Being Muslim in Soweto

For the Islamic community of Orlando East, living in a community that has misconceptions and suspicions about their choice of religion is an everyday reality.

It is 12:30 midday on the corner of the Mosaka and Mofutsunyana streets in Orlando East, Soweto. Taxis are passing and dropping off commuters on the main road, Mosaka Street.

At the corner of these streets is a three-storey mosque, a modern structure which is noticeable by the minaret with a crescent moon towering over Mosaka Street, which is visible from a distance.

A devout Muslim, Ibrahim, also known as Mpho, who converted to Islam 14 years ago, walks into a small room where a microphone is positioned against a wall. Ibrahim’s voice echoes through the speakers above the mosque as he recites a call for prayer in Arabic.

Minutes after the call, men dressed in ankle-length robes and women dressed in hijabs emerge from the corner of the street. The quietness and the peaceful nature inside the mosque contrasts with the busy main road, the constant traffic of passing cars and pedestrians.

WOMEN OF THE MASJID:The men and women at the Masjid (mosque), have separate prayer rooms known as a musalla. The women are seated on the floor while listening to Imam Zayd giving a teaching through a speaker in the room.

What stands out about this community of Muslims is that they are mostly black township converts who were not born into the religion of Islam. As much as Muslims are recognised members of the community their religion and way of life also makes them stand out in a community of people that share similar identities.

MUSALLA:Prayer at the mosque take place several times a day. The men pray and hold teachings in a wide room on the ground floor and the musalla for women is on the floor above.

The Imam, who is the leader of the mosque, a young black man, draped in a white robe, walks into the room. Imam Zayd, born as Tsholofelo Raymond Mashele.

He positions himself on a stair case that is leaning against the wall, known to the Muslim community as the minbar. In his teaching, he keeps re-iterating “Islam is not a religion. It’s a way of life”. A way of life that is not fully understood by the community on Mosaka and Mofutsunyana Streets.

As Imam Zayd gives his teaching, the congregation is seated on the carpet and listening attentively. In the background, the faded sounds of Kwaito and House music from the neighbouring houses are audible, the congregation oblivious to what could also be a distraction.

Before entering the musalla, members enter a bathroom-like room to perform ablutions, an act of cleansing the body, so that one can present themselves to God, clean and pure. After ablutions the members take off their shoes and place them on a shelf before entering the area.

A GUIDE TO LIFE:  The Orlando East mosque has copies of the Quran in Arabic, English and Indigenous South Africa languages.

A silence fills the room as a young woman wearing an all back niqab, walks into the musulla/praying area. This is Somaya, the wife of the Imam. She greets the other women in the room by saying As-Salamu-Alaykum which means “Peace be upon you”.

In a perfectly carpeted and unadorned room, the women sit in a straight line, leaning against the window as they listen to Imam Zayd give a teaching through the loud speakers in the room.

With a toddler on her lap, Somaya, explains that women are not allowed to be in the main musalla hence they listen to the teachings in a separate room.

She explains that it is a religious requirement for women to pray at the same time as the men but in a different room. “Men and women are not supposed to intermingle. To avoid things like dating because that is not permitted in Islam. Even when we host events, men and women do not sit together.”

As the women kneel on the red carpet facing a large glass window covered in a black-grey curtain, in a large hall below, the men are seen through the glass window, kneeling down with their heads facing the minbar.

The Misconceptions

ISLAMIC UPBRINGING: From left, Zaynab Mashele and Njabulo Sithole playfully paging through the copies of the Quran during the Friday afternoon service.

After the service Imam Zaydsits down on the carpet to talk about his journey as a black Islam convert, “I was born in a Christian home, and I accepted Islam at the age of 16, in grade 11. After matric I went to study at an Islamic institute in Zachariah Park. My responsibility here is to guide Muslims. In Islam as Imams we are more like scholars. If a person needs something they come to me, if they want to get married, they come to me,” Imam Zayd says.

As a Tswana man from Pretoria, Zayd says the challenges that come with being a Muslim convert make the journey “sweeter and nicer”, as one is able to appreciate the journey. “If you look at African culture and Islam, most of the things are the same. In the olden days ladies were not allowed to go to the funeral, in Islam we still do that because they’re not going to help.”

“Islam is easier for black converters than one anyone else,” alluding to the similarities in historical African traditions. “In African culture a women could not leave the house without wearing a head wrap, it’s the same in Islam,” says Imam Zayd.

There are contradictions that come with being a converted Muslim who comes from a different religious and cultural background. Imam Zayd says that he has communicated the contradictions with his Christian family. “When you’re born in a Christian home they bury you in a certain way. In Islam when you pass away, we bury you on that day.

My family knows that if I die today, they must bury me today and they must respect that. You can’t go against the words of the deceased.” Zayd says that although his family initially was not in support of his conversion, they also respect his wishes as a devout Muslim.

Spreading the good word

“The big misconception is that people, black people in the township become Muslims because they will benefit financially and not just to worship God.”

Somaya says, “When people see black Muslims, especially female black Muslims, they always assume that you converted because you’re married to an Indian. When I’m walking at the mall or in town people always stare and ask questions, they’re always shocked then they hear me speak Setswana fluently.” She also says she was born into a Muslim family in Soshanguve however her family did not actively practise the religion, she says she decided to fully practise Islam in 2006.

“In Soshanguve they always knew that I was Muslim but it’s only when I started covering my face with a niqab that people started staring and making remarks,” she says.

“Muslims are not seen as part of the community, in the township. That’s why we’re trying to show people that we are a part of you, we’re South African but we chose a different religion that you don’t understand,” Imam Zayd says.

The Orlando East mosque was completed and opened in 2011 after much contestation from surrounding neighbours who say they were not informed about the establishment of the mosque. Today, the residents are still not aware of what happens inside of the mosque. Some of the residents had interesting observations about what Muslims do in the mosque.

On Mosaka Street, one man standing outside of the ship container tuck shop opposite the mosque, casually says, “Why are you asking about the mosque? Do you want to join them also? None of us know what goes on in there, we just see them coming in and out and we hear the noise from the speakers several times a day.”

The call for prayer happens several times a day, however, the sound of the call is gentle. Imam Zayd says they had to lower the sound of the call to accommodate residents after they had complained several times.

“When we do it loudly, we want to make sure that the Muslims who do not live within the vicinity of the masjid can hear that it is now time for prayer.” Zayd points out that “A person can say I’m not afraid to practise my religion, so I can make it as loud as I want. Why does no one complain when the Christians are ringing the bell?

When abazalwane sing from the tents you can hear them all the way but no one says anything about that. If it’s too loud we’ll turn it down, Islam is a just religion. We don’t do it at night because people are sleeping.”

One of the residents, Tebogo Maloka, says they in the area did not want the mosque to be built however, they lost that battle. “The shop owner was a Muslim and so was his family. So hence it was built there. They initially wanted to buy the three neighbouring houses but the community refused.”

The plot where the mosque is built was originally a gaming store, the owner of the store was Muslim. According to the residents, the game store was a cornerstone of the community because the youth used it as a recreational space where children go to the store to play video games to avoid playing in the busy Mosaka Street.

In 2011, The Star reported that some of the residents within the vicinity of the mosque had signed a petition and wrote letters to the City of Joburg, objecting to the construction of the mosque.

Duma Orphan Kgodisang, a leader in the mosque, said, “It’s not the community that had a problem. It was just a few people. Other residents were influenced by a select few. Why don’t they stop churches – they were just being mischievous. We don’t have a problem with the neighbours. We even park our cars opposite their houses.”

The Muslim community’s efforts to integrate themselves within the Orlando East community are visible through the Mtholampilo Clinic which has become an important player in the community of Orlando East.

The clinic was opened in the mosque to provide affordable healthcare for residents. Sitting outside in his front yard, one of the neighbours, Sibusiso Mafunya, who lives a few houses away from the mosque said, “iClinic iyas’nceda (the clinic helps us), I brought my child there when they had tonsils. We don’t like the mosque because they make noise through the speakers. They have prayer sessions since 4:00 in the morning, it’s like an alarm.”

This is one of the several community outreach efforts that the Orlando East Muslim community is involved in. Kgodisang says the mosque is also involved in a feeding scheme at a primary school in the area as well as doing blanket drives in the winter to assist members of the community who are in need.

After his teaching, Zayd is seated on the carpet of the musalla with his legs crossed, talking about the modest nature of Islam. Two women walk in bringing plates of dry yellow rice mixed with boiled potatoes and mixed vegetables.

Zayd mentions there are no Halaal butcheries in Orlando East and that Muslims in the area travel to places such as Mayfair near the CBD to get Halaal meat.

One of the plans of the Muslim community of Orlando East is to hold a door-to-door open day to spread the teachings of Islam in the area. Imam Zayd says they aim to introduce Islam to the community because people do not know Islam.

“They assume that Islam is an Indian religion. We already had Islam before Indians, specifically in Northern Africa. Christianity came to South Africa because of the Dutch and English,” he says.

After the service the women, make small talk in Setswana and isiXhosa with one another as they move out of the musalla to put on their shoes which are carefully placed on a wooden shoe shelf. Exiting the tranquil environment of the mosque, the Muslims of Orlando East return to the sound of taxis and children laughing on their way back from school.

For the Muslim community of Orlando East, outside of the spiritual calmness of the mosque, this is where they, too, are at home and where they belong. They are much as part of this community of Orlando East as everyone else.

FEATURED IMAGE: The men and women at the Masjid (mosque), have separate prayer rooms known as a musalla. The women are seated on the floor while listening to Imam Zayd giving a teaching through a speaker in the room.


Mayfair women break the Muslim mould

*This article has been amended to protect the identity of some individuals (17.02.2016).

The women of the Garda family are far from “mainstream Muslim” women. This family of three daughters and seven granddaughters run their own businesses and rarely wear the hijab. Although unconventional, as modern women they fit into their conservative communities by blending their Islamic beliefs and Western influences.

The day Sumayya Mohamed finished high school at the Johannesburg Muslim School in Fordsburg, she packed away her abaya and hijab. They are now taken out once a year when her family goes on hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. On any other day, you will find her in her everyday go-to outfit – skinny jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers.

THE BLENDER: Sumayya Mohamed is a young Muslim girl from Mayfair who enjoys skating and contemporary music. Her family says she is the ‘blender’ with her Western sense of style. Photo: Riante Naidoo.

Her “unorthodox” clothing and short pixie haircut make people in the Muslim community look twice. The stir usually stems from the absence of a hijab neatly wrapped around her head.

“The way I dress is how I find comfort in who I am,” says 22-year-old Sumayya. “I defy every expectation that they throw at me.” She also does not wear a hijab or an abaya because she “does not think there is only one way to express Islam and the world is preoccupied with that”.

Sumayya’s aunt Tasneem Garda, 42, also does not wear a hijab. “I love my fashion and wearing the hijab is a very personal thing and right now it is just not me,” she says. “I wore it for a period of six months once, after I returned from hajj, but then I thought, ‘Who am I kidding?’”

Sumayya is known as “the blender” in her family. “My family say I can go anywhere in the world and look like I’m from there,” she says.

As the oldest granddaughter, neighbours in her suburb of Mayfair expect Sumayya to dress and behave “conservatively”, but she has her own ideas on what it means to be “a 21st-century Muslim girl”.

Modern lifestyles 

Sumayya, a master’s student at Wits University, is currently doing her research on Indian women in Fordsburg’s public spaces. “I am interested to know how women situate themselves in a city and get around,” she says. “I want to study that to study myself.”

Safiyyah Surtee, a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Johannesburg, says it is more common for most 21st-century women to have access to university and it is “a really big step away from one generation before theirs, like their mothers”.

“Young Muslim women are now leading modern lifestyles and have careers and access to tertiary education,” Surtee says. She notes that with the progression of time “families evolve and younger generations are very liberal and lead the lifestyles they choose”.

BUSINESSWOMAN: Munira Garda unpacks patterned curtains in the family business Just Curtains she has worked in since she finished high schoolHer daughter Sumayya says her mother has always been supportive of their academic decisions. Photo: Riante Naidoo.

Sumayya’s mother, Munira Garda, 49, did not go to university due to a combination of health issues and financial constraints. After she matriculated, she worked at the family business at the Oriental Plaza in Fordsburg.

“She has always supported our decisions and interests because she was never exposed to the degree options we have,” Sumayya says. “My mother has allowed my sister and I to study whatever we wanted and sort of lives through us.”

With every generation, family life and traditions have changed and those changes are always different.

THE GARDAS: Yusuf Garda (left) and his wife Tahera (right) are parents to three daughters and seven granddaughters. Yusuf says that on Friday nights when the entire family gather for dinner, his voice is often drowned out by the cheerful conversations of his wife, daughters and granddaughters. Photo: Riante Naidoo.

Sumayya’s great-grandparents came to South Africa in 1940. Her maternal grandfather Yusuf Garda, 75, married his cousin Tahera, 69, which was common practice at that time. Together, they raised their three daughters, Munira, Zaheda and Tasneem, in Pageview, known as Fietas by those from the area. Yusuf’s youngest daughter, Tasneem, now a mother of three daughters herself, says life then was “very different”.

“I remember playing in the streets with the children next door,” she says, recalling a sense of community she believes her daughters are not exposed to.

Remembering Fietas

Salma Patel, a Fietas resident of 57 years, watched Tasneem and her siblings as children. She used to live across from the Garda family on 14th Street and says Fietas community life was “unbelievable” in the 1960s.

“There was a social glue,” she says as she walks through what is now the Fietas Museum. Patel turned two double-storey houses on 14th Street into the museum, to preserve the memories of those who were instrumental in the financial, cultural and educational development of the Fietas community.

FIETAS MUSEUM: Originally created out of two double-storey houses, the Fietas Museum now stands on 14th Street in Pageview. The museum showcases an array of photographs of families, business owners and the colourful stores that made up the ’14th Street Bazaar’ which was described as ‘a bustling centre of trade’ in the 1960s. Photo: Riante Naidoo.

At the entrance to the museum, a sign reads: “Towards the 1940s, the population had become predominantly ‘Indian’ and merchants turned 14th Street into a famous shopping mecca.” This all changed in 1950 when it was declared a whites-only suburb under the Group Areas legislation and all non-white families were forcibly removed by the apartheid government.

“The streets were filled with children after school,” Patel says, but when they were not in school or out playing, their mothers were expected to take care of them, while their fathers ran the family business.

Women were the main support structure in the community and whether neighbours were family or not, Patel says there was “no hesitation to care for or feed each other’s children”.

Surtee, whose grandparents had a clothing business in what is now part of the Fietas Museum, says “there was hardship in raising children, but there was the broader family and greater community to help raise them”.

“Cooking was a very big part of their existence,” Surtee adds, as “women were in the domestic sphere and had to be the ideal wife and daughter-in-law.”

The “mentality was selfish as they [the older people in the community] expected their daughters-in-law to look after them because self-interest was a big motive,” Yusuf says.

‘Boy meets girls, girl meets boy’

Yusuf was 25 and Tahera 19 when they married. He says families “had to keep the wealth and secrets in the family”. The tradition of marriage began changing when his daughters decided to marry as the Gardas’ three daughters “all married outside the family”. Yusuf says that there was no parental pressure from him or his wife to marry within.

Tasneem explains that her father was the youngest of eight brothers. “We had male cousins that were much older so marrying one of them was not really possible,” she says.

Although Islam prohibits the concept of “courting”, as Yusuf puts it, “boy meets girls, girl meets boy and you can’t do much about the rest.” When Tasneem met Mohamed Fiaz Rajah in school, Yusuf says he “scrutinised his [Mohamed’s] family background and it was decent”.

Tasneem and Mohamed began dating when they studied pharmacy at Wits and, at the age of 23, they married with 700 guests at their wedding. Tasneem says their marriage was their choice but they had no say as to how many guests were invited. “It was what your parents wanted,” she says, “The entire community gets invited.”

Even though traditions have changed with time, older traditions sometimes filter down, like the expectation of marriage in many Indian families.

Sumayya also feels that her mother and grandmother secretly hope she will marry her best friend, Faheem. “But we’re just friends,” she always tells them and, as expected, “they just grin back at me as if they don’t believe me.”

Some of her friends chose to get married after matric, but Sumayya says she never felt pressured to get married. “Those antiquated traditions don’t come into my everyday life,” she says. There are times when her grandmother jokes around, “but sometimes I don’t think she’s joking when she asks when am I going to find a boy?”

Sumayya explains that when a girl decides to marry, part of that decision is to “take the worry off her parents. Indian parents worry about your future as a girl – are you gonna have a good boy?” She says “it’s a thing that stems from tradition”.

Yusuf says a woman was “seen as an asset to the family” that she married into. His own mother, he says,“gained eight daughters-in-law” and they all had a “keen sense to help”. He says domestic skills were extremely important to have.

A PASSIONATE CURATOR: Salma Patel is the Fietas Museum curator. As a Fietas resident for 57 years, her passion to preserve the history of her family and those who contributed to the community’s life and spirit is seen in her detailed account of artefacts and photographs that are displayed in the museum. Photo: Riante Naidoo.

Patel views things differently. She “saw women as unpaid labour”. In the 1960s, “they cooked upstairs and when things got hectic, they would come down and assist in the shop.” This was the convention of the time and women accepted it as the community was “very patriarchal”.

Tasneem says, “I will encourage my kids to be domesticated, more so than I was because I didn’t know how to cook when I got married and I was embarrassed.”

She says her mother prefers to cook alone and, also, did not have the patience to teach her. “My mother would tell me to go study instead because I think she preferred not to have someone in her way.”

Tasneem moved in with her in-laws after she married. “I learnt to cook from my mother-in-law and she is just as patient with my girls in the kitchen,” Tasneem says.

Sumayya is also expected to know how to cook, but admits that “it doesn’t always work out. My nani [grandmother] always kicks me out the kitchen at the most crucial point because I ask too many questions.”

Tahera says “it’s not always easy” to teach her daughters and granddaughters to cook as the recipes are all in her head. “I can’t tell them quantities or measurements, and that’s what they need to cook today,” she says. “I cook from judging.”

Tahera and the family also do not judge their daughters as Sumayya does not feel pressured to fit the image of a “conventional Muslim girl”. She likes that she has “the potential to change the narrative” about the world’s view of Islamic women. “I’m just a normal girl and these are my beliefs,” she says.

Islam allows her the ‘freedom and choice to be a feminist’

Her “different interests” have always been accepted by her family. She loves writing and listening to new music, although it is haram (forbidden). “When we have family braais we put music on and my dad dances to MiCasa which is really embarrassing,” she says, “but my parents understand our generation and the things we enjoy.”

MAYFAIR SKATER: While it is uncommon to see a Muslim girl skating on the roads in Mayfair, it is Sumayya Mohamed’s favourite activity. The master’s student enjoys ‘letting off steam’ when she gets on her board and says it allows her to get her ‘mind off things’. Photo: Riante Naidoo. 

Skateboarding is her favourite activity and she describes it as the only thing she can do to “get her mind off things. It’s like my jogging I guess.” Occasionally, Sumayya skates on the uneven tar roads around her home. On more than one occasion, males driving by whistle and ask her why she is skating.

People often ask her “uncomfortable things” like why she wants to look like a boy or if she is a lesbian. “Because I am an Indian Muslim girl, they want me to be like the Indian Muslim girl next door,” she says. “There is a common preoccupation with how an Indian Muslim girl should behave and look, as if that is the most important part of her.”

She views herself as a Muslim girl, but in a greater world, and “will draw on those experiences, in relation to Islam”.

To her, faith is “believing in God and Muhammed as his messenger” and tradition is about “family, familiarity and culture. You teach generations the sense in things,” she says, and adds that Islam allows her the “freedom and choice to be a feminist”.

Surtee also considers herself an “Islamic feminist” which are “Muslim women who are arguing from within the faith for power, inclusion and equality”. She says there are still “pockets of Muslims who are stuck in the idea that Muslim women should be invisible, silent and docile,” but Islamic feminists are determined to change these perceptions.

Although young women are moving away from expressing Islam in an orthodox way, Surtee says, “The trend is to evolve with the rest of the world while also going back to scripture in the Qur’an and interpreting it in ways which are relevant to women today.”

However, Sumayya says the thought of losing her faith sometimes keeps her up at night. One day, she wants to leave Mayfair to work in The Big Apple. “If I moved there, I would have to find a base and find my people,” she says. “The core fundamentals of praying every day and educating children on their faith are the most important traditions to continue for all Islamic women.”

She and her grandfather agree on this as Yusuf says “reading the Quran every day is a must” because “it’s fundamental” to their faith, but that “you can’t impose too much on children,” and should “let them evolve and develop”.

Faith is most important to Tasneem as it teaches “values and discipline. The most important tradition is to continue with prayer and remain close to family. It’s not even an option,” she says.

Whether Sumayya finds herself in New York or some place closer to home, she says it is important for her to leave Mayfair so she can “appreciate it more”.

“Moving away doesn’t mean you’re not that community, you still represent them,” she says.

“Your life is a puzzle, you just have to find your pieces and they won’t always be in the place you call home.”

FEATURED IMAGE: A PASSIONATE CURATOR: Salma Patel is the Fietas Museum curator. As a Fietas resident for 57 years, her passion to preserve the history of her family and those who contributed to the community’s life and spirit is seen in her detailed account of artefacts and photographs that are displayed in the museum. Photo: Riante Naidoo.


No quick-fix: NGOs provide little relief for women in India

SAVING WOMEN:  Dr Srila Roy, criticises the work of NGOs in India which fail to provide viable solutions to the problems faced by marginalised women. Photo: Bongiwe Tutu

SAVING WOMEN: Dr Srila Roy, criticises the work of NGOs in India which fail to provide viable solutions to the problems faced by marginalised women.                    PHOTO: Bongiwe Tutu


Marginalised Indian women are not likely to improve their lives through the intervention of NGOs (non-governmental organisations).

This is in the opinion of Dr Srila Roy who spoke at a seminar entitled ‘Saving Women from Themselves’, held this afternoon at Wits University.

Roy, Wits Sociology senior lecturer, reflected on her experiences at an event in Eastern India at the end of 2011, which was hosted by an NGO protecting young women from coerced marriages.

Women’s rights

6000 women from 40 villages were involved in the event but while the NGO was encouraging girls to go to school, they were not concerned with the state of the schooling system.

“The NGOs constantly say ‘send your girls to school. Young girls must no longer be coerced into marriage, they must go to school’, But when I asked them how the schools are, they said to me; there is nothing there.”

“It’s either the NGOs were disingenuous or really removed from their context” 

Roy said that the schools are poorly resourced, there is a lack of teachers, poor infrastructure and  high expenses which are unaffordable to the students. “So what exactly are they going there to do if they’re not learning?” she asked.

“It’s either the NGOs were disingenuous or really removed from their context,” Roy said.

The problem is that few or no NGOs focus on women’s education and literacy, she explained. The reason behind this was because Indian NGOs are micro-financed and focused on economic development.

The NGOs are getting small loans to start businesses and the goal is to generate more money.

“NGOs just want a quick fix,” Roy said.

The market therefore becomes the criteria, and having objectives such as educating young children would not generate any money for them as such, she explained.

The seminar discussions soon turned from India to the South African context.

South African women

A young South African Muslim woman and a Wits student said she could relate to the experiences of young Indian women.

She that of a group of 12 South African girls of Indian descent in her Polokwane matric class, she is the only one that has not yet married.

But she still believes that it is important not generalise: “We can’t assume by educating women they won’t choose to get married at a young age … a number of educated people make ‘morally unsound’ decisions,” she said.

“Education is only one of the solutions” she added.