The Women of Medinah
by Janaan Hashim
I have a new-found respect for Muslim women who look nothing like me, but share the common thread of faith. The media has painted them in a negative, oppressed manner; one in which they must be “freed” by the West. These women are completely covered in a black abayah, similar to a burqa but with a much better cut and design, with a veil allowing only their eyes to give me a visual identity of them and wearing black gloves and socks. For the past five days, I’ve watched these women achieve an incredible feat that would make any “pro-women” group proud.
It is the peak of the pilgrimage season for Muslims, and most pilgrims stop by Medinah to visit the city of their Prophet Muhammed. In terms of numbers, an expected 6 million Muslims will be in the neighborhood, and with a large percentage of these pilgrims stopping by Medinah to pray in the Prophet’s Mosque to which his home was atached and where he was buried. As such, it’s not hard to imagine how many people want to visit the place where they can give their salutations to the Prophet and pray where he led his followers. There is a special area between the Prophet’s home and his pulpit where it is believed that praying on that ground is as though one is praying in the Heavens, and thus, it is a highly sought after locale in the mosque.
What does this mean for women since, as in all mosques, there is generally a separation of the genders? First, it means that the women of Medinah become the female security and organizers. With incredible patience, positive attitude mixed with humor, they marshal in hundreds of thousands of women each day, all from hundreds of countries and with just as many different cultural norms.
They have an order to bringing in the female worshipers, grouping them generally by language. People speaking English, like Americans, Australians, British, Canadians, are grouped together on a rectangular Persian carpet; next to them would be women from Africa; next to them women from Western Asia and Russia and so forth. They are told to sit and to wait while a group ahead of them, again seated, receive a short talk on the history of the mosque, its religious significance, and the importance of maintaining patience and a level of dignity when going to the special area. Once the group that is in the special area leaves, the group receiving the talk moves in, and then the group that was sitting advances and receives the talk.
This is a great system, except not everyone can understand it or has patience with it. The women who are there are from every walk of life with levels of education that span the spectrum. Thus, if someone doesn’t “get it,” trouble can arise.
Despite their efforts in explaining the procedure and calling for calm and patience, for some reason, there tend to be a few people who just don’t get it. They become impatient, act upon it, and decide to move forward on their own. What happens is that others follow. The female security do everything they can to prevent this from happening, but if the numbers are too great, since each group can be several hundred, they have to acquiesce and wait for the next group to come in. On one of my visits, I was at the front of the line sitting with the first group when this happened.
Being the person I am, following instructions to the letter, I remained seated as two or three women stepped around me and disregarded the security. Within seconds there were more women following suit and, all of a sudden, these strong hands grabbed my forearms that were protecting my head and pulled me up. It was one of the female security persons, who gave me the look that nothing was going to happen to any of the visitors on her watch. Realizing the danger I was in after she pulled me up and as hoards of women passed by me, I was incredibly grateful and wanted to hug her for her quick thinking and actions. Before I knew it, though, she was back to work, getting the masses to sit again and wait their turn.
In the second grouping, an incredible trance overcame the several hundred women. Our leader at this point stood at the base of one of the pillars and in a story-like tone, began her talk in English. I looked behind and no one was fidgeting, no one trying to leave the group and lurch forward, inadvertently creating havoc. Then she repeated the talk in fluent French, and again, no one moved. When it was our turn to visit the prime space, everyone rushed and I noticed the security standing on the pillars, overlooking the crowd, guiding people toward the exit, ensuring their safety. They helped clear the way for the elderly, they respectfully removed people who wanted to remain so as to make room for others; they essentially kept the order.
The space we were in was tiny, and the managing of thousands of people from all over the world was impressive. No men were around – they weren’t needed. These women were in control: efficient, patient, and professional. In the way they carried themselves and executed such a massive feat – and doing this everyday – to me, what they wore means nothing. If you put a business suit on them, you’d think they were CEOs; if you put a uniform on them, you’d think they were officers. Bottom line, they were sharp women doing their job in a manner that makes this sister proud.