Women's mosque a mixed blessing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 December, 2006, 12:00am

For many Hongkongers, this afternoon will be a time for doing last-minute Christmas shopping or relaxing at home with family and friends. But for members of one of Hong Kong's lowest-paid groups, the day will pass somewhat differently.

Today, as on any other given Sunday, one corner of Causeway Bay - along with a handful of other favoured spots in the city - is transforming itself into a little Indonesia as the close to 100,000 domestic helpers from the Southeast Asian nation try to make the best of their weekly day of rest.

'This is like our village,' said Sri Lestari Mintodiharjo, a native of central Java who has been a maid in Hong Kong for three years. 'We feel at home here. Every time I come here, I feel as though I am back in Indonesia - there are Indonesian shops and I have the chance to speak Indonesian.'

But it is not quite like home.

Like most of the Indonesian domestic helpers in Hong Kong, Ms Mintodiharjo and her friends huddled in a tight circle on the circular pedestrian bridge over Yee Wo Street are devout Muslims, and they lack a place to practise their faith in peace.

'I go sometimes to the mosque in Kowloon or in Wan Chai,' she said. 'But it is often crowded, especially on Sundays or during Ramadan. The women's sections are always full and it is not always convenient for us to travel all the way to Kowloon.'

With limited funds to spend on travelling across town, they hope to see a 'home of God' open in Causeway Bay.

'Of course, we can pray anywhere. We often pray here on the street,' Ms Mintodiharjo said. 'But if we had somewhere indoors to pray, that would be much better. That way we would not need to worry if it was hot outside or cold like now, or be bothered by the wind and rain.'

It was with domestic helpers like Ms Mintodiharjo in mind that a coalition of Indonesian women's groups launched a campaign earlier this month to establish a fifth public mosque in Hong Kong. But unlike the four existing public mosques, this one would be only for women.

The groups have begun searching for an appropriate rental space and aim to have it up and running by the middle of next year - but they have yet to begin raising the expected HK$500,000 needed to meet the mosque's annual running costs. That figure would include the salary of a female religious leader, probably recruited from Indonesia.

However, if their plans are successful, the project could put the groups on a collision course with the Islamic establishment in the city, which says it is dead set against the idea of a mosque that opens its doors to only a section of the faithful.

Women-only mosques are virtually unheard of outside mainland China, where they began emerging around a century ago. This could be the first fully fledged mosque outside the mainland that bars entry to men.

The closest precedents are shrines aimed specifically at women in Iran and smaller houses of worship in Indonesia known as musalla; Islamic learning centres, called madrassa, are also often aimed at one gender or the other.

But Vivienne Wee, associate director of City University's Southeast Asia Research Centre and head of a HK$53-million research project, funded by the British government, on the empowerment of Muslim women, said it was essential the new mosque was for women only to prevent from it being dominated by men, as was largely the case.

'Muslim men in Hong Kong are already very well catered for,' Dr Wee said. 'There are around 35,000 of them in Hong Kong and they have ample prayer spaces.

'In a mixed mosque, the prayer leader would be male. Many Indonesian women want a female religious leader.'

Titien Suprupti, chairwoman of Wanodya Indonesian Club, said there was an urgent need for the mosque, as the lack of prayer space for women had forced some local Muslims to pray outdoors - in parks, gardens, on the street or wherever they could find a spare patch of open ground.

The four public mosques - in Wan Chai, Kowloon, Chai Wan and the Mid-Levels - were simply unable to cater for the growing population of Indonesian women.

'At the moment, Indonesian domestic helpers do not have much to do with the existing Islamic organisations,' she said. 'They feel these organisations are not providing for their needs.'

The number of Indonesians living in Hong Kong has more than doubled over the past five years - up from 50,494 in the 2001 census to an estimated 110,000 today - driven largely by a surge in the number of domestic helpers coming from the country.

Siti Marhama Mudjib, first chairwoman of Fatayat Nahdlatul Ulama, an Indonesian organisation that promotes a more woman-friendly interpretation of Islam and which has thrown its weight behind the campaign, said women's mosques might be unusual but one was necessary in this case.

'In a place like Hong Kong, where there is so clearly a basic need for women to have their own mosque, it is no problem,' she said. 'Islam allows us to have women-only mosques. There is nothing in the Koran to say that men and women should pray separately. Actually, the religious duties of men in the Koran are the same as those of women.'

But the Islamic establishment in Hong Kong sees things differently.

'A mosque cannot be fixed for one gender. When a mosque is built, it is for all,' said Muhammad Arshad, chief imam of the Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Centre. 'In all the world, I have not seen a mosque specifically for women.

'A religious leader can be a woman. But the word 'imam', and the prayer leader in the Islamic faith is always a man. There is no such [tenet] that a woman could lead the prayer.'

Mr Arshad said he would welcome any new mosque, so long as it was inclusive. 'Shortage of space is a problem for all Muslims in Hong Kong. We have 3,000 to 4,000 worshippers coming to the Kowloon mosque every Sunday. We don't have enough space.'

Faleem Ahmed, secretary of the Incorporated Trustees of the Islamic Community of Hong Kong, which runs the four existing mosques, rejected the idea of a single-sex mosque, but said he wanted to 'react positively'.

'The mosque is for praying. I don't think it can be earmarked for women or men,' he said. 'A madrassa is something different, though. That could be for women only, and nobody would be surprised.'

He denied the existing facilities did not meet Indonesian women's needs, saying the women's sections of the mosques 'could still take more'.

'The main issue is it is not only them [Indonesian women],' he said. 'This is more of a social problem than a religious problem. None of us feel good about it when we see hundreds of domestic helpers sitting on the streets.

'We should help them to set up a community centre. If the government agrees to support them, we would all be very happy if they got a place.'

But for some of the campaigners, it goes far beyond simply getting people in from the rain. 'The interpretation of our religion is that the Prophet [Mohammed] gave a good position for women, but history did it differently,' said Sri Wiyanti Eddyono, an Indonesian researcher connected with the movement. 'We want to take our history back.'



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