In India women aren’t encouraged to pray regularly at the mosque, even if there’s a special space for them. But there’s one mosque in the northern Indian city of Lucknow that is doing the very opposite.
The Ambar Mosque was established by one remarkable woman.
Jasvinder Sehgal has this story.
It’s Friday afternoon here at the Ambar Mosque in Lucknow.
The Adhan, or Azan, the call to prayer, is ringing out in the afternoon heat.
The women start to gather for wudu, washing their hands, face and feet, in a form of ritual purification.The second floor of the mosque is reserved especially for women to offer namaaz, or prayer.
Local resident Rabia says she comes here most Fridays, but the Ambar mosque is more than just a prayer space.
“This is India’s first women’s inclusive mosque where women perform Namaaz. Women celebrate various religious and social functions here. There are special lectures to educate them about their rights depicted in the Quran, the holy book of Muslims, and in the Indian constitution. The mosque has become like a community center for women,” Rabia said.
Fifty-five-year-old Shaista Ambar, the founder of the Ambar mosque is also attending Friday prayer.
Shaista established the mosque in 1997 to counter what she says was a strong patriarchal environment.
“It was the month of Ramadan. I was looking for a mosque where my 8-year-old son could offer Namaaz,” recalls Shaista.
“Suddenly I found one but was forced to leave as women were not allowed to stand near the mosque. I felt very bad. Thereafter I was told that only men are allowed to build mosques. I took it as a challenge and bought a piece of land. I sold my jewelry to arrange money to build this mosque,” she said.
In recent months, there have been several campaigns to allow women into religious shrines across the country, including inside Hindu temples and Muslim places of worship.
Last August, the High Court in Mumbai overturned a ban on women entering the inner sanctum of the city’s famous Haji Ali Mosque.
Rabia says women’s only spaces for worship should be a given.
“In India and other developing countries people don’t realize the importance of mosques for women. In many developed countries there are separate prayer arrangements for Muslim women. This gives them religious freedom and a space for prayer,” commented Rabia.
After Friday prayer a group of women have come to meet Shaista. Surprisingly they are not Muslim but Hindu.
Rampati Devi aged 72, has travelled 15 miles with her daughter in law.
Rampati tells me Shaista is like a daughter to her. Rampati is entitled to ration cards from the government to buy subsidized wheat, rice and petrol. But it can be tedious navigating the bureaucracy and corruption to get them.
That’s where Shaista comes in – she’s been helping out to make sure women in the community get their rations without any trouble.
As well attending lectures about women’s rights, women at the Ambar mosque can also seek marriage counseling.
“My husband is a government servant and is posted in Delhi” 32 year old Sofia Khan explained.
“After a few months of my marriage his parents started abusing me for the dowry. There were continuous fights at home. I was forced to leave his house within one year of marriage. But now Shaista is helping me to resolve my issues,” said Sofia.
To assist women in need of medical help, Shaista has also built a guesthouse close to the mosque, just a stone’s throw from Lucknow’s biggest hospital.
Women from remote villages can stay at the guesthouse for free.
And if that’s not enough, Shaista has now also wired the mosque to run on solar power.
“With the installation of solar panels on the roof, the mosque is not only feeding electricity back into the grid but also helping to improve the air quality by reducing its carbon footprint. This will also reduce the consumption of electricity,” explained Shaista.
The Ambar Mosque celebrates its twentieth anniversary this month.