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Meet The Woman Leading the First Female-Run Mosque in Britain

Women have been part of Islam for centuries, so why aren't they running their own places of worship? That's what Bana Gora wants to change with the first mosque run by females, for females.
Photo by Giles Smith

Last time I visited the northern ex-industrial city of Bradford it was to eat a bagel on Europe's biggest roundabout; Thornbury, at the end of Dick Lane. Driving to the wind-whipped park we passed shut up warehouses full of cleaning products, a dismal suburban pub called The Gallopers Sunday Carvery and shop after shop full of mobility scooters. The only places with any form of life were the sari shops, green grocers, curry houses and newsagents. Bradford, without its Muslim community, would barely be Bradford at all.


But while the city may in some senses be thriving, with a £24.5m City Park, Westfield's £275m Broadway development, and the City Centre Growth Zone bringing in £15m of capital investment, there is an awkward silence at the centre of Bradford's Muslim community: Where are the women?

Step forward Bana Gora, co-founder and chief executive of the Muslim Woman's Council, who is leading the charge to open Bradford's first female-led mosque within the next three years. It will be funded by women, run by women and used primarily by women. And yet this mosque, says Gora, will be open to everybody.

"It will be all-inclusive and fully accessible to all communities both Muslims and non-Muslims," Gora tells me over the phone from her office. "But above all it will be a sanctuary for women. We're hoping to have adequate bed spaces for women, refugees and asylum seekers. There will be counseling, support services, and a space to discuss important issues like domestic violence. We hope to have female scholar training because all the female scholars coming through the Islamic boarding schools are either getting married or not furthering their education."

Women were pushed out of the frontline of religious life simply because they hadn't been there to assert their position at the start.

The development, which will be within walking distance of the centre of town, will be split into two spaces; the mosque, which will be open to men and women of all denominations and the Centre of Excellence, which will be exclusively for women. The Centre of Excellence, says Gora, "will have legal and advice surgeries, welfare and benefits surgeries, mental health and wellbeing support, parenting advice, fitness services and we'll be feeding the homeless." In the last two years, the Bradford-based Curry Circle has already provided over 2,000 meals to some of Bradford's most vulnerable people as well as free medical treatment provided by Bevan Healthcare and a free hairdressing service provided by Refresh Hair and Beauty.


Bradford has the largest proportion of people of Pakistani ethnic origin in England, making up 20.3% of the city's population, while nearly one quarter of the city identify as Muslim. And yet, argues Gora, the facilities available to female Muslims are simply not up to scratch. "We're not saying that we don't have mosques with access for women," says Gora. "Of course we do. We have some excellent mosques in Bradford. But the majority--and we carried out quite an extensive audit over the last few years--are letting women down."

The problem, Gora argues, is historical. When the first wave of immigrants came to Bradford--to work in the mills and textile factories after the first world war - they were primarily men. "So they'd already set up the structures for themselves. Which meant that when women did come they were assisting, bringing up the children, rather than focusing on the place of prayer." Women were pushed out of the frontline of religious life simply because they hadn't been there to assert their position at the start.

Of course, it's not going to be smooth-sailing. Gora has faced a fair bit of resistance from within the Muslim community. "Because of the parochial, patriarchal views that are held by our elders, they seem pretty determined not to have female representation on their executive boards," says Gora. She and her colleagues realized that to change things in existing mosques would take so long as to never happen in their lifetime. "So we thought rather than complain about it, let's do something. We're told that men and women are equal in the eyes of God so, surely, they should have equal access to the place of worship".


Then there was the spat with Naz Shah, the female Labour Member of Parliament for Bradford West. Last month, Shah wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian arguing that "having a women-managed mosque is completely the wrong approach because the community and faith are stronger when Muslim men and women work in partnership as equals." Subsequently, however, Gora has received an apology from Shah's office. "At the end of the consultation on August 2, a local councillor from Naz's camp asked if we could read out a message," says Gora. "The message read to the effect that she was sorry, she misunderstood, she was misinformed and if it's an all-inclusive space she's fully behind it. We've asked her to issue a public retraction and we're still waiting for that."

Women give up to 50 percent to the building of new mosques. Yet when it comes to representation in the governance of mosques, they're non-existent.

Gora is not, she insists, trying to cause controversy. In fact, quite the opposite. Which is why, perhaps a little surprisingly, the new mosque will have a male imam. "We will go with the majority opinion which is that the imam should be male," says Gora. "Historically, there's never been a female imam within Islam. Our key aim is not to be divisive. So if the majority say it should be a male imam then it will be a male imam." However, she adds, "there will be times when the male imam may not be present and under those circumstances there's no ruling or Islamic jurisprudence whatsoever that says a female cannot lead a female congregation in prayer. So there will be a bit of both."

And what about the laws that forbid a woman on her period from entering the mosque, I ask? There is the tiniest of pauses, before Gora replies: "The rules around menstruation and worship are enshrined, so it's an individual's choice. We'll leave it at that rather than go into the details."

Of course, women have held powerful positions within Islam, argues Gora. "Shaykh Akram Nadwi, Dean of Cambridge Islamic College, who spoke at our consultation event, has done research into over 9,000 historical female scholars; these are the women who taught the companions of our prophet; who they sought advice from." The first UK mosque, the Shah Jahan mosque in Woking, was partly funded by the Begum Shah Jahan, the female ruler of the Indian state of Bhopal. "Women give up to 50 percent to the building of new mosques," argues Gora. "And yet when it comes to representation in the governance of mosques, they're non-existent."

Perhaps, I argue, with the Muslim community facing a twin attack from Islamophobia and radicalisation, we need a female-led mosque more than ever; that the best way to change the debate is replace the people who are talking. "We're living in a leaderless age," replies Gora. "We've got everybody vying for position and power, whether that's ISIS telling people to come to Syria, or individuals standing up here and saying follow us. It's a confusing time and we don't have enough articulate voices in the public domain that haven't sold out. Or been compromised. That's why it's crucial that organisations like ours, that have independence, are established. That's the only way we can actually challenge the status quo and hold our leaders to account."

Charity, tolerance, leadership, independence, welfare, wellbeing and work: Bradford, look to your women.