Who am I that I could pray?

Who am I that I could pray?

What is prayer? How do women living under Islam understand Allah, themselves, their responsibilities? In what ways does this shape what they think about and how they approach prayer?

A friend and colleague from Central Asia explained her journey of prayer. She asked, ‘As a Muslim woman am I worthy to come to God to worship him?’ There are many negatives for her. She is a woman. She was a Muslim. She is a Gentile. She went on to explain how often Muslim women are raised with a sense of rejection, not heard by their fathers and brothers nor by the tribal elders, not required or able to make decisions for themselves or express their desires. How can then can they dream that God would hear them or pay attention to them?

It is not easy for Muslim women to start to pray. Rules shape the way they must navigate life; they must keep doing what they are told to do. It is not about God and who you are. It is about doing and doing good. There can be no failure. If you fail you need to beg forgiveness because the eyes of Allah are always watching to punish you.

They struggle with how they can dare to ask God for something they want that is not written in the Qur’an, or that is told to them or permitted by the elders or by a religious leader. A young girl or woman in a tribal society is trained that others think for her, that others know and decide what she needs. She does not give expression to her own thoughts, desires or wants outside of how the elders and community voice this. Pray for Muslim women is not about expressing their desires before God. They don’t talk about their needs and problems. They don’t own prayer and their desires as something personal to them.

Women bear many responsibilities. She will only voice prayers for herself in relation to those responsibilities for others. The spiritual responsibility or burden on women in Central Asia is that she is there for the well-being of others. A woman is about caring for others, taking care of others. You need to keep the honour of your father’s tribe. Daughters are responsible for that. Then it is your husband and his tribe. When you become the wife you are under your husband but then you have to keep the honour of both your father and husband’s houses. You cannot fail or make mistakes. Because of this responsibility, all the prayers of Muslim women are about others.

Maybe she will pray for health, but so she can serve her family and care for them. The requests she might bring to Allah always relate to fulfilling her responsibilities to others. She does not give voice to her needs for herself outside of her responsibilities.

In Central Asia, du’a is not a personal prayer for self, it is about praying for the government, for the nation, for parents or neighbours. So while these prayers are not set, a woman’s understanding of them is that they focus on her concerns for the well-being of the bigger issues around her.

Understanding the things that shape how women living under Islam come to prayer is important. Prayer is such a central part of a Christian’s relationship with God and underlying that are a myriad of assumptions. Listening to learn what is in a woman’s heart, how she thinks about God and about herself, will help us reimagine prayer and how we look to share life with our Muslim friends. The shame of giving expression to her desires, of imagining that Allah would be interested in her, of hearing her voice in the presence of God create barriers that a woman must cross.

What experience of God do women need to open them to experiences of God who comes near and listens to their deepest heart desires?

(c) When Women Speak… July 2023

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CH spent nearly four decades in South Asia and the Middle East working in education, community development and the Church, and has returned as part of Interserve’s International Leadership. A co-founder of the When Women Speak… network, her research has included women’s activism and social change in South Asia, violence against women and missiology. She is currently focussed on developing new streams of ministry among women who live under Islam and enabling women academics and practitioners to shape missiology and mission practice. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies (Australian National University).

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