Khadija Mariyam Foundation: Breaking Barriers Through a Woman-Only Community Centre

“As a Muslim woman in Kerala, you think of a Mosque, and all you can imagine are spaces which are welcoming for men from our community”, says Khadeeja Zayan, an architecture graduate from Calicut. She says, “You think of a Mosque associated with women, and you can only think of being denied access by the authority or being at undignified spaces, like a tiny hall next to the bathroom, from where you can hardly be your spiritual self. This is where Khadija Mariyam Foundation is going to change things for us.”

Huda Ahsan, the director of the Khadija Mariyam Foundation (KMF), first gave life to the Mosque Project through her thesis during her bachelor’s degree in architecture. During the pandemic, she got introduced to academicians like Amina Wadud, Fatima Mernissi, etc., and that is where her journey into women’s spirituality within Islam began. She set up KMF, which within no time turned into a fully-fledged charitable trust with its volunteers and core members based in Calicut and worldwide, believing in the dream of a holistic space for women. The project is presently in its fund-raising stage towards building the physical space but already responding to the community’s mental, physical, and spiritual needs through events, crisis management, legal support, etc.

Khadija Maryam Foundation: Breaking Barriers Through a Woman-Only Community Centre
Core member meeting

KMF is the second of its kind after Lucknow to set up its first women-only mosque. Yet, what makes KMF stand out from the rest is its conceptualization as a community center, which is not just a prayer space but a space that is accessible to women of all faiths and backgrounds. While the idea of a mosque existed in Ahsan’s mind during her thesis work, the mosque as a community center was conceptualized much later with the growth of the foundation and the evolving needs of the women in the community. “We deal not only with Islamic Feminist Theory but with theories from other religious angles. It gives us an idea of a larger social framework and its gendered needs”, says Huda. That is where she realized the necessity of space, not just for physical prayer, but for the coming together of all women’s intellectual, spiritual, and mental well-being.

Raihana Maryam, the PR head of KMF, says, “The place where I am from in Calicut, Kuttichira, everybody runs in denial. No matter what the women go through, they usually are not used to talking about it. KMF impacts this on an enormous scale because not only are we actively engaging in discussions on gender and everyday abuse, but once it’s out there [the community center, nobody can deny it or stop it. The reality will become undeniable.” Maryam tells us that most of KMF’s members are women like her, who most need this space.

With its growing group of eighty volunteers and twenty core members, KMF has been dealing with issues related to Women’s domestic violence, divorce cases, lack of resources and accessibility, etc., and has shown great progress. They also collaborated with other organizations like Red Cycle Org in Calicut to spread awareness regarding menstrual health and sex education around schools in Calicut. Ahsan tells us how one year into their work, with the establishment of office spaces, letterheads, visiting cards, and offline events and discussion meets, how they are already “physically in the air”. She says, “The community center is a larger scale and a contained space of what we already are, is all”.

Khadija Maryam Foundation: Breaking Barriers Through a Woman-Only Community Centre
A menstrual session for Kudumbashree

The challenges they face are primarily of support from the community, even on a global scale. Ahsan tells us how a ‘Muslim woman’ is not a homogenized entity whose needs and nature differ from place to place. “The context of starting a Muslim Woman’s mosque will be very different regarding its geographical location, even if it’s Malappuram, which is the next district after Calicut. Muslim Woman’s fights in Tamil Nadu are of a different nature, while in Karnataka, it’s different. Even global Muslim women did not understand the context of a South Asian Muslim woman’s needs.” Because of this, not everyone will understand the dire need for such a space for women, making it difficult for them to seek support in various ways.

In many instances, with their preconceived notions of what a mosque would mean, people do not show much interest when the word “mosque” is used, as opposed to the enthusiasm they feel when they hear “Women’s Community Center” for this project. However, Ahsan says, “KMF’s main aim is a “palli” [mosque] project. A physical space imbibing all the principles of what the prophet stood for.” Even though the word “mosque” has many connotative meanings in its local context for Muslims of Calicut, she says that this is what the foundation also attempts to deconstruct with its existence.

Khadija Maryam Foundation: Breaking Barriers Through a Woman-Only Community Centre
A football match KMF held for girls in Nadakkavu school

While Ahsan and her team face hostility from within the community, they also face islamophobia from outside the community. Traditional Muslims who strongly believe in male dominance within spaces of prayer and intellect of Islamic knowledge strongly stand against the Khadija Mariyam Foundation and have expressed their disagreement on social media as well, often tagging her and KMF’s Instagram handle. Some others, both Muslims and otherwise, also comment on her social media, the former accusing her of “liberalising Islam”, and the latter calling her a “fanatic” for trying to “enforce Islamic ideals” in a “progressive, modern” society.

One of the volunteers (who preferred to stay anonymous) opined that Muslim women globally, no matter the difference in their material and spiritual needs, all have one thing in common— they are stuck between a rock and a hard place: both the right and left wings (in India and abroad) that demonize Muslim men, and attempt to “save” Muslim women from the hands of their “oppressive” men, and, the misogynistic Muslim men within the community who continue to suppress women’s agency and representation when it comes to their faith and matters of personal or public importance.

She tells us, “This difficult position of the Muslim woman is what makes such a project a difficult one to execute, and the most important one too, at that because its purpose carries a universal weight— that of a movement that challenges the powerful from all sides; the community that tries to suppress it and society that tries to ridicule it.”

A few more articles by Izza:

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