Islamic Center of Conejo Valley

September 25, 2020

Upon returning to Southern California after a month-long stay in Chicago, I decided to venture into one more congregation to get an idea of how California Muslims dealt with the new reality. In the summer of 2020, California had restricted most congregations from opening at all, whereas congregations were reasonably active in Illinois. State and city regulations did not allow congregations to open up regularly until September, and then only if they followed stringent regulations, meeting outdoors when possible. Luckily for Muslims in Southern California, meeting outdoors most of the year was easy due to the consistently fair weather.

I decided to attend Jumu’ah prayers at a mosque that I know well from having taken many classes there on field trips and participated in its various events. The mosque is located in a wealthy suburb of Los Angeles. It is home to many educated Muslim immigrants, many of whom work at local biotech and other companies.

The mosque held two prayer shifts to divide the congregation and allow more opportunity for social distancing. I arrived before the first shift began and stayed until the end of the second shift. A security guard greeted me at the entrance to the lot, and after parking, I walked up the stairs toward the mosque, which is perched on the side of a hill. I was greeted there by two security guards who took my temperature and let me through. There were several notices about COVID regulations, but the mosque did not require attendees to pre-register for the services. The mosque leadership did not want to have to turn away people who arrived late.
The mosque leadership had set up a designated space at the top of the mosque complex on a large cement patio. They rented canopy tents to keep the prayer area shaded and had several tables scattered around with sanitizer and reusable plastic green prayer mats covered with an Islamic design. Between shifts, a contractor from a local hygiene company sprayed the entire patio with sanitizing spray as a safety precaution. The area was cool and breezy. Blue tape marked the ground where people should line up their prayer carpets, about three feet from one another.

The men’s area extended over most of the space, while the women’s area was tucked in a distant corner, out of view from the men’s area despite there being no wall. As a result, there was little visible access to the Imam despite loudspeakers making it easy to hear him. The men’s area filled up during the first and second shift, while the women’s area was empty during the first shift and only three women attended the second shift. Before COVID, at least a hundred women would attend Jumu’ah prayers at this mosque in a packed room in a separate building.
I was given free reign to wander around and take photos around the entire area, as long as I was not walking among the men during prayers. During the first shift, an imam gave the khutba. I sat at the top of a small set of stairs between the men’s and women’s areas, keeping enough distance between myself and the men not to cause any problems. For the second shift, which also included a khutba given by the imam, the main area filled up, and men started to set up around me at the back of the space, so I took a chair and sat below the main area, with just a metal fence between the male worshipers and me. I was left alone to observe and also take photos. I’ll admit that I felt trepidatious having been permitted to sit anywhere during these services. In the past, I had attended this mosque somewhat frequently when I lived nearby and was not able to see the speaker, as women had to remain in a back room with closed doors and in a separate building for Jumu’ah prayers.

My status as a researcher gave me a unique perspective that I had not experienced at this mosque before in pre-COVID times when I was treated as just another female congregant. Because I could attend both shifts of the prayer, I recorded the first shift far away from the imam in the women’s area, picking up the speakers on the recording device. Throughout the time I observed the congregation, a bizarre squeaking noise dominated the auditory landscape. I was unsure whether it was a bird or perhaps the sound of the tent poles shifting in the wind. It shows up on the first recording to make for an odd soundscape, combining with the sounds of the wind. Being located towards the back of the outdoor prayer area, relegated to the women’s section and facing a multitude of distractions, certainly diminished the overall experience.

For the second shift, I placed the recording device very close to the imam at the front to get a higher-quality auditory experience. The sound quality of the sermon at the front was significantly higher and clearer and the other noises were less noticeable. The call to prayer and prayer led by the imam were crystal clear.

During both shifts, congregants were extremely quiet, and few chatted with one another before or after. Instead, they quietly found their spots, removed their shoes, and laid out their prayer carpets. They kept to themselves, and only some men chatted with others outside the prayer area.
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