“What’s with the scarf?” – Lifting the veil on Muslim Friday Prayers

Asma and I compare Muslim and Catholic rituals and demystify some other strange assumptions.
(Picture: Vibeke Foss)

The Daily Telegraph columnist, Miranda Devine, wrote “Miranda Devine spends a day at a Mosque,” an article about going “undercover” as a Muslim woman at Friday prayers. Intriguing, I thought. After all, who doesn‘t love a good expose?

Expecting insights into a world of clandestine meetings and cryptic customs, ala Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, I was slightly disappointed when after a few lines I realized it wasn’t really the expose I had expected so much as blunt observations about clothes, body parts and floor-plans.

Moving on from my initial disenchantment, I kept reading as it is still interesting to get that fly-on-the-wall perspective – and not necessarily about religion. Besides, you have to admit, you love hearing taxi drivers talk about the bizarre anecdotes of late-night passengers or personal assistants spilling the beans about their celebrity boss’ absurd demands.

Asma and I compare Muslim and Catholic rituals and demystify some other strange assumptions. (Picture: Vibeke Foss)

Asma and I compare Muslim and Catholic rituals and demystify some other strange assumptions. (Picture: Vibeke Foss)

So why not take a peak at what seems to be the shroud of mystery behind some of the Muslim rituals?  In this case, Miranda did just that. She focused on an element that we all have questioned at one point, but never been bold enough to ask: “What’s with the clothes?” And, as is always the case with a good expose, the answers invariably lead to more questions. Which leads to conversations.

So, with all that in mind, my friend Asma (who just happens to be Muslim) and I (a Catholic) met up for one of our regular marathon chats and set out to extract some of those residual questions, such as: ”Why does the hijab (headscarf) have to be tight?” or  “Why was Miranda’s jacket considered too short?”

Miranda Devine outside Lakemba Mosque Pic: Craig Greenhill, Source: The Daily Telegraph

Miranda Devine outside Lakemba Mosque Picture: Craig Greenhill, Source: The Daily Telegraph

What we determined is that outside of theology, Muslims and Christians have a lot more in common that we’re led to believe. Religion aside, daily activities and beliefs are essentially quite similar.

Now, because I’m writing this and not Asma, I’m focusing on Muslim traditions from my personal Roman Catholic upbringing. Probably the best place to start, like Miranda, is with the clothes. You’ll probably be surprised to learn that so much that seems mysterious is really just a variation on common sense.

Miranda notes that when the precisely tied headscarf (hijab) is affixed, it is quite tight. Well, this is not some type of martyrdom; it’s simply to keep it in place so you won’t need to keep playing with it to readjust or push away those stray hairs. The same way you’d cinch a belt or pin up your hair. The tighter it is, the less likely you are to have to fiddle.

Set it, forget it.

To see this premise in action, all you have to do is step outside and you’ll see men and non-Muslim women wearing scarves in a number of different ways – looped, tied, draped. For those people with children, prams or bags in tow, it’s pretty clear why those scarves are tied up tight rather than fashionably draped. It’s practical.

As for the reason that hair is covered in the first place, well, without being too specific, it’s about modesty and piety. Muslim women are to cover the parts that would make them attractive to another man. “It’s just hair”, you say? Did Lady Godiva just ride a horse? Did Rapunzel just throw down a rope? Nope. Gorgeous flowing locks have always been a depiction of beauty – just look at the gazillion dollar industry that is devoted to transforming hair from unruly to shampoo commercial perfect.

So, on to the subject of appropriate attire, this is something I can seriously relate to as having been guilty of this offense many, many times in my teenage years.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been the target of a parent’s exclamation, “You’re not going out in that outfit!” Or, in my case, “Put something proper on to go to church.” Raise both hands if you’ve said either of those to your own child.

As a Catholic, I was taught to dress modestly to go to church – no cleavage, no short skirts, no Doc Martens and no spiked hair! (The first two, not so much an issue for me rather it was my hero-worship of Billy Idol that didn’t quite lend itself to appropriate fashion choices.)

Not too long ago that list of fashion-don’ts included no sandals, no bare shoulders and of course, you’d be required to wear a hat – or other head covering like a lace scarf.  Not really that different is it?  It’s about modesty, and for Muslim women, that just happens to cover a larger part of their body than we’re used to, but again, the principle of keeping parts covered except for your spouse to see is something any mother (and father) would express as well.

As for the older woman giving the evil eye to Miranda for showing hair, well, that’s just a part of modesty – like if a young woman wore a mini-skirt to church. I’m betting that if that skirt were too high, it wouldn’t just be the older woman casting dirty looks. But like Miranda notes, it’s a pretty good form of social control.

And regarding her jacket being to short and not adequately covering her pants, well, again, it’s common sense. If you’re bowing, you really don’t want to have your bum in someone’s face, much less pull a Britney do you?

Speaking of bowing or “spiritual yoga” as Miranda called it, this may seem alien to us, but as Asma pointed out, Christians kneel, stand and sit in accordance with specific prayers as well. Very simply explained, the prostrated bow we’ve come to recognize consists of putting the forehead to the ground as a way of clearing the mind and communicating with God.  Isn’t that essentially what Catholics do after communion? Pray with hands folded, head bowed and eyes closed.

Of course, before praying, worshippers need to find their “spot.” In churches, it’s in a pew facing the altar. In a mosque, it’s along one of the diagonal lines marked on the carpet. Nothing mysterious about the lines – they point towards Mecca. And because they are in a line themselves, they’re just a neat and tidy way to ensure you’re not knocking elbows. Consider them personal space buffers. (Now if only everyone would practice that on public transport!)

Which brings us to Mecca – we’ve all heard about it, but do you really know what (or even where) it is? (I jokingly said to Asma that I thought it was off the Princess Highway at Ikea.  I got a stern look from her, but then we both snickered.)

Mecca (technically Makkah) is actually in Saudi Arabia. It’s not so much the city, but the black cuboid structure there that is sacred, as Muslims believe it to be the first place created on Earth. And it’s due west – wherever you are in the world it’s due west; thus the diagonal lines on the carpet pointing are, you guessed it, due west.

So, back to Miranda’s assessment of Friday Prayers (essentially the Muslim version of Sunday Mass) and the tiny offset room occupied by women and children. To understand this seemingly segregated situation, you really need to have some context.

Technically, women are not required to attend prayers.  Attendance is only compulsory for men (this is why Miranda mainly saw men), whereas women pray at home. In fact, women are “rewarded” more if they do pray at home, which seems to fall in line with historical Western beliefs about women making a house a home.

So, if only men are required to attend Friday Prayers, and as Miranda noted there were a lot of men there, they’d need a large space. From a design perspective, the space would have an entrance commensurate with its size. And, like any structure, from hotels to home sweet home, the main entrance creates a first impression – it’s only natural to make it a grand one. But for the relatively few women who choose to attend (out of respect to the mosque not out of obligation) a smaller room has been provided. As it’s off to the side of the main structure, then it goes to say that you’d enter from the side.

Interestingly, in most Muslim countries women don’t go to Friday Prayers at all and as such there is no extra room. Not segregation but logistics.

Asma and I are prone to marathon chats and on this topic, our comparisons kept going and going. The length of our conversation was not at all unusual for us, but we probably wouldn’t have approached the rituals of religion, beginning with the hijab, in such a literal manner, were it not for the fact that Miranda’s piece left us asking more questions than it gave answers. But, after all, isn’t that the purpose of any good expose?

– Mox Nix Chick, Asma Rehman-Khan

(PS: Thanks for the help, Asma! You get to pick the next topic for coffee talk.)




4 Comments on ““What’s with the scarf?” – Lifting the veil on Muslim Friday Prayers

  1. Well written article demonstrating the similarities of the practice of both religions. The average Australian will have a better understanding of the Islamic religion after reading this.

  2. I really like and appreciate your article.I liked the section describing the reason for putting the head on the ground.Good work.

  3. It’s commendable what you have done here Jennifer and Asma :) It’s always good to ask questions and seek answers about things you don’t understand or don’t know rather than making assumptions .

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