It’s the first day in our new office, and I’ve come to work equipped with a canvas tote bag. In it, is a black cotton abaya and black headscarf with a pom-pom trim. Shortly after noon, a reminder flashes on my iPhone. It’s a notification from my Muslim Pro app, letting me know that it’s time for the Zuhr prayer. I wait until around 1:30 before heading down, assuming that the crowd of punctual regulars will have thinned by now. I walk up to the wooden door of the female prayer room, open it just a crack, and peer in. I can see at least six women; their bodies bent in the various poses of prayer. I also spot a shelf overflowing with prayer mats, headscarves and Qurans. I let the door close, and slowly tiptoe backwards, heading back upstairs to my office. I tell myself I’ll just pray when I get back home in Dubai later in the evening, even though it will be considered late.
I have mixed feelings about prayer rooms, and unfortunately, they're not very positive. They stem from a few bad experiences, mostly from my university days in London. While studying Islamic law, I found myself in the company of peers who could easily be labelled as activists. Many came with deeply-rooted, preconceived notions of religion and strong viewpoints about rituals and rules. While I had been raised to believe in the importance of praying five times a day, I understood prayer as a personal act between myself and God – not as a subject for others to lecture me about.
Criticism, however, is what I was bombarded with at the university prayer room. Wearing trousers and a long-sleeved top, with my head covered in a large scarf that I carried around in my handbag, I was often out of place in a room filled with abayas and loose, elasticated skirts that girls would pull over their jeans, just for praying. Some would whisper to one another and admonish my usage of nail polish, tutting, “tsk tsk,” and pointing at my glossy pink nails. To hide my nail polish, I took to making sure that I wore extra-long sleeves and socks whenever entering the prayer room – but soon found the majority of my socks, which are printed with Hello Kitty, monkey and mermaid icons, were also deemed unsuitable for prayer. The same went for my clothing – if it was printed with any image of people, animals or characters with faces, it was likely I'd get told off. And if, say, a few strands of hair were accidentally poking out from underneath my scarf, another woman would sometimes throw a thick shawl over my shoulders, while I was in the middle of praying, so that my hair would all be covered. It didn’t help that during a short time, my hair was dyed purple.
The environment has slightly improved, since the invention of “halal,” or water-permeable nail polish, which allegedly allows water to touch the nails through the nail polish, when the wearer washes her hands or performs the obligatory ablution, before praying. Now, especially in the UAE, where halal nail polishes by brands like Inglot have gained popularity, women aren’t so quick to condemn painted nails in mosques or prayer rooms. But even in Dubai’s local mosques, it’s easy to feel out of place or inadequate when surrounded by more conservative inhabitants of the women’s section, who have no qualms about preaching their more stringent views.
Having a typically non-confrontational personality, I can never find the words to defend myself during these instances. Opinions can come across as too strong, and interpretations too strict, for my liking, even if these women only intend to be helpful, seeing that in itself to be a religious duty. My mother's advice is always just to ignore them – she often faces similar judgments from other "sisters" in the mosques. But the whole ordeal has become bothersome to the extent that if a prayer room is occupied, I sacrifice being on time for a peaceful but belated prayer in the calm and comfort of my own home. Fridays are sometimes an exception - I'll happily accompany my husband to the neighbourhood Jumeirah Lakes Towers mosque for the Zuhr prayer.. The small women's prayer room there is almost always overflowing with a diverse mixture of women of all ages and ethnicities. While most wear abayas, some wear traditional South Asian shalwar kameezes and others wear maxi-skirts, or long shirts over their jeans. Some cover their heads with tight, elasticated hijabs, and others with large sheet-like scarves. Still, to ward off any potential telling-off, I make sure that my fringe is held back by a tight headband under my headscarf, and my feet are covered in solid, un-patterned socks.