U.S. Muslims Heighten Call For Wider Role For Women Defying Tradition

By Teresa Watanabe On a recent Friday, a veiled woman entered a crowded mosque in Los Angeles 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,Nomani – 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 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 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 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 men and women 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 Sept. 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. Double Lives, They Say 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, including Muslims in Hawai’i. A barrage of e-mail and newspaper columns show this issue continues to be hot. Some women 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. Training For Clerics Last year, the Islamic Society of North America, the largest umbrella group of mosques in the U.S., 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 nationwide distribution of 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 in June to debate the contentious question of whether Islam allows women to lead prayer. The meeting, which packed the Religious Center at the University of Southern California with both liberals and traditionalists, featured Khaled Abou El Fadl, an Islamic law professor at the University of California Los Angeles, 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 prostrations, 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.” Worldwide Attention While a few women have quietly led mixed groups in prayers for years in the U.S., 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 hookup – 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 Quranic 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.” North American Muslim organizations have documented widespread concerns about practices in mosques. And without more openness, some say, the Islamic community could lose the next generation of American-born Muslims. Shahina Siddiqui, the Winnipeg-based president of the Islamic Social Service Association-Canada, said she was already seeing growing numbers of women and young people 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.”