Woman leads small movement for gender equality in U.S. Islam

Posted: Friday, July 16, 2004

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) During Ramadan last year, Asra Nomani took a deep breath and entered the front door of the Islamic Center in Morgantown, shunning tradition and the women's balcony to pray on the main floor.

The 38-year-old single mother had no intention of praying right next to the men an act that would seem shocking to the congregants. But she did want to see and hear the prayer leader, and was willing to break down gender barriers to do it.

She hopes her simple act will be the first step toward improving Muslim women's rights at mosques across the nation.

''To deny women access to space is to deny access to participation,'' Nomani said. ''We want voice and we want leadership.''

Although there was never an official policy at the Morgantown mosque, it had become custom that women would pray in the balcony and enter through a separate door ''to protect their privacy,'' said Christine Arja, a Fairmont lawyer, who is a spokeswoman for the mosque's executive committee.

''Many people don't understand the manner in which Muslims pray,'' Arja said. ''We pray in a line with our shoulders touching and our backsides do go up in the air. Many women don't want to be shoulder-to-shoulder with men.''

Still, in June less than a month after a new executive committee was elected, including the mosque's first woman leaders clarified that women can pray behind men in the main prayer space. The mosque's small membership is largely made up of West Virginia University students and staff members.

''Less than a year ago, they told me, 'Sister, please use the back entrance,''' Nomani said. ''Now, they're talking about greeting us at the door. This is an important victory toward removing the barriers that keep women from full participation.''

Since Nomani started praying in the main hall, along with her mother and 13-year-old niece, few female mosque members have joined her. Many women, she said, ''still feel like they're breaking the rules.''

And some who supported Nomani in the beginning feel alienated by the spotlight she shined on their once peaceful mosque, Arja said. A small contingent has even sought to have her banned from the mosque.

Nomani, an author and journalist, was born in India but moved to the United States when she was 4 and to Morgantown when she was 10. After traveling throughout the world as a reporter, she returned to West Virginia last year to raise her son near family.

Her father, a retired WVU professor, was one of the founding members of the mosque built 23 years ago. Today, he apologizes to his daughter for not recognizing women's rights from the beginning, saying he didn't know better.

Islam teaches there is only one God and Muhammad was his messenger. Muslims place importance on prayers, charity, fasting, pilgrimage and the act of reading of Islam's holy text, the Quran.

But worship practices vary. Even in the United States, some mosques ban women altogether and a growing number put women behind a partition or in another room to pray, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. In 1994, 52 percent of mosques segregated women, while in 2000, 66 percent did so, according to the council.

Some Muslims, like Arja, say separation prevents sexual distractions for both genders and keeps the focus on God. Nomani counters that ''sexuality is often used as an excuse to deny us rights.''

The practice of separating men and women has both religious and cultural origins, but Muslims disagree dramatically over how Quranic verses on segregating the sexes should be interpreted. Regional cultural influences are a major factor in how U.S. mosques handle the issue.

Until the late 1980s, most Muslims coming to the United States were highly educated and embraced Western values. But that changed as more immigrants arrived with their own, more conservative form of Islam.

''Many men simply do not want women participating,'' Nomani said. ''In the workplace, we call that a hostile work environment.''

Still, gender segregation is not universal.

Many mosques across the world allow women and men to pray in the same space, including Islam's holiest mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. That prompted Nomani and a few other like-minded women to form a group, Daughters of Hajar, to fight for gender equality in worship. The organization is named for the second wife of Abraham and mother of Ismail, whose lineage produced Islam's founding prophet, Muhammad, according to Muslim teaching.

Other founding members include Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur of Atlanta, an author and a recent chief operating officer of Azizah, a magazine for Muslim women; author Samina Ali of San Francisco; Sarah Eltantawi, communications director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in New York; Mohja Kahf, an associate professor of literature at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and a columnist for the Internet magazine Muslim Wake-Up; and Nomani's mother, Sajida, a retired business owner.

Nomani and other founders kicked off their quest with a conference in Morgantown last month where they marched to the mosque, entered through the front door and prayed in the main hall. They also worked on a mission statement, which is still being refined.

''We're doing this in the hopes of planting seeds for the transformation of the entire Muslim community,'' Abdul-Ghafur said. ''When women don't have adequate space to pray, you have silenced half the community.''

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