[R-G] A Rebel in the Mosque - Going Where I Know I Belong
sandinista at shaw.ca
Sun Jan 4 03:24:23 MST 2004
Sunday, December 28, 2003
A Rebel in the Mosque
Going Where I Know I Belong
By Asra Q. Nomani
On the 11th day of the recent Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in a pre-dawn
lit by the moon, my mother, my niece and I walked through the front doors of
our local mosque with my father, my nephew and my infant son. My stomach
churning, we ascended to a hall to pray together.
Islamic teaching forbids men and women praying directly next to each other
in mosques. But most American mosques have gone well beyond that simple
prohibition by importing largely from Arab culture a system of separate
accommodations that provides women with wholly unequal services for prayer
and education. And yet, excluding women ignores the rights the prophet
Muhammad gave them in the 7th century and represents "innovations" that
emerged after the prophet died. I had been wrestling with these injustices
for some time when I finally decided to take a stand.
I had no intention of praying right next to the men, who were seated at the
front of the cavernous hall. I just wanted a place in the main prayer space.
As my mother, my niece and I sat about 20 feet behind the men, a loud voice
broke the quiet. "Sister, please! Please leave!" one of the mosque's elders
yelled at me. "It is better for women upstairs." We women were expected to
enter by a rear door and pray in the balcony. If we wanted to participate in
any of the activities below us, we were supposed to give a note to one of
the children, who would carry it to the men in the often near-empty hall. "I
will close the mosque," he thundered. I had no idea at that moment if he
would make good on his threat. But I had no doubt that our act of
disobedience would soon embroil the mosque, and my family, in controversy.
Nevertheless, my mind was made up.
"Thank you, brother," I said firmly. "I'm happy praying here."
In fact, for the first time since the start of Ramadan, I was happy in
prayer. In the nearly two months since that day, I have entered the mosque
through the front door and prayed in the main hall about 30 times. My battle
has been rather solitary; only four women, including my sister-in-law, and
three girls have joined me from time to time. And yet I feel victorious.
In a sense, the seeds of my rebellion go back to childhood. I am a
38-year-old Muslim woman born in Bombay and raised in West Virginia. My
father and other men started the first mosque here in Morgantown in a room
they rented across from the Monongalia County Jail. When we were young, my
brother used to join them in prayer. I don't remember ever being invited.
What I do recall is celebrating one Muslim holiday trapped in an efficiency
apartment with other women, while the men enjoyed a buffet in a spacious
lounge elsewhere. As I grew older, I felt increasingly alienated because I
didn't feel I could find refuge in my religion as a strong-willed,
When I became pregnant last year while unmarried, I struggled with the
edicts of some Muslims who condemned women to be stoned to death for having
babies out of wedlock. I wrote on these pages about such judgments being
un-Islamic, and my faith was buoyed by the many Muslims who rallied to my
side. To raise my son, Shibli, as a Muslim, I had to find a way to exist
peacefully within Islam.
I had tried to accept the status quo through the first days of Ramadan,
praying silently upstairs, listening to sermons addressed only to
"brothers." After so many years away, I felt I would be like an interloper
if I protested. But my sense of subjugation interrupted my prayer each time
I touched my forehead to the carpet. I lay in bed each night despising the
men who had ordered me to use the mosque's rear entrance. "Your anger
reveals a deeper pain," my friend Alan Godlas, a professor of religious
studies at the University of Georgia, told me when I described the conflict
It was true. I had witnessed the marginalization of women in many parts of
Muslim society. But my parents had taught me that I wasn't meant to be
marginal. Nor did I believe that Islam expected that of me. I began
researching that question, and I found scholarly evidence overwhelmingly
concludes that mosques that bar women from the main prayer space aren't
Islamic. They more aptly reflect the age of ignorance, or Jahiliya, in
pre-Islamic Arabia. "Women's present marginalization in the mosque is a
betrayal of what Islam had promised women and [what] was realized in the
early centuries," says Asma Afsaruddin, a professor of Arabic and Islamic
studies at the University of Notre Dame.
And that marginalization seems, if anything, to be worsening. CAIR, the
Council on American-Islamic Relations, has concluded, based on a 2000
survey, that "the practice of having women pray behind a curtain or in
another room is becoming more widespread" in this country. In 2000, women at
66 percent of the U.S. mosques surveyed prayed behind a curtain or partition
or in another room, compared with 52 percent in 1994, according to the
survey of leaders of 416 mosques nationwide.
And yet, notes Daisy Khan, executive director of ASMA Society, an American
Muslim organization, "The mosque is a place of learning. . . . If men
prevent women from learning, how will they answer to God?"
The mosque was not a men's club when the prophet Muhammad built an Islamic
ummah, or "community." Nothing in the Koran restricts a woman's access to a
mosque, and the prophet told men: "Do not stop the female servants of Allah
from attending the mosques of Allah."
The prophet himself prayed with women. And when he heard that some men
positioned themselves in the mosque to be closer to an attractive woman, his
solution wasn't to ban women but to admonish the men. In Medina, during the
prophet's time and for some years thereafter, women prayed in the prophet's
mosque without any partition between them and the men. Historians record
women's presence in the mosque and participation in education, in political
and literary debates, in asking questions of the prophet after his sermons,
in transmitting religious knowledge and in providing social services. After
the prophet's death, his wife Aisha related anecdotes about his life to
scribes in the mosque. And Abdullah bin Umar, a leading companion of the
Prophet and a son of Omar bin al-Khattab, the second caliph, or leader of
Islam, reprimanded his son for trying to prevent women from going to the
mosque. "By the third century of Islam, many [women's] rights slowly began
to be whittled away as earlier Near Eastern . . . notions of female
propriety and seclusion began to take hold," said Afsaruddin.
The Fiqh Council of North America, which issues legal rulings for the
Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), supports women's rights in the
mosque. "It is perfectly Islamic to hold meetings of men and women inside
the masjid," the mosque, says Muzammil H. Siddiqi, a Fiqh Council member. He
adds that this is true "whether for prayers or for any other Islamic
purpose, without separating them with a curtain, partition or wall."
All too often, however, the mosque in America "is a men's club where women
and children aren't welcome," said Ingrid Mattson, an Islamic scholar at the
Hartford Seminary and an ISNA vice president.
One of the issues working against American Muslim women -- an issue not much
discussed outside the Muslim community -- is the de facto takeover of many
U.S. mosques by conservative and traditionalist Muslims, many from the Arab
world. Most of these are immigrants, many of them students, who follow the
strict Wahhabi and Salafi schools of Islam, which largely exclude women from
public spaces. They stack our mosque library with books printed by the
government of Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabi teachings reign. Here in
Morgantown, students from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, mostly male and
conservative, were virtually nonexistent 10 years ago. More precisely, there
were three. Today there are 55, and their wives regularly glide through the
local Wal-Mart wearing black abayas, or gowns. (Ironically, the Saudi
government says that partitions and separate rooms aren't required in
Sadly, the students' presence emboldens (or in some places cows) American
mosque leaders, many of whom try to rationalize the discrimination against
women through a hadith, a saying of the prophet: "Do not prevent your women
from (going to) the mosques, though their houses are best for them." But
scholars consider this an allowance, not a restriction. The prophet made the
statement after women complained when he said Muslims get 27 times more
blessings when praying at the mosque.
Much of this discrimination is also practiced in the name of "protecting"
women. If women and men are allowed to mix, the argument goes, the mosque
will become a sexually charged place, dangerous for women and distracting to
men. In our mosque, only the men are allowed to use a microphone to address
the faithful. When I asked why, a mosque leader declared, "A woman's voice
is not to be heard in the mosque." What he meant was that a woman's voice --
even raised in prayer -- is an instrument of sexual provocation to men. Many
women accept these rulings; their apathy makes these rules the status quo.
I am heartened that some Muslim men are fighting for women's rights. On that
11th day of Ramadan last month, when I made clear that I would pray in the
main hall, my 70-year-old father stood by me as a mosque elder said to him,
"There will be no praying until she leaves."
"She is doing nothing wrong," my father insisted. "If you have an issue,
talk to her." Four men bounded toward me. "Sister, please! We ask you in the
spirit of Ramadan, leave. We cannot pray if you are here." But my answer
was: I have prayed like this from Mecca to Jerusalem. It is legal within
Islam, I said. I remained firm.
The next day, the mosque's all-male board voted to make the main hall and
front door accessible solely by men. My father dissented. Mosque leaders
have not prevented me from worshiping in the main hall while the decision
receives an internal legal review. "Grin and bear it. It will change one
day," one American Muslim leader suggested to me. A woman in my mosque
pleaded with me not to talk about any of this publicly. But gentle ways
protect gender apartheid in our mosques, and we do no one a service by
allowing it to continue, least of all the Muslim community. So I have filed
a complaint against my mosque with CAIR, whose mandate is to protect Muslim
After one of the final nights of Ramadan, considered a "night of power," my
father gave me an early eidie, a gift elders give on Eid, the festival that
marks the end of the holy month. He handed me a copy of the key to the
mosque's front door, sold the night before at a fundraiser. I traced the
key's edge with my thumb and put it on my Statue of Liberty key chain,
because it is here in America that Muslims can truly liberate mosques from
cultural traditions that belie Islam's teachings.
"Praise be to Allah," my father told me. "Allah has given you the power to
I rattled the keys in front of my son, who reached out for them, and I said
to him, "Shibli, we've got the keys to the mosque. We've got the keys to a
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