A digital spiritual revolution: When it comes to their faith, British Muslim women are taking matters into their own hands

A digital spiritual revolution
10 min read
04 April, 2023

Every Ramadan, Muslim women in Britain take to social media to ask each other which mosques provide female worship spaces so that they can take part in nightly Taraweeh prayers. This is usually followed by the sharing of experiences of being turned away by their male counterparts from certain mosques.

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British Muslim women across the country have been struggling with access to worship space in mosques for a long time now, but it always comes to a head during Ramadan, a time in which everyone, regardless of gender, wishes to extend their worship and experience the peace, tranquillity and spirit of communal prayer.

"Our audience is young professional Muslim women who want spiritual nourishment. They want access to women scholars, they want access to knowledge. They're not asking us to picket mosques or to protest. What they're asking is for a space to learn. They're asking for that spiritual kind of education"

The first settled Muslim communities in Britain emerged after the Second World War and mosques often took the form of house, mill and church conversions.

The absence of female worship facilities in these mosques was down to the fact that many men in these communities had left their wives behind in their home countries, or for those who did have female family members in the country, the latter mainly stayed at home. They did not think there was enough demand to justify creating female worship areas.

There was also a financial factor – the construction or conversion of mosques heavily depended on donations, and during the decades of the latter half of the twentieth century, many immigrant families did not have much money spare after having paid for rent, bills and food, and sending money back home.

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Some fifty or so years later, we have seen the rise of multi-million-pound mosque projects across the country, impressive mosques that provide floors of space for female worshippers, as well as nurseries, classrooms, and even leisure facilities. But these are few and far between.

Millennial Muslim women are spearheading the digital spiritual revolution in the UK [Getty Images]
Millennial Muslim women are spearheading the digital spiritual revolution in the UK [Getty Images]

For many Muslim women who live near mosques that were constructed or converted in the twentieth century, our local mosques are lacking.

We are relegated to a balcony or basement, with run-down ablution facilities, while male worshippers enjoy exclusive access to the main prayer halls which are beautifully decorated.

Men’s worship and ablution areas are also prioritised when it comes to renovation work.

And so, while we cannot blame the socio-economic and historical factors that shaped the country’s first mosques, and we welcome these new inclusive multi-facility mosque projects, we can blame people’s unwillingness to change their attitudes towards Muslim women who want access to mosques and faith learning facilities.

Muslim female worshippers in Britain feel like an afterthought.

One of the issues when it comes to being taken seriously is that British Muslim women’s faith experiences tend to be anecdotal – they often take the form of social media posts that are dismissed or which ensue in unhelpful arguments with their male counterparts.

"From the survey results, Muslim Census determined that 1 in 5 Muslim women have been denied entry to a mosque in Britain and almost 1 in 5 never go to the mosque"

Until recently, we have not had robust quantitative or qualitative research to back up our statements.

But thanks to Muslim Census, a research organisation that provides insights into the experiences of British Muslims, and Ta Collective, a female-led organisation facilitating access to sound Islamic knowledge for women, that has recently changed.

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At the end of January, Muslim Census, in collaboration with Ta Collective, released the findings of their research into British Muslim women’s faith experiences in a report titled, A Muslim Woman’s Faith Experience.  

Muslim Census conducted an online survey which had 1,200 female Muslim respondents from a variety of ethnicities, ages, professional and educational backgrounds, and locations in the UK.

In addition to this, they conducted four focus groups; the participants were blindly recruited with a fair distribution of women from different age ranges, locations and walks of life.

From the survey results, Muslim Census determined that 1 in 5 Muslim women have been denied entry to a mosque in Britain and almost 1 in 5 never go to the mosque; 61% of the respondents reported that limited access to mosques has a negative impact on their spirituality and relationship with faith.

Muslim women reported having to pray in changing rooms, street corners, and car parks instead.

“The males go to the masjid and we are forced to pray in changing rooms, car parks etc. It becomes so that Salah is a box to check off – there is no ease, no Khushoo [sense of tranquillity or focus], no community” - A Muslim Woman’s Faith Experience, Jan 2023

Access to faith-based knowledge is another key issue highlighted by the findings in the report; 2 in 5 women said they acquired their Islamic knowledge online, and less than 10% of respondents said they had access to a trusted Islamic scholar for guidance.

Meanwhile, 65% noted the need for easy access to female scholars and a further 54% noted the need for classes that specifically cater for women.

“Lack of access to women scholars, or scholars that have knowledge about women’s issues, inherently creates a culture of young Muslim women to not recognise/connect with important tenets of Islam” - A Muslim Woman’s Faith Experience, Jan 2023

Speaking to The New Arab, Muslim Census explains how crucial it was to not only carry out this research but also involve Muslim women's participation at each stage of the project.

“When we looked into the literature, we realised that there was a lot of anecdotal evidence; there was qualitative evidence and some level of data as well, however, data from the UK wasn't so comprehensive.

“Specifically looking into these issues, we decided that when we did start the project, we would focus on a participatory approach, including sisters that we spoke to in our focus groups, and maintaining regular communication with them so that they were involved.

“We are discussing how we want to engage different organisations and mosques and community spaces with the findings. We asked sisters for suggestions about what they wanted to see in these spaces. Now it is an issue of presenting these findings to the right people, engaging in discussion about what has already been done and what needs to be done to accommodate the needs of sisters in our community, and also ways that we can change current practices to do that.”

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Ta Collective started off as an online network called My Mosque Story, providing information via social media on mosques in Britain that provided female worship spaces.

According to them, there is no need for British Muslim women to “reclaim” their mosque space as access to worship space is a Muslim woman’s God-given right.

The main argument from those who gatekeep mosques in Britain is to point to a prophetic saying in which the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is reported to have said it was better for women to pray at home.

However, there are more prophetic sayings that encourage women to go to the mosque and warn men against preventing women from going, than the one prophetic narration that reports him saying it is better for women to pray at home.

“[I felt] angry that those men have the right to prevent me from a right my Lord has over me to pray. and in direct opposition to the hadith about not preventing women from the mosque” - A Muslim Woman’s Faith Experience, Jan 2023

Talking to The New Arab, Ta Collective explains, “The first Muslims who came to this country and set up the mosques did a huge service and we wouldn't take away from that. What I would say though is that we live in a very modern society where women work. Women go out, women are active members of society in every part.

"We can enter almost any space, but when it comes to the mosque, there is sometimes a block… In modern-day Britain, it just seems bizarre that you can exclude half [the population] of this faith and think that’s okay.”

Ta Collective believes that if certain mosques do not want to change their attitudes, Muslim women in Britain can take it upon themselves to provide their own spaces for faith-based learning by utilising digital tools.

This has been their main focus, and in the run-up to Ramadan, they have been running a weekly Breakfast Club, where Muslim women can connect online and engage in a series of digital workshops preparing them spiritually for Ramadan.

“Our audience is young professional Muslim women who want spiritual nourishment. They want access to women scholars, they want access to knowledge. They're not asking us to picket mosques or to protest. What they're asking is for a space to learn. They're asking for that spiritual kind of education. That's the need that we seek to fill.”

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Someone else who believes that Muslim women can take spiritual learning into their own hands is an Islamic scholar and author of the recently published A Treasury of ‘A’ishah (RA): Guidance from the Beloved (Kube Publishing), Dr Sofia Rehman.

Dr Rehman has dedicated her life to teaching and facilitating access to Islamic education for Muslim women over the past two decades.

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in early 2020, she made the most of video communication platforms like Zoom and started an online Islamic academic read-along. The idea was to make Islamic academic texts accessible to Muslim women.

The group would be assigned one chapter a week and convene via Zoom every Sunday to discuss the chapter. Three years later, it is still going strong, with hundreds of Muslim women participating, not just from Britain, but other countries around the world.

According to Dr Rehman, the biggest mistake when trying to remedy this situation would be to fall into the trap of us vs. them when it comes to the ways in which Muslim women engage with men in their community. For her, working in tandem with them for change is the way forward.

“It has to be with our Muslim brothers. We can't do it without them. And I think that it takes a lot of humility, and it takes foresight. And it takes love and compassion for the community to accept that. I believe and I know it because there are Muslim brothers who are on board and who have supported me. I don't like the dichotomy that's created between Muslim men and women, I think that's very engineered. So, it does take allyship,” she tells The New Arab. 

“It also has to happen in tandem with existing institutions. That's not to say that we [women] don't need to go off and build our own communities and make spaces for our own self-actualisation, growth and education. That's what I do in the reading groups. But then, once we've fortified ourselves with that information and we've energized and strengthened ourselves we go back into the community with it because we're an ummah [community]. We have to be there for each other, and women's inclusion will only enrich men's experience of Islam as well.”

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Muslim Census, Ta Collective and Dr Rehman are keen to highlight all the positive work taking place in the British Muslim community, such as the Islamic courses that make no distinction between male or female learners, well-being retreats for Muslim women, online learning, and large-scale conferences and events with high profile speakers that are open to both men and women.

And while it is not all doom and gloom, the question still remains: with statistics as shocking as 1 in 5 Muslim women have experienced being turned away from a mosque, who will take charge of telling mosque board members that the women in their local Muslim community are just as entitled to worship space as men are?

To read Muslim Census’ full report, click here.

Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press.

Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA