MUSLIM WORSHIP DISCRIMINATION
Breaching the Wall at Prayer
women who enjoy equality outside the mosque are fighting the barriers
inside that constrain them as worshipers and leaders.
By Teresa Watanabe
Times Staff Writer
June 27, 2005
On a recent Friday, a veiled woman
entered a crowded Los Angeles mosque and surveyed the scene. In the
front, a few hundred men waited for the call to prayer. In the back,
women and children sat in a separate area behind tinted glass.
With barely a pause, Asra Nomani
made her choice. Defying age-old Islamic traditions, she stepped over a
low partition, sat with the men and kicked off a furor.
A man brusquely approached her: "You
are not allowed to pray here with men. The women are on the other
side." A female elder tried to coax her out, then lost patience and
tried to lift her up by the elbow. A man stared at Nomani and muttered,
"She must be mentally sick."
Through it all, the petite woman in
pink veil and long coat stood her ground. No, she was not going to
move. Yes, she had an Islamic right to sit there. As a burly security
guard towered over her, she began softly chanting Allahu akbar, God is
great, to keep herself focused. But she noticed her fingers trembling.
Eventually, leaders at the Islamic
Center of Southern California on Vermont Avenue cordoned off her space
with a red rope, called other women to join her and started the prayer.
"For that Friday prayer, a woman was
able to sit in the main hall and create a new reality for our Muslim
world," said Nomani, a 40-year-old India native, author and journalist
who lives in Morgantown, W. Va. "We have to take back our mosques with
an expression of Islam that fully values women."
Nomani's controversial tactics
outrage many Muslims. Among them are critics at the Islamic Center, who
viewed her recent visit there as a self-serving stunt to publicize her
new memoir, "Standing Alone in Mecca," and an unfair ambush of the Los
Angeles mosque, which is known for its women-friendly policies.
Mosques have traditionally kept the
genders apart because the prophet Muhammad ordered them to pray in
separate rows, leaders say. This has been interpreted over the years,
they add, as a way to keep men from becoming distracted during prayers.
Still, friends and foes alike agree
that Nomani has helped bring global attention to a long-festering
issue: the limits on female access to Muslim prayer space, religious
leadership and decision-making power. Today, a growing group of
Muslims, most of them North Americans and some galvanized by the
intense scrutiny of Islam since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, are pushing
for wider roles for women.
Such battles over women's religious
rights and authority have raged in many faith traditions ongoing
struggles for Roman Catholic women priests and greater female access to
Talmudic studies in Orthodox Judaism, for instance.
Among Muslims, many women complain that they live double lives, one in the workplace and one in the mosque.
"I don't know how many women I've
talked to who are professors, doctors, lawyers, professionals in their
secular lives, treated with respect, sitting in the front of the room
and then you walk into the mosque, and you are catapulted back into
some medieval world," said Sarah Eltantawi, 28, a Boston-based Egyptian
American who says she was "spiritually damaged" by lifelong experiences
of being shunted to the back of the mosque and chastised for not
covering herself properly.
Many Muslims are tackling gender
segregation in the mosque. They are urging that women be allowed to
pray as a group behind men in the main prayer hall, rather than be
physically isolated by curtains, walls or separate rooms as they are in
the majority of U.S. mosques. The most liberal are arguing for a hall
with men on one side, women on the other and a mixed-gender row in the
middle for families who want to pray together.
Some are also calling for greater
shared leadership, with more women serving on governing boards and as
public speakers at community programs.
Last year, the Islamic Society of
North America, the nation's largest umbrella group of mosques, began a
training program for imams highlighting the need to give women
leadership roles and adequate prayer space behind men in the main halls.
The Council on American-Islamic
Relations, a civil rights group, is planning to distribute nationally a
new booklet calling for similar measures, saying that Islam calls for
spiritual equality between the sexes.
Other Muslims, however, are pushing
edgier issues. The Progressive Muslim Union of North America, recently
launched by Eltantawi and others, sponsored a groundbreaking town hall
meeting in Los Angeles this month to debate the contentious question of
whether Islam allows women to lead prayer. The meeting, which packed
the USC Religious Center with both liberals and traditionalists,
featured Khaled Abou El Fadl, a UCLA Islamic law professor who believes
that Islam requires the most knowledgeable person to lead prayer,
regardless of gender.
Arguing that most Muslims are
ignorant of their own vast and diverse intellectual heritage, Abou El
Fadl cites examples of female prayer leaders in the past, along with
three schools of thought in medieval Islamic history that embraced the
Relatively few Muslims, however,
seem to buy that view. Opponents argue that evidence for women prayer
leaders in the past is weak and that no innovations in worship
practices are allowed. If women lead prayer in front of congregations,
men will be distracted by the sight of them bending over in
prostration, opponents also say.
"Men are men," said Imam Abdul Karim
Hasan of the Bilal Islamic Center in South Los Angeles. "I don't care
how you cut it or shape it, they won't be thinking about prayer."
While a few women have quietly led
mixed groups in prayers for years in the United States, Canada and
South Africa, the issue exploded across the Muslim world earlier this
year. A female Islamic scholar, Amina Wadud, led a mixed congregation
in prayer at a New York event covered by the international media.
The March service by Wadud, an
Islamic studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, drew a
global chorus of condemnations and provoked threats of violence. An
anonymous appeal for Osama bin Laden to issue a decree to kill Wadud
was circulated on the Internet, prompting Virginia Commonwealth to move
her lectures off campus with remote hook-up for the rest of the
semester, a university spokeswoman said.
"This issue is a major challenge to
the hegemony of patriarchal authority," said Wadud, who argues that
qualified women have the right to all positions of public ritual
leadership, including leading Friday prayers, delivering sermons, and
performing funerals and other ceremonies.
The scholar asserts that Islam's
concept of tawhid, the oneness of God, along with Koranic stories that
creation came in pairs, require gender equality. But that equality, she
says, became lost over the centuries as male scholars and thinkers
developed an Islamic tradition that relegated women to "subservience,
silence and seclusion."
Some Muslims say mosque practices
that appear discriminatory are not intentionally so. Shakeel Syed,
executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California,
an umbrella group of the region's mosques, said much of the segregation
was driven by purely logistical space problems, rather than
condescending attitudes toward women.
The Islamic Center of Southern
California, for instance, allows women to pray behind men in the main
prayer hall on all days but Fridays, when overflow crowds force men
into outside lots and women into a separate room. Men are usually given
priority because they constitute the vast majority of mosque attendees,
as Islam requires them but not women to attend Friday prayer, community
Others argue that problems of
domestic violence, poverty and illiteracy are more pressing issues for
Muslim women than religious authority. And some women are perfectly
happy in their faith as it is commonly practiced.
"I'm comfortable with the way things
are," said Qahira Santana, a 75-year-old school counselor in South
Pasadena who attended the recent town hall meeting on women-led prayer.
"I feel women have enough power."
Still, North American Muslim
organizations have documented broad concerns about mosque practices. A
2000 national survey by the American-Islamic council and three other
organizations found growing gender segregation, with 66% of mosques
placing women behind curtains, walls or in separate rooms, compared
with 52% in 1994. Women were not allowed to sit on governing boards of
one-third of the nation's 1,200 mosques.
A survey last year by the Islamic
Society of North America found that members regarded the treatment of
women as a top concern. Sayyid M. Saeed, the society's general
secretary, said too many immigrant imams, from places such as South
Asia and the Middle East, were bringing conservative attitudes toward
women that were rooted in their cultures rather than in Islam.
Some immigrant imams, however, are
tearing down gender barriers. Imam Moustafa Al-Qazwini, an Iraqi
immigrant, did so literally pulling down a curtain dividing the sexes
at the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa some
years ago after women complained that it prevented them from seeing the
prayer service or speakers. They now sit unobstructed behind men in the
Souleiman Ghali, a native of
Lebanon, says the Islamic Society of San Francisco plans to tear down a
dividing wall in its mosque and recently welcomed Nomani to pray in the
main hall with men during Friday prayers.
"The important thing is not to be
stubborn, holding onto our traditions without opening our minds to
listening and learning from others," said Ghali, president of the
Without more openness, he and others say, the Islamic community could lose the next generation of American-born Muslims.
Shahina Siddiqui, the Winnipeg-based
president of the Islamic Social Service Assn.-Canada, said she was
already seeing growing numbers of women and youths driven from mosques
by the perceived gap between Islam's egalitarian ideals and actual
"We don't have the luxury anymore to
sweep things under the carpet," said Siddiqui, the main author of the
booklet on women-friendly mosques. "We have to deal with it today."
The new attention to women's issues,
she and others say, is in part driven by 9/11. As Islam came under
intense scrutiny, repeated critiques that the faith oppresses women
forced the community to confront the issue, some say.
"People in general tend to deal with
issues when they are thrust in their face
. The issue we get hit with
by every Muslim-basher is the women's issue," said Ibrahim Hooper, the
American-Islamic council spokesman.
For others, the terrorist attack by
Islamic extremists galvanized them to fight what they regard as other
deviations from their faith, such as gender bias. One of these is
Zuriani Zonneveld, a Los Angeles musician.
A native of Malaysia, she had
quietly practiced her faith five daily prayers, Ramadan fasting
without involving herself in community issues. That changed when her
manager woke her up with the news of the terrorist attacks nearly four
Zonneveld recalls feeling
responsible somehow, and horrible for having that feeling. Her
7-year-daughter was taunted by a classmate who said, "Your God is evil."
Zonneveld said she realized that she
had to actively assert her vision of Islam as a faith of compassion,
equality and peace. Since then, she has worked to empower women and
build ties with other faiths through the progressive Muslim union and
the Islamic Center of Southern California.
"9/11 really brought me out with a
vengeance," she said. "As a Muslim, I need to step up to the plate and
correct things I think are completely wrong."
Nomani's activism was ignited by
life-and-death events: the birth of her son, Shibli, and the murder of
her friend and then-fellow Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl,
by Islamic terrorists in Pakistan.
On that night in Karachi three years
ago, when news broke about Pearl's beheading, Nomani was with the
reporter's wife, Marianne. As she listened to Marianne's wails, Nomani
said, she buried her head in her hands and murmured a prayer for
protection taught to her as a child. She says she realized then that
she had to fight efforts to use Islam in the name of hate.
The birth of her son later that year, which was criticized because she was unmarried, further pushed her to advocacy.
"We have to take on the way religion
has been corrupted to destroy people," said Nomani, who has left the
Wall Street Journal and chronicled her experiences as a Muslim woman in
her memoir. "I feel I am fighting for all of the disenfranchised people
who don't have a place in Islam."
Jordanian Islamists blast Gadhafi, Turabi
AMMAN, Jordan, April 12 (UPI) -- Libyan
leader Moammar Gadhafi's invitation to Christians and Jews to visit Mecca,
Islam's holiest shrine, has sparked outrage among Jordanian Islamists.
The outlawed but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood
Organization also blasted Sudanese Islamic leader Hassan al-Turabi for issuing
edicts allowing Muslim women to wear a less rigid veil.
Salem Falahat, spiritual guide of the
Brotherhood, whose political wing, the Islamic Action Front, controls the
biggest opposition bloc in parliament, told United Press International
Wednesday, "al-Turabi is condemned for issuing edicts rejected by any Muslim
Falahat said "we are used to President
Gadhafi's crazes as he makes edicts as he pleases... He invited Christians and
Jews to enter the grand mosque in Mecca although he knows that such a thing is
prohibited by Islamic laws."
He argued that Gadhafi might have made such
declarations "only to outrage the Saudi authorities due to his country's tense
relations with Saudi Arabia."
Falahat said he believes there are political
motives behind issuing the controversial edicts which contradict religious
For his part, the head of the Shura Council
of the Islamic Action Front, Hamza Mansour, said "the declarations made by
certain Arab leaders and thinkers are strange and indicate a complete ignorance
and submission to Western culture."
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