PESHAWAR -- After a more than two-decade absence, women in Peshawar are now able to offer Friday prayers at the Sunehri Masjid (Golden Mosque) amid improved security.
The mosque was one of two in the city where women could attend Friday prayers in the 1990s. It was closed to women in 1996 after several terrorist attacks took place nearby.
The other mosque serves a small sect and attracts few worshippers.
Groundwork on the historic mosque began in 1946, a year before the formation of Pakistan. Taking up an area of 18,000 sq. ft., the mosque can house more than 6,000 worshippers at one time, including a hall for women that can accommodate up to 2,000.
Now, with a substantial improvement in recent years in the security situation, mosque authorities decided to resume women's participation in Friday prayers starting February 28.
A banner outside the mosque reads "Women are now welcome to offer Friday prayer at the Sunehri Masjid."
"Around 25 years ago, when Afghan refugees were fleeing to Peshawar in large numbers, we decided not to allow the women to Friday prayers to avert any possible act of terrorism," said Habib ur Rehman, 94, the convener of the Sunehri Masjid, referring to the fear at the time that the influx of newcomers included extremists.
"Terrorist activities that occurred after our decision not to allow the women for Friday prayers proved [the decision] correct," Rehman said.
"When we realised the law-and-order situation was much better, we permitted women to come to the mosque and participate in Jumma prayers," he said.
"Slowly and gradually the number of women will go up," he added.
"Our main purpose is to ensure the participation of women in the Friday congregation so they can learn the true teaching of Islam and live their lives according to Islamic teachings," said Rehman.
Citizens have responded positively to the decision, according to Maulana Ismail, the assistant imam of the mosque.
"My wife and sister-in-law appreciated ... the decision to reopen the doors of mosque for women," he said.
"The participation of women in Friday prayers is common in other Islamic countries and even in Western states," Ismail said. "Now in this modern era the participation of women in mosque for prayers is very necessary so that they can keep themselves aware of Islamic teachings."
Qari Muhammad Saeed, who is in charge of the teaching staff of the mosque, said that he and his family members are very happy about the decision.
He recalled his 30 years of teaching at the mosque and when his mother and wife attended Friday prayers for the first time at the mosque in the early 1990s.
"They were so happy, and I never saw them that satisfied and glad in my life," he said.
"This was the first time that my mother and wife heard the sermon of the Khatib Masjid [the preacher] in person instead of listening to the radio or watching TV," Saeed said. "They were disappointed when women were stopped from going to the mosque, but now they are very happy."
A step amid peace
The return of women to the mosque is earning praise from many.
"We support, encourage and welcome the decision of permitting women in mosque for Friday prayers," said Shagufta Malik, a member of the KP Assembly and a leader of the Awami National Party (ANP).
"[Women's] participation in Friday prayers will make them able to guide their children in a better way," she said.
"This is a new era. Today, women are working in every field equally with men," Malik said. "So the women's participation in Jumma prayers is a commendable act."
Nighat Orakzai, a member of the KP Assembly and a leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, also welcomed the return of women to Friday prayers at the Sunehri Masjid.
"This is a good decision, which shows that the law-and-order situation is now better than previous years," Orakzai said.
"Women will get Islamic teachings in Friday prayers directly, which will benefit them and so they could teach their children easily," she added.
Allowing women to take part in Friday prayers reflects the improvement in the law-and-order situation, said Peshawar-based journalist M. Riaz.
"At the same time, the decision to allow women to come to Friday prayers also shows that there is no restriction on Muslim women to go outside their homes for prayers, education and other necessary affairs," he said.
"Not only did my female family members laud the decision, but many other families appreciate this new development and are interested in sending their female members to attend the Friday prayers," Riaz said.