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My Childhood Mosque Was My Safe Space

Meeting weekly with my Muslim "girl gang" meant I never had to explain myself.

Posted on July 14, 2015, at 6:12 a.m. ET

Sian Butcher / BuzzFeed

You know that feeling when you get home from work and trade in your smart clothes for sweats so you can finally relax? That’s how I used to feel when I went to Islamic education classes at my local mosque. It was comfortable.

I grew up in Bradford, and the Wednesday evening classes I attended were made up of around 20 girls aged between 7 and 15. It was very organised – each session would start with tilawat (a portion of the Qur'an recited aloud), followed by its English translation and a hadith. We’d then splinter off into our age groups, sitting shoeless on the carpeted floor, to learn Arabic prayers with their translations and discuss the basic tenets of Islam with volunteer teachers who we called either “Aunty” or “Baaji” (sister). My favourite part, though, was always the final hour after congregational prayers, an hour dedicated to sport. By “sport”, I mean a game of rounders in the adjacent hall in which our headscarves and jackets were the bases and our hands the bats.

Sometimes, if we were lucky, we would get to eat spicy pakoras with sweet tea. On other occasions we’d go on organised trips to Alton Towers, the local bowling alley, or a restaurant. We were civic-minded too, taking part in blood drives and sponsored walks, and every year we’d get involved in a bazaar at the mosque mission house where there’d be cake, clothes, and kebabs on sale (the money raised went to a different charity each year). On Eid, we’d gather donations for the Lord Mayor’s Appeal in a colourful headscarf, two girls holding on at either end so it billowed like a hammock as the congregation tossed in coins.

I readily admit that I didn't always love those Wednesday night gatherings. I was always behind in the learning syllabus and worried that I didn’t know enough. In the early days I tried every trick in the book to avoid going – I feigned period pain and migraines, and took to simply hiding in the corner of the lounge. The gap between the wall and my mother’s red leather Chesterfield sofa was just large enough for me to hunker down and pray to God that my mum would leave for the mosque without me so I could play Mario Bros. and watch Bodger and Badger in peace.

Sian Butcher / BuzzFeed

On arrival, my younger sister and I would loiter in the corridor outside the main teaching room, refusing to go in. Eventually my mum would just leave us there and come back two hours later; our attendance was non-negotiable. Back then I thought she was being unreasonable, but now I understand why her stance was so uncompromising. Of course, we were there to learn about our faith and develop the same love for God that she'd absorbed via her parents’ example. But we were also there to lasso a safe space for ourselves. We simply couldn’t soak up Islam from our surroundings the same way my mother had, growing up in Pakistan. There was no room for a laissez-faire attitude in her Muslim parenting handbook when it came to raising her British-born daughters. She wanted us to secure a safe space early so we had somewhere to plant our adolescent feet – tangled with the roots of the other girls – and grow tall, each of us contributing to the cultivation of a forest of female friendship. But I didn’t know that then.

Only now, aged 31, have I started to truly appreciate how important that women-only Muslim space was for me. Though I see those girls (all grown women now, some of us with daughters of our own) very rarely today, they were my mirror at the point in my life where I needed validation. My every action, expression, and thought was reflected back to me in real time. There was no delay in their assent and no need for explanation when it came to talking about abstaining from alcohol, dressing modestly, fasting, and not having a boyfriend. Those women were like me; British, brown, and Muslim. They got me. It was nothing like my experiences at the 99% white Catholic girls’ school I attended, and it was nice to blend in for a change instead of sticking out, like a lone peppercorn only occasionally visible in the sea salt mill.

At school I avoided talking about my faith because it often led to justifying myself to a roomful of lovely but carelessly inquisitive girls. When you’re young, it takes courage to embrace and accept your true self; I wasn’t quite brave enough yet. It always felt like an unfair trade-off to me, anyway. Here I was, giving away more personal information than I had ever received (or requested, to be fair) from my peers. To be honest, I didn’t ask them much because I had nothing to add to their stories of their first boyfriends and Friday nights at the club. I attended mass and watched as the other students sang hymns, took their Holy Communion, and drank blessed wine. At school, I was quiet, shying away from anything that would draw attention. I was a different person at home and the mosque: I laughed more and I was more open. How could I not be when there was no fear of being misunderstood?

Sian Butcher / BuzzFeed

And yes, the gender uniformity was another happy selling point. Having no boys was A Good Thing. The boys classes ran concurrently in another room along the corridor, and none of us wanted to share our girl-only space. I imagine we wouldn’t have felt as free in a mixed setting. My brothers, who still live in Bradford, learned all the same things my sisters and I did in our classes, except rounders was swapped for football.

It makes me sad that my 3-year-old daughter might not have a group of Muslim girls to grow up with. I don’t want her to miss out on the fun kinship that comes with being in a “girl gang”, and which helped to propagate the seedlings of self-confidence in me. I often think about and worry for other British Muslim girls, too. They are growing up in a hostile climate of Islamophobic newspaper headlines and social media platforms rife with bigots (blessed with the double whammy of 24-hour Wi-Fi access and shit for brains). However, I also know this: Prejudice can dull someone’s light, but solidarity is like oxygen to a flame that illuminates the way.

It would be remiss of me to suggest it was all sweetness and light at the mosque, of course. There were plenty of meddling aunties and judgy old ladies sporting sourpuss faces, keen to offer unsolicited advice. Some of them had mixed up their cultural traditions with Islamic teachings, tainting the shared pool (it only takes one piss to put other swimmers off from diving in). But they were obstacles to manoeuvre around to get to the good stuff – philosophical discussions on the meaning of life, Islam's focus on women’s rights, hot jalebis, teenage gossip, and friendship. And even these aunties had their good parts. I loved hearing the gentle clinking of the coloured glass bangles they wore on Eid chiming as we took our hands to our ears in time with the maulvi’s “Allaho Akbar”s.

Sian Butcher / BuzzFeed

I outgrew the classes when I hit 15 and automatically moved up a level, joining the older Muslim women in the community (sort of like the transition from uni to the real world). I’d still see the other girls during weekend sermons at the mosque, at Ramadan iftaris, on Fridays for jumma prayer (if we had time off from work), and at Eid celebrations. But these were larger events with lots of women.

Educating myself on my religion has become more of a solitary pursuit for me now, down to personal agency rather than parental push. I feel like I squandered the opportunity to swot up on my faith and learn from my elders. Nowadays I live in Chester, about an hour away from the nearest mosque within my denomination, and I feel guilty for not making more of an effort. But more than that, I feel that I’m doing myself a disservice. There’s so much energy to absorb from the power of a collective. Solidarity encourages confidence, keeps you steadfast, and reminds you not to carelessly ignore what’s written on the surface of your heart. My belief in God is tattooed on my ticker, runs through my veins, and seeps out through my pores.

When you find a group of people who feel the same, your frayed edges are patched on to theirs, both mending them and making you into something bigger and better. What a luxury those classes were.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.