Denmark’s first women-only mosque, complete with women imams, is currently opening in Copenhagen in what the woman behind the project, Sherin Khankan, calls ‘a feminist project’. The Mariam Mosque, as it is called, is being led by and for women, who will also lead Friday prayers.
»I have never felt at home in the existing mosques. The new grand mosques are unbelievably beautiful, but I have the feeling of being a stranger when I am there. We women stand up in the balcony and look down on what is happening. Many women and young people don’t even go into the mosques as you enter into a male dominated and patriarchal space in which a man has the floor, a man leads prayers, men are in focus and dominate. That is why we are now setting up a mosque on women’s terms«, says Sherin Khankan.
According to Mehmet Ümit Necef Ph.D., associate professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Southern Denmark, the women’s mosque is a constructive modernisation of Islam. He compares the move with that of several American and Turkish women Muslims who have objected to the fact that female family members cannot stand in the same rows as men during, for example, rituals for the dead.
»External criticism of Islam causes fear and brings out defence mechanisms among Muslims. But the fact that criticism and innovation comes from within is highly constructive. There is no doubt that these women will be accused of being too westernised and for splitting Islam, or for not following Islamic instruction«, says Mehmet Ümit Necef.
No need for a women’s mosque
Imam Waseem Hussein, chairman of the Danish Islamic Centre - one of the larger, established mosques in Denmark – dismisses claims that there is no place for women in the majority of Danish mosques.
»They can do what they want to do, but their theological reference is wrong. Why should there be a specific need just for women? Are we also to create mosques only for men? That would cause an outcry within the Danish population«, says Imam Waseem Hussein.
»In the same way that Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons are not recognised by the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church, there are theological reasons to deny them recognition. It causes a major debate and may sound engaging in a Danish context, but internally for Muslims it has no effect«, says Imam Hussein adding that he does not believe that the mosque will make any major inroads among Muslim women.
»I do understand that they don’t feel that they are being addressed. But part of the problem is that they are being portrayed as if they are the good and righteous ones while all the rest of us are malevolent. The objective truth of the matter is that they are a very small minority«, Imam Hussein says.
The two women imams at the Mariam Mosque, Sherin Khankan and Saliha Marie Fetteh, answer to a 12-member board, two of whom are men. The location of the mosque itself in Copenhagen remains secret as those behind the initiative are afraid of reprisals for their move into the religious space.
That is something that Hans Jørgen Bonnichsen, the former head of the Danish Security and Intelligence Service PET, says they may have good reason to fear.
»It is fully as relevant to consider the protection of a mosque as it is to protect the Jewish Religious Community. If they are able to keep the location of the mosque secret, that is something of a guarantee. But it is sad that it is necessary – and a consequence of right wing extremists«, says Hans Jørgen Bonnichsen.