“I can’t pray today”—these words still ring in my ears. Our families were walking together in the park as the evening Islamic prayer call sounded. Prakash looked longingly at the nearby mosque when suddenly a large bird appeared and relieved itself on his hand. In a moment of horror, Prakash held up his hand and cried out, “Now, I can’t pray. I can’t pray today! I am not clean. I am not clean enough to pray.” As a devout Muslim, the bird feces had rendered his prayers ineffective. Our excursion in the park was cut short that day; Prakash needed to find a way to make himself clean again.
It’s been a few years since that fateful day with the bird, yet I reflect upon it often. My heart breaks for Prakash and his plight, but I am utterly shaken by the predicament of his wife. In Islam, women are considered unclean so much of the time due to bodily functions, reproductive stages, and the very essence of being female. Prakash’s wife, Oshu, is actually the one I hear silently screaming, “I can’t pray today!” Islam is, after all, a man’s religion.
Today is International Women’s Day. I’ve celebrated this day from many corners of the globe, each one touting a different goal, another facet of women’s empowerment. Since its inception, many injustices have been righted; many still remain. There are myriad things to advocate for or against on this banner day.
The theme for this year is #BalanceforBetter with an increased focus on building a gender-balanced world. Some could argue the world belongs to men, but women have been rapidly finding and owning their place in it for quite some time. In the spectrum of Islam, however, gender equality simply can not be achieved.
My friend Prakash eventually found a way to make himself clean in order to pray again. He continues to frequent the mosque and study the Qur’an. The bird incident is a thing of the past for him now. His wife has a decidedly different story. For nearly a quarter of her life, Oshu will be considered unclean in her own religion: unable to pray, unable to darken the door of her mosque, and quite possibly unable to read from her own Holy Book. The last time my family saw Oshu, she encapsulated her experience with Islam: “When I ask Allah to forgive me, maybe He will; maybe He won’t.”
I have lived among Muslims for quite some time. I have rarely seen a woman entering a mosque for worship or prayer. It’s not often I see a woman reading her own copy of the Qu’ran. What I actually see is one tenth of the world’s population held at arm’s length in their own religion. I see beautiful women who don’t know their own worth because they don’t yet know the Christ. I see millions of women who haven’t been told how to truly have clean hands and a pure heart before Almighty God.
On this International Women’s Day, I long for my Muslim friends to hear the real message of womanhood: that there is One who says there is neither male nor female in His eyes. That He will pour out His Spirit on His sons and daughters in equal measure. That women have a place in His Kingdom forever, and we are highly valued therein, not in spite of our gender, but because of it.
I am all for advocating for women’s rights and empowerment on this momentous day. I will tout the progress being made, and I will petition for change that is yet to roar. Yet, I know that the greatest empowerment for women, and especially for my dear Muslim friends like Oshu, comes solely through the life-giving message of Jesus. He alone is their (and my) ultimate freedom. While cultures and conditions may not change, world views can and must be shaped by Biblical truths.
I continue to pray for Oshu. I pray daily that she, along with the nearly 850 million Muslim women worldwide, will have the eyes of their hearts unveiled to the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ. When they genuinely discover who He is and who they are in Him, what a day that will be.