A month after the Christchurch mosque shootings Lana Hart was invited to the women's prayer session at the Masjid Al Noor, where 42 people died.

There are a handful of clues of the bloody atrocity at Masjid Al Noor.

A month on from the March 15 Christchurch shootings, flowers at the main gates weep and cards of tributes flutter in the wind.

Policewoman Angie Keen guards one of the doors holding a rifle. Next to her is a faint trail of blood.

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The carpet in the modest entranceway has been replaced by a shiny floor lining. Bare and socked feet of visitors and worshippers crunch into it lightly.

To the right is a rack of headscarves and long, pullover skirts for non-Muslim women who want to respect the traditions of Islam while at the mosque. Next to it is a door marked "Women only."

Policewoman Angie Keen guarding the women's area side entry of the mosque. Photo / Janneth Gil
Policewoman Angie Keen guarding the women's area side entry of the mosque. Photo / Janneth Gil

I have been invited with a female photographer to the women's weekly Wednesday Quaran study session, which is followed by an informal discussion. It is led by Jumayah Ahmed, women's co-ordinator for the Muslim Association of Canterbury.

Nearly 40 women kneel, chat, stand to pray, giggle, and hug. At least 10 languages and even more ethnicities are represented, but the common language is English. The word "sister" precedes every spoken name.

Headscarves are universal in this room but noticeably different in material, shape, and the ways they are wrapped around bodies. Other than hands and faces, and despite the warm day outside, not a flash of skin is in sight. As a group of visitors from Malaysia face Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, on their prayer mats, heads bowed in submission, smaller groups sit informally on the floor talking quietly.

Many of these women lost sons, husbands, and friends in the massacre of March 15. But many more relatives of the tragedy's victims are not in this room. Younger women whose husbands were killed are at home, honouring the Muslim practice of grieving while remaining behind closed doors for 100 days so that paternity of a potential child, should she be pregnant, can be established.

I sit among the group to talk about their experience as Muslim women in New Zealand, about their losses, their connections, and about that aspect of their faith that has long-held both the fascination and disdain of the West: their hijab.

Fouzia Abdukadir shows how the hijab can be used as a handsfree calling device. Photo / Janneth Gil
Fouzia Abdukadir shows how the hijab can be used as a handsfree calling device. Photo / Janneth Gil

It is their curtain or cover, a cloth wrap that conceals the hair and neck. By never stepping outside their home without it, twomen transform themselves into - as one woman in the group says - "a walking billboard about what I believe in and what I stand for".
The hijab embodies key principles of Islamic faith such as modesty and submission to a deity. For most Muslim women, it expresses their commitment to their God, Allah.

Only women, children and some men are allowed to see a Muslim woman without her hijab on. The test, explains Ahmed, is "if you are allowed to marry that person. If the visitor is my father, my brother, my uncle, or my son, I don't have to cover myself. So any man who comes to my house, if I can marry him, I have to put it back on."

There are many other reasons for "wearing your faith," says Jane Taylor, a Kiwi Muslim who converted to Islam over 30 years ago.

"There is a verse in the Quran that describes a reason so 'that we might be known' to each other. When we see each other, we know that there's my daughter, there's my sister, there's my auntie. It doesn't matter that we've never met them before, we automatically know how she lives her life and what is important to her. And then, we exchange this greeting of peace to her – as-salaam-alaikum - and yet we are complete strangers…. It's beautiful."

A Somali nurse, Faduma Yusuf, who was raised for most of her life in Christchurch, adds, "It's a recognition, like 'I see you sister'. I can walk up to a hijabi in the street, a complete stranger, and know how she will treat me. But I can't walk up to any stranger and feel safe."

Autonomy in choosing to wear a hijab is a strong theme. Many women in the group grew up in households where older family members made it clear that it was the choice of the girl alone to cover her head in public, or not. Their choice was usually made around puberty, when awareness of their budding sexuality encouraged them to adopt a more modest appearance in public.

Mae Ibrahim, whose mother was injured in the attack, is the daughter of an Imam (religious leader) and went to Burnside High. She now lives in Sydney. "I didn't really know the meaning of hijab as I was growing up," she says.

Faduma Yusuf and Fouzia abdukadir talking about discrimination in New Zealand,. Photo / Janneth Gil
Faduma Yusuf and Fouzia abdukadir talking about discrimination in New Zealand,. Photo / Janneth Gil

"Sure, my sisters and mother wore one, but I didn't really understand why. As I got older, I realised it was a commitment between me and my Almighty. I feel proud to wear it now that I better understand the meaning behind it."

One woman adds, "That's the law of our creator."

Another one says, "I would feel naked if I didn't wear it."

"This is the religion," Taylor says. "People might have different practices, but this is what we're supposed to do. These rules all come from the Quran, and the Quran is the same, we all read the same book and it hasn't changed since it was first revealed. So, this is what keeps us united as well. The religion is not an Indian one and an Afghani one and a Somali one, or a special one for people born in New Zealand or in this century or last century, it's the same and it always has been. This is a blessing for us."

As endearing as these ideas are, the women of Al Noor mosque are under no illusion that their reasons for wearing a hijab are consistent with society's impressions of them.

Unlike Muslim men, Muslim women who wear a hijab are able to be singled out, making them more vulnerable to racist slurs and behaviours. For most of the women at Masjid Al Noor on March 15, being treated differently is commonplace.

"It happens all the time," says a part-Australian Aboriginal Muslim, who did not want to be named.

"It frustrates me how people say there isn't any racism here. I get told to go back to my own country all the time."

While applying for jobs at a bakery and at a clothing store store in New Zealand, potential employers said she couldn't wear a hijab because it would "affect customer service".

Another woman interviewing the woman asked if she were able to take off the hijab if she got a job in their shop. When she explained the reasons why she couldn't, she thought it was clear why she didn't get the job.

Mae Ibrahim (in blue hijab) talks about discrimination she faced as a Muslim youth while growing up in Christchurch. Photo / Janneth Gil
Mae Ibrahim (in blue hijab) talks about discrimination she faced as a Muslim youth while growing up in Christchurch. Photo / Janneth Gil

More disturbingly, she reveals what happened as she fled from the mosque on March 15.

"Two minutes after the shooting happened, a man walking down Dean's Ave told me that I should've been shot too."

"It's true," says Yusuf, "since the tragedy, the bigots have been empowered now. There will be people who feel as if this justifies their views about Muslims. It's brought the good out in the good people, but it's brought the bad out in the bad people as well.

"Growing up in Christchurch, I experienced heaps of racism. As well as being Muslim, I was black, and that didn't help much either! In my primary school and high school I was the only Muslim and the only black kid, so you have to grow up a little bit faster. I was a defensive child and had to learn to be more aggressive and step up to defend myself."

She describes how she felt as if her life was lived in two distinct worlds: half her life as a Muslim at the mosque, and the other half of her life at school with her non-Muslim friends.

Despite this sometimes-confusing dichotomy, she "knew in my heart that this was right and that Islam was my home. I was conflicted because I knew that God wants better for me and that Allah has a purpose for me. My friends sat around and gossiped about boys but I was so bored by that."

The entrance to the women's area of the mosque. Photo / Janneth Gil
The entrance to the women's area of the mosque. Photo / Janneth Gil

After some difficult times, she finally landed with a firm sense of belonging, with Muslim friends with whom she shares the same values.

"Getting all that negativity from people about being a Muslim makes putting on a hijab even more empowering," says Ibrahim.

"Once you decide that you don't care about the negativity, that's when you take back some of the power that can be lost to you. It's a statement of defiance as well."

But for Nina, whose husband was killed in the attacks, New Zealanders have treated her very well in her many years here.

"I have been so lucky," she says with surprising brightness.

"In my workplace, they've treated me so nicely. At first, they asked me why I wore the hijab and I explained to them why, and they were happy with that. For my husband's work, they are the same. They gave a small room to him for his praying, so everyone has treated him very nicely."

BBack home, however, the woman's hijab is removed, and her immediate family can enjoy the physical appearance and the skin-to-skin contact.

"This is the time when we are supposed to dress up and look good – in our homes, for our families," says Taylor.

"There is a time to look nice and take good care of our appearance, and that's how it should be."

Is make-up a part of looking good? "Oh yes," they say, and "Absolutely."

High heels?

The mosque and tributes outside. Photo / Janneth Gil
The mosque and tributes outside. Photo / Janneth Gil

"Sure," say the younger women, "why not?" Some older women are quiet.

"If you go to a Muslim wedding where it's all women, they look amazing," says Taylor.

"You wouldn't believe how we dress up in fabulous dresses and beautiful hair and make-up."

A young mother described how her 5-year-old son brought home a friend from school and at first, the small friend didn't recognise her with a short dress on and her hair down.

The boy looked confused and wouldn't shake her hand until she explained that she was the same person that he had met with her son at school, just without her hijab. His eyes grew very wide as he looked at her again, smiled, and shook her hand.

And as they prepare to leave the house, Fouzia Abdukadir says that they choose their hijab carefully, consider the colours they are wearing, how fancy or informal the place is they are going, and what the weather is doing.

Women during a Wednesday study session at the Al Noor Mosque. Photo / Janneth Gil
Women during a Wednesday study session at the Al Noor Mosque. Photo / Janneth Gil

How many different hijab do you have? "I can't count," Abdukadir says, and we all laugh loudly. "Too many."

She shows how the hijab can have many practical uses such as handsfree calling, tucking her phone into the garment. She refers to it as "Muslim bluetooth".

Since the massacre, these women's perceptions of themselves as Muslims have changed due to the response by non-Muslims to the tragedy.

"This has brought us much closer," says Ahmed.

"Despite the intentions of the nameless one (the gunman), it brought us together and we are now much stronger."

She says that experiencing a greater acceptance and support by the wider community means some Muslim women have been empowered to say "here I am, a Muslim, and I'm proud of it" like never before.

Faduma Yusuf and Maryam Jasim praying. Photo / Janneth Gil
Faduma Yusuf and Maryam Jasim praying. Photo / Janneth Gil

Ibrahim noticed a difference in her feelings of inclusion in New Zealand when she flew back to her job in Sydney. She experienced a "dramatic shift in how I felt wearing (the hijab). In New Zealand, I felt comfortable and proud to wear it, but I felt judged and under more scrutiny in Sydney.

"(The tragedy) brought humanity behind a veil. We all do our own things, have jobs, go on about our lives. But actually, from the outside, we weren't perceived in the same way as non-Muslim women. You know – welfare bludgers getting all these things, sitting at home and getting abused, lots of domestic violence, etc. We were perceived as weak and feeble women. Not everyone makes these assumptions but those are just some of the assumptions that comes with wearing it.

"So unfortunately, it's been a lifetime of feeling that way, but now that there is an actual face - a human face behind the hijab - it's a lot easier to wear it."

Women's coordinator Jumayah Jones hugs Fouzia Abdukadir. Photo / Janneth Gil
Women's coordinator Jumayah Jones hugs Fouzia Abdukadir. Photo / Janneth Gil

Jumayah's story

When Ahmed starts to feel tinges of survivor's guilt, she tells herself: "Maybe I'm here because my time is not up and maybe I am here to do more good work. That's why I'm keeping myself busy with good things to do.

"Everyone that I talk to is, in a way, accepting because we see [the dead] as martyrs and they are in a good place. Sometimes I am envious that I was not one of them, but then I say to myself maybe I'm not good enough to go up to that status."

On March 15, Ahmed - who migrated to New Zealand from Singapore in 1983 - and many other female worshippers were listening to the Friday sermon at Al Noor mosque through the TV screen in the women's area.

A side door off the entrance way separates these rooms from the main area of the mosque. When the gunman began shooting, the women thought it might be fireworks or a noisy electrical fault.

"We ran to the far side of the room away from the sound of the bullets," Ahmed says calmly. "We were all trying to figure out what to do next. My first instinct was to ring 111."

Ahmed leading a study session. Photo / Janneth Gil
Ahmed leading a study session. Photo / Janneth Gil

She grabbed her handbag and went into the foyer of the women's bathroom. Just before shutting the door she could see through a small window that a few men were clambering over the fence to a neighbour's garden.

"Because they were bleeding, it sort of confirmed for me that it was gunshots that we had heard."

She closed the door behind her so it was quieter to ring emergency services. Her thinking was clear and she knew exactly what she needed to do. Then, a friend pushed herself into the room and insisted the door to be locked and barricaded.

When the operator answered, Ahmed said there had been a shootout and asked her to send someone quickly to 101 Dean's Avenue. The operator asked her to stay on the line, to describe what she saw, and to remain calm.

The sound of the bullets ceased and it became quiet.

"All I could think of was how I would protect myself and others if the gunman came looking for us. I had this strong sense of self-preservation and kept trying to figure out how to lie down in such a way that he could not shoot us, or to move the women to another area and barricade the door so he could not get to us. All I could think about was making plans in case he came back to get the women."

As the gunman replenished his ammunition in his car, Ahmed and the women waited. She stayed on the line with emergency services and kept talking quietly.

"I wanted my voice to be heard in case he came in and shot me. I don't know why, but I wanted there to be some evidence of my voice."

In the main area of the mosque, the sound of the bullet firing came again, rattling loudly through the air again and again.

When the bullets finally stopped, they remained huddled in the women's area until they heard sirens in front of the mosque a few minutes later. Ahmed's phone indicated she had been on the call to emergency services for 10.21 minutes.

"I want to hear that recording of my voice – what did I say exactly? Maybe it would help me understand things a bit better if I could hear it."

Ahmed and her friend left the building and looked desperately for Ahmed's husband, whom she found, and her friend's family. Her friend's husband was badly injured and her teenage son was missing for several days, before it was confirmed he was one of the 50 dead.

"For me, out of the 50 people who died, I think I knew every one of them except for the visitors who were praying here that day," Ahmed says.

"One of my very good friends who normally goes to the other mosque in Linwood – Linda Armstrong." She bows her head. "All I can say is that I miss her."

Eyes wet, Ahmed recovers quickly and continues.

"There was the 3-year-old Somali boy – we are very close to the family. But when I look at all the people who have lost their loved ones and I see they are so strong in their faith, it comforts me. They are so resigned that this is what has been written. We believe as Muslims, we believe in fate and predestination. Everything that happened has been predestined and no one can change what will happen.

"Every person who was killed were very good people, they were deserving to go to a very good place. They died on a blessed day, at a blessed place and doing a blessed action. Islamic beliefs assure the victims a place with Allah for eternity."

After the shootings, she could not bring herself to visit the mosque for a couple of weeks. Now, she can't stay away from it.

As the elected women's co-ordinator, she has a lot to do: sisters – so many of them widowed - to comfort, study sessions, visits to the injured and visitors to host.

In Islam there are no physical interactions between genders, including handshakes, unless they are immediate family. With a constant stream of non-Muslim visitors to the mosque, Ahmed needs to negotiate through these rules carefully.

"Maybe after I show a couple around and talk about what happened, they look a little sad and I want to give the lady a hug. But if the man tries to hug me, I just explain why Muslims do not do this and say, 'maybe I'll give your wife an extra hug instead'."

But in the privacy of the women's area of the mosque, there are few limits to their physical behaviour with each other. Women refer to each other as sisters, sit closely to each other, and hug and touch frequently. The outward care and love for each other, even across many different cultures and languages, is visceral.

In the centre of this and in her profound grief is Sister Jumayah.