Breaching the Wall at Prayer

Muslim 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 practice.

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 leaders say.

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 prayer hall.

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 center.

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 practices.

"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 years ago.

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 ulema."

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 texts.

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."