Going Where I Know I Belong: A Rebel in the Mosque
The author with her son, Shibli
(Photo: Jackson Lynch)
By Asra Q. Nomani
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.
a sense, the seeds of my rebellion go back to childhood. I am a 38-year-old Muslim
woman born in
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 in the Washington Post 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.
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
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
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
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."
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
Fiqh Council of
too often, however, the mosque in
of the issues working against American Muslim women -- an issue not much
discussed outside the Muslim community -- is the de facto takeover of many
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."
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
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 civil rights.
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
"Praise be to Allah," my father told me. "Allah has given you the power to make change."
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 better world."
This article first appeared in the Washington Post. It is republished here with the authorís permission.
Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is the author of the forthcoming "Daughters of Hajira," about women in Islam (HarperSanFrancisco).
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