Sunlight flooded the courtyard of Al Azhar mosque on this hot day while the sounds of a teacher inside the main prayer hall echoed throughout the ancient building. In side rooms separated from the courtyard by mashrabeya arabesque wood, other groups of and men and women were studiously taking notes from sheikhs and scholars. Al Azhar is one of the most important centres in Islam. Built in 971, it is the leading centre for Arabic literature and Sunni Islamic learning in the world.
It is usually buzzing with students from all around the world - India, Indonesia, America, Egypt, Albania, just to name a few. Men and women gather to take lessons with sheikhs, to memorise the Quran, to meet other students or to just spend time in the sanctuary the mosque provides. Peppered among the Muslims are tourists admiring the historical site as part of their Islamic Cairo tour before going to shop at Khan el-Khalili or the carpet bazaar. Men in shorts and women awkwardly covered in lopsided abayas take photos of each other on the hot white marble, one hand clutching shoes, the other clicking their camera.
A friend I hadn't seen for a year and who studies at Al Azhar told me to meet her inside the mosque. I waited for her in the women's prayer area, but with so many people milling around the courtyard, I decided to sit in a corner and enjoy the breeze in the roofless area. I spotted my friend as she walked in, shoes in hand and we embraced. Sitting on the carpets that frame the marbled courtyard, we caught up with each other's lives.
After about 10 minutes, I caught in my peripheral vision the white robe of a man approaching us. He was one of the mosque's caretakers and, looming over us with his hand on hip, he said: "OK, ladies, time for you to move." My friend and I gave each other a sideways glance, knowing what he was getting at, but decided to act dumb. "Move where?" we asked. "Either move to the women's section or go into the lecture next door," he said, spitting a piece of a toothpick he was absently chewing on. "Well, we're not praying and the lecture next door isn't open to the public; it's a class," my friend replied calmly. "We're fine here, thanks," I added, and we continued our conversation.
"LADIES!" he shouted and we jumped. "You have to move!" His voice began to rise, and with it my temper. We continued to sit, knowing that we weren't breaking any rules. We were in the courtyard, a public place where tourists and other men, women and children were welcome. There were a couple of men sleeping on the carpet. My friend told him calmly that we weren't doing anything wrong, that she had asked her sheikh supervisors and they had given her permission to sit in the courtyard. During prayers, she said, we would go into the women's section, but since we were just modestly sitting there chatting in a mature fashion there was no need move.
If we continued to argue, the caretaker said, he would have to physically remove us. His voice kept getting louder. He refused to believe the sheikh had told my friend women were allowed in the courtyard. People started to stare- two women sitting cross-legged, looking up at a caretaker chewing on a piece of wood and telling us to get out because we were women. "Fine, then we'll ask the sheikhs," my friend said, as she grabbed my hand and stomped into the room where teachers sit between prayers or lessons. We found two sheikhs sitting in the air-conditioned room, one in a white robe sipping tea, the other in the typical Azhar garb, grey overcoat and red cap tied in place with a white scarf. We stood in front of them as my friend related the story, the caretaker close by listening and trying to interject. The sheikh looked at us and said: "Yes, sorry, it's not possible. You have to go into the women's section." "But why?" we exclaimed. "It's just not done," he said. "It's not possible."
"But there's a man sleeping there!" I said. "We have permission," my friend explained. "No, sorry - go to the women's section. It's just not possible." After a few more back-and-forths, he looked at us, and said: "It's for men. The courtyard is for men. Go to the women's section." I felt sick. I was not welcome in every part of this house of God because I was a woman, and a man of religion was telling me this. I know my friend was mumbling something in rebuttal to the sheikh, but my mind had shut down.
I had experienced women-unfriendly mosques before in Canada, the US, the Gulf and other countries. But never in my face like this. I did not want to believe that women could be made to feel so unwelcome, but I was being proved wrong at this moment, and in one of the most important mosques in the world. My friend and I walked out of the house of God and went to Khan el-Khalili to have rice pudding and let the bustle of the bazaar take our anger with it. We talked for hours about the experience, trying to come to terms with what it meant, how scholars who are learned and understand the status of women in Islam could put us through something like that, and what was the role of women in perpetuating these habits. I don't think we came to any concrete conclusions, but I knew for me, the experience wouldn't stop me from going back to the mosque.
Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo