Muslim Community Center, Albany Park

August 18, 2020

The Muslim Community Center (MCC) is one of the oldest mosques in the Chicago area. It is a former movie theater that was converted into a mosque, and the layout and design bear traces of its previous function. The building is unassuming, located in a working-class neighborhood in a dense suburb, and occupies a large part of the city block.

I arrived at the MCC to observe ‘Isha prayers, the last prayers of the day, which were held at 9:30 p.m. I arrived early, and the building was dark, so I waited in the parking lot across the street until the caretaker opened the doors a few minutes after 9:30 p.m. Upon entering, I stopped at a table set up at the entrance where a mosque volunteer took worshipers’ temperatures. They kept hand sanitizer on the table along with plastic bags so people could carry their shoes with them instead of placing them in a cubby. Unlike other mosques that required QR codes for entry, the MCC just asked people to sign in with names and phone numbers on pieces of paper for contact tracing.
As the MCC is a conservative mosque that follows strict interpretations of gender segregation, I was not allowed to enter the main prayer hall or even to place my recording device in the mosque myself. So I asked the mosque employee who arranged my visit to take my device and put it by the imam during the short prayer service. He was unwilling to compromise to let me position it myself before the male worshipers entered the room, so I conceded by explaining where I wanted the recording device to be placed. I wanted to capture the sound of the prayer from up close because I would only be able to hear it through the loudspeakers on the women’s balcony.

The prayer hall was huge and contained ample space for me to sit at the very back without causing distraction to the men. I requested to sit at the back and promised to stay there, but the employee refused and directed me towards the stairs that led to the balcony. In this mosque, women are given total privacy behind an opaque glass barrier. I purposely kept this verbal exchange in the recording of my experience of the prayers.
The experience of being directed to a private prayer area far from the main congregation is a common occurrence that Muslim women often hear in the U.S. and worldwide. For myself and many others, it feels humiliating, as if my gender is not worthy to get a place in our communal and sacred ritual practice. As we can see in Makki’s blog, women often find themselves in cramped and dirty women’s sections that lack a view of the main congregation, sometimes with a defective AV system and other issues. In comparison to the men’s section, these spaces are often inferior and lacking in basic amenities, design, and cleanliness. After finding the hidden staircase at the back of the mosque, I made my way to the women’s balcony, where I was the only worshiper. The balcony is a decent-sized space with tinted glass in the front so women could see out, but men could not see in.

I sat right in front of the tinted glass so I could just about make out the male congregants as they started to fill up the first two rows of the mosque. It is unusual to find women praying the last prayer of the day on a weekday at a mosque, so seeing only men at this specific prayer was very typical.

I observed about 50 men make their way into the room quietly and find their prayer spots. Despite there being taped areas designating socially distanced prayer spaces, there was little social distancing; some men were only 3 feet apart from one another, presumably out of habit. Ordinarily, this many men would have filled only one long row, but they filled up two rows because of the increased spacing. The imam led the prayers very slowly, talking for about 10 minutes as he carefully recited the Qur’an and led the congregation in prayers.

Immediately after the prayers, most men left the prayer room, with a few lingering to chat with one another in close proximity. After about five minutes, nearly all of the men exited the prayer hall and mosque, and the employees closed down the space.
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