you are uncertain of your welcome, your behaviour begins to change. The women of my local mosque seemed to shrink with the building, the smaller the room the quieter they became. Subsisted in their cordoned areas, hushed voices blanked by subservience, they unquestioningly accepted their confines and with them, the idea prevailing that they didn’t have as much right to be there. In contrast, the entitlement of their male peers only grew as the rooms around them expanded.

However, one evening, as the first lyrical notes of the sunset prayer began to fill the mosque, my mother, a convert who had already fought to be part of the Muslim community, did the unthinkable and marched into the men’s area, a line of women behind her, as they took their place behind the men and joined the congregation in worship. The change of committee members some weeks previously had sparked an internal row in the mosque with newly arrived members to our community deciding that the balcony area women had previously occupied needed to be blocked off and hidden from view and sight. The result was that we could no longer see the men praying below us, and nor could they look up to see us. We were utterly cordoned off and hidden from sight.

There is a religious ruling that should anyone wish to join the congregation in prayer, for this to be valid, they must be able to view the leader of the prayer or the lines of people who stand behind in a continuous sequence, and if they cannot, they’re not part of the congregation. In defiance of the sudden change which restricted the women’s view of the prayer, my mother led her quiet rebellion that evening. The aim was to pray behind the men and return back to the women’s area once prayers had concluded. However, in doing so, my mother placed women and young girls in spaces they hadn’t previously been in and sent a jarring shockwave through our community.

In reaction to this, as the prayer finished, one of the men lost his temper, took off all his clothes and exposed himself to the shocked women before him, angrily shouting that if they wanted to be with the men they could really see what man was made of. It’s hard not to laugh at the humorous absurdity of the situation as I look back on it now, but the very grave lesson it taught me was the exact lengths men will go to when they feel their exclusive spaces have been invaded and that as a woman, should you step into spaces that are not for you, you will be punished with male sexuality and it will be your fault because you shouldn’t have been there in the first place. It is the same argument used against women walking alone late at night who have fallen victim to sexual abuse, justifying the abhorrent consequences on females for stepping out of the spaces that have been defined for them.

The buildings we sit in and the roofs we worship under can change our relationship with our own faith, ourselves, and even our own bodies. The segregation of women in mosques keeps them unknown, ‘othered’ and caricatures of gross sexual exaggeration. In our hidden state we become more than we should be, the opportunity to normalize behaviours between the sexes, or even find parity and understanding, is lost. You cannot know something, or become familiar with something, when it remains a hidden entity.

While the exclusion of women from spaces changes the way we are perceived, it also changes our relationship with ourselves and how we conduct ourselves in the world. The women I was surrounded by in my local mosque had spent a lifetime in separate spaces to their male counterparts and as a result they had firmly inhabited their silence. They too had become unfamiliar with mixed spaces, often sending me into the kitchen to make them cups of tea, the only mixed space in our mosque, but one that was often male dominated. They would nervously ask me to go in there with them as they didn’t feel confident going alone. I was always baffled by this having grown up with the firmly installed philosophy that men were owed no deference from me and nor should they get it by proxy of their gender, but these spaces highlighted difference and while that can sometimes be a good thing, when the balance of power is skewed it can become a catastrophic experience.

Those experiences then shape the permission we give ourselves to exist in spaces, whether that’s in a place of worship or a board room. Many years ago, our local mosque was barred to women on a Friday, the holiest of days for Muslims, becoming a male only space to accommodate the influx of men who came to hear the sermon. Without my mother I might have accepted that as normal, however, once more adamant to take up space, both literally and metaphorically, my mother readied herself for the fight and took me with her every Friday to assert her right and lay claim to a small corner of the mosque. They of course asked us to move, threatened us and became angry, however my mother quietly insisted on our right to pray in this building, and that is how it began, and why in a mosque in Newcastle upon Tyne, women now have a space to pray on a Friday afternoon with their community and congregation, long after my mother and I stopped going there.

Years later as I fought for spaces in boardrooms, battled my way into meetings and calmly asserted my right to roles, salaries and clubs that were previously denied to me, I think back to my early years and the building we worshiped in and remember that even when the walls shrink down and the clamour of a community asks you to retreat, you can fight for space and you can win. Watching my mother physically redefine the spaces we prayed in, taking down a curtain or pushing the barriers a little further out, always making more room, redefined my own world and my perception of what was possible. It taught me that the walls can come tumbling down after all.

Salma El-Wardany