By Hasina Momtaz

Bradford; a city that is less than 25 square miles may possibly be about to make history in the UK by setting up the first all-women managed mosque committee in a district that already houses 110 mosques – all managed by men.

The call is being led by the Muslim Women’s Council (MWC), an organisation that believes that women have a vital role to play in all aspects of public and private life. Their Chief Executive, Bana Gora, believes women are an effective force for social change and are critical to the current debates taking place about the role and place of Muslims in British society.

Cover Story: Equality in Faith

Whilst this may perhaps be a new concept here in the UK, women in Islam first achieved equality 1,400 years ago when Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) granted women rights over property, inheritance, marriage and divorce, family life and other matters, so women’s equality is not something that is new or strange in the religion.

However the precise nature of the roles and responsibilities of women in the public sphere is a subject which has always been debated, both within and outside Islam.

The plans were first unveiled by the MWC at their Daughters of Eve conference in May 2015, following on-going consultation with stakeholders including the local community, Muslim scholars and academics. The keynote speaker at the conference was Baroness Sayeeda Warsi.

The MWC describe their vision as compelling and one which they say is driven by the Islamic principle of inclusiveness.  Although there will be separate spaces for men and women, their plan is for a facility managed by women, primarily for women.  This includes Muslims of all denominations, new Muslims and the wider non-Muslim community.

They are exploring various options and are carrying out consultations on the detail of the project with local, national and international scholars and experts.

One thing they are sure on is that women will not lead mixed congregational prayers and say this will not take place under the MWC umbrella. This is in line with both the principles of Islam as well as the views of the wider community.

Speaking to the Asian Sunday, Bana Gora said that the MWC had carried out an audit of local mosques focussing on services provided to women. The audit found that access was the biggest problem above all. According to Ms Gora, the way women feel has profound consequences for younger generations who are taught that Islam treats both men and women as spiritual equals yet the practice within mosques contradicts the principles.

“In an era in which many young people feel that their faith is no longer relevant, or are going to extremes, we want to be able to provide a safe space for them to question, learn and grow whilst having an appreciation of their heritage as well as the opportunity to make informed choices relevant to the 21st Century”.

At a recent consultation meeting, Ms Gora told the audience that they want an all -inclusive holistic space which is a centre for promoting Islamic education, scholarship and excellence for women, which promotes shared values and is fully accessible to all communities and accommodates all schools of thought.

The Centre of Excellence is aimed at addressing the chronic shortage in female scholars who are confident, articulate and can convey the true message of Islam, one of peace, coexistence, tolerance, compassion and justice.

The Centre of Excellence will not only be a centre for learning but much more. Services at the centre would include an Islamic divorce service, bereavement service, legal advice, services for young people and the elderly and a parenting advice service. The centre aims to have projects to feed the homeless, encompass a gym and health facilities, a café and bazaar area and above all to be a spiritual retreat and sanctuary.

At a time when Muslims are under unbearable scrutiny, socially, politically and legislatively, it is essential that Muslims in the UK are able to have a strong sense of their values and confidence in their identity as British Muslims. Creating bottom up institutions such as the Inclusive Mosque and Centre of Excellence will not only develop capacity but also create the resilience to withstand Islamophobia and growing negativity and promote community cohesion and strong communities.

Other participants at the consultation event also expressed their views to the audience.

Imam Qari Asim MBE, imam of the Makkah Masjid in Leeds, said: “We talk about Prophet Muhammad being the greatest feminist, we talk about how he changed the world view, how he gave women the rights that they have and enjoy but the real question is are those concepts translated into real life today? We need to implement them. So I am, in a way, surprised that in 2015 we are having a conversation whether or not women should be going into a mosque, whether or not women can pray in a mosque”.

Dilwar Hussain, Founder and Chair of New Horizons in British Islam told people: “For me there are really two important institutions in Islam. That is the mosque and the family and I think what we do at the moment is (sic) that instead of bringing these two institutions together we have arranged these two institutions in the way that they collide.  We really need to reintegrate these two institutions…that for me is a real vision of how an integrated community would actually be able to live and survive and thrive”.

New Muslims who were present at the consultation welcomed the idea as did Bradford’s Council for Mosques who said they had no problems with the mosque being opened.

So where do some of the other major religions stand on the issue?

The Church of England appointed its first female bishop in December 2014 in the form of Reverend Libby Lane.  This followed a decision by the synod to allow women to become bishops in July 2014 but the appointment took place after the measure became law in November that year.

Others want to go a step further.  Groups such as the Transformations Steering Group, a body which examines the impact of women in ministry on the Church of England, issued a public call to the bishops to encourage more “expansive language and imagery about God”. Support is growing within the Church of England to rewrite its official liturgy to refer to God as female following the selection of the first women bishops and informal discussions are taking place at a senior level.

Women are also playing a role within the Sikh faith.  At Ramgarhia Gurdwara, Bradford, Kuldip Kaur Bharj has a committee role. At the Gurdwara Shri Guru Ravi Dass Maharaj in Leeds they have a female Granthi (Priest). Gurbax Kaur Mann is the Education Secretary at Guru Gobind Singh Gurdwara in Bradford.

In Judaism, women don’t have role in United Synagogues but can do in Reform and Liberal synagogues.  Two notable female roles include Rabbi Julia Neuberger who has been Senior Rabbi at West London Synagogue since 2011and Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi of Reform Judaism, the progressive arm of the Jewish community.

Chanda Vyas is Britain’s first female Hindu priest and has been conducting ceremonies in Leicester since 2010. She has described her journey as a long, laborious one of breaking down traditional barriers and discrimination.  Also in Leicester, the Sanatan Mandir has a female president who has executive decision making powers.

According to the Gujarat Hindu Society in Preston, no temple in the UK would have female priests as it is a requirement that the priest must be male. However, the wife or daughter of a priest may help to run religious activities.

What are your thoughts on this issue? What do you think should be the role and influence of women in religious places of worship? Should they take a more or less active role in religious public life?                   Drop us a line

The vision appears to have captured the imagination of many and the level of media interest around the project has been worldwide.

Further consultations are being held in Bradford over the next few months to continue to share the vision and for the public to further help shape this.

Muslim Women’s Council are inviting you to hear from experts and engage in the debate and discussions on Sunday 2 August 2015 at Carlisle Business Centre from 1:30pm – 3:30pm.

To book a place email or call the MWC office on 01274 223 230.