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Behind India's First Female Mosque, A Women's Rights Champion

Ambar mosque
Ambar mosque
Jasvinder Sehgal

LUCKNOW — It's Friday afternoon at the Ambar mosque in the northern Indian city of Lucknow. The call to prayer, or Azan, rings out in the afternoon heat. Women start to gather. They wash their hands, face and feet as part of a ritual purification.

In India, women aren't typically encouraged at mosques. But Ambar mosque is doing quite the opposite — the second floor of the mosque is reserved for women to offer Namaaz or prayer.

Rabia, a local resident, says she visits the mosque most Fridays. For her, the Ambar mosque is more than a place to pray.

"This is India's first women inclusive mosque where women perform Namaaz. Women celebrate various religious and social functions here. There are special lectures to educate them about their rights depicted in the Quran, the holy book of Muslims, and in the Indian constitution. The mosque has become like a community center for women," Rabia says.

Shaista Ambar, 55, the founder of the mosque is also attending Friday prayer. She says she established the mosque in 1997 to counter patriarchy.

"It was the month of Ramadan. I was looking for a mosque where my 8-year-old son could offer Namaaz," she recalls. "Suddenly I found one but was forced to leave as women were not allowed to stand near the mosque. I felt very bad. Thereafter I was told that only men are allowed to build mosques. I took it as a challenge and bought a piece of land. I sold my jewelry to arrange money to build this mosque."

In recent months, there have been several campaigns to allow women inside religious shrines across the country, including Hindu temples and Muslim places of worship.

Last August, the High Court in Mumbai overturned a ban on women entering the inner sanctum of the city's famous Haji Ali mosque.

Rabia says women-only spaces for worship should be a given.

"In India and other developing countries people don't realize the importance of mosques for women. In many developed countries there are separate prayer arrangements for Muslim women. This gives them religious freedom and a space for prayer," she says.

After Friday prayer, a group of women come to meet Shaista. They are Hindu, not Muslim.

Rampati Devi, 72, has traveled 15 miles with her daughter-in-law. She says Shaista is like a daughter to her.

Rampati is entitled to ration cards from the government to buy subsidized wheat, rice and petrol. But it can be tedious navigating bureaucracy and corruption to get them. Shaista has been helping women get rations.

In addition to attending lectures about their rights, women at the Ambar mosque can also seek marriage counseling.

"My husband is a government servant and is posted in Delhi," one attendee, Sofia Khan, says. "After a few months of my marriage his parents started abusing me for the dowry. There were continuous fights at home. I was forced to leave his house within one year of marriage. But now Shaista is helping me to resolve my issues."

To assist women in need of medical help, Shaista has also built a guesthouse close to Lucknow's biggest hospital. Women from remote villages can stay there for free.

Shaista doesn't just care about women's rights. She's also concerned about the environment. She installed solar panels on the mosque's roof so it can run on solar power.

"With the installation of solar panels on the roof, the mosque is not only feeding electricity back into the grid but also helping to improve the air quality by reducing its carbon footprint," says Shaista. "This will also reduce the consumption of electricity."

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