Tending to Muslim Hearts and Islam’s Future

By ANDREA ELLIOTT The young Egyptian professional could pass for any New York bachelor. Dressed in a crisp polo shirt and swathed in cologne, he races his Nissan Maxima through the rain-slicked streets of Manhattan, late for a date with a tall brunette. At red lights, he fusses with his hair. What sets the bachelor apart from other young men on the make is the chaperon sitting next to him – a tall, bearded man in a white robe and stiff embroidered hat. “I pray that Allah will bring this couple together,” the man, Sheik Reda Shata, says, clutching his seat belt and urging the bachelor to slow down. Christian singles have coffee hour. Young Jews have JDate. But many Muslims believe that it is forbidden for an unmarried man and woman to meet in private. In predominantly Muslim countries, the job of making introductions and even arranging marriages typically falls to a vast network of family and friends. In Brooklyn, there is Mr. Shata. Week after week, Muslims embark on dates with him in tow. Mr. Shata, the imam of a Bay Ridge mosque, juggles some 550 “marriage candidates,” from a gold-toothed electrician to a professor at Columbia University. The meetings often unfold on the green velour couch of his office, or over a meal at his favorite Yemeni restaurant on Atlantic Avenue. The bookish Egyptian came to America in 2002 to lead prayers, not to dabble in matchmaking. He was far more conversant in Islamic jurisprudence than in matters of the heart. But American imams must wear many hats, none of which come tailor-made. Whether issuing American-inspired fatwas or counseling the homesick, fielding questions from the F.B.I. or mediating neighborhood spats, Mr. Shata walks an endless labyrinth of problems. If anything seems conquerable, it is the solitude of Muslim singles. Nothing brings the imam more joy than guiding them to marriage. It is his way of fashioning a future for his faith. It is his most heartfelt effort – by turns graceful and comedic, vexing and hopeful – to make Islam work in America. Word of the imam’s talents has traveled far, eliciting lonely calls from Muslims in Chicago and Los Angeles, or from meddlesome parents in Cairo and Damascus. From an estimated 250 chaperoned dates, Mr. Shata has produced 10 marriages. “The prophet said whoever brings a man and woman together, it is as if he has worshiped for an entire year,” said Mr. Shata, 37, speaking through an Arabic translator. The task is not easy. In a country of plentiful options, Muslim immigrants can become picky, even rude, the imam complains. During one date, a woman studied the red-circled eyes of a prospective husband and asked, “Have you brought me an alcoholic?” On another occasion, an Egyptian man stared at the flat chest of a pleasant young Moroccan woman and announced, “She looks like a log!” the imam recalled. “This would never happen in Egypt,” said Mr. Shata, turning red at the memory. “Never, never. If I knew this boy had no manners I never would have let him into my office.” The Imam’s Little Black Book The concept of proper courtship in Islam, like much about the faith, is open to interpretation. Islamic law specifies that a man and woman who are unmarried may not be alone in closed quarters. Some Muslims reject any mingling before marriage. Others freely date. Many fall somewhere in between, meeting in groups, getting engaged and spending time alone before the wedding, while their parents look the other way. For one Syrian in New York, a date at Starbucks is acceptable if it begins and ends on the premises: The public is his chaperon. Mr. Shata is a traditionalist. There were few strangers in his rural town of birth, Kafr al Battikh, in northeastern Egypt. Men and women often agreed to marry the day they met, and a few made the deal sight unseen. It was rare to meet anyone from a distant province, let alone another country. New York is not only the capital of the world, imams often joke, but also the crossroads of Islam, a human sampling more diverse than anywhere save Mecca during the annual pilgrimage known as the Hajj. Beyond the city’s five boroughs, Muslim immigrants have formed Islamic hubs in California, Illinois, Michigan and Texas. At the center of these hubs stands a familiar sight in a foreign land, the mosque. What was a place of worship in Pakistan or Algeria becomes, in Houston or Detroit, a social haven. But inside, the sexes remain largely apart. A growing number of Muslim Web sites advertise marriage candidates, and housewives often double as matchmakers. One mosque in Princeton, N.J., plays host to a closely supervised version of speed dating. And so many singles worship at the Islamic Society of Boston that a committee was formed to match them up. Fearing a potential surplus of single Muslim women, one Brooklyn imam reportedly urged his wealthier male congregants during a Ramadan sermon last year to take two wives. When a woman complained about the sermon to Mr. Shata, he laughed. “You know that preacher who said Hugo Ch_vez should be shot?” he asked. “We have our idiots, too.” More than a matchmaker, Mr. Shata sees himself as a surrogate elder to young Muslims, many of whom live far from their parents. In America, only an imam is thought to have the connections, wisdom and respect to step into the role. Mr. Shata began the service three months after arriving in Brooklyn in 2002, recruited to lead the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, a mosque on Fifth Avenue. Dates chaperoned by Mr. Shata – or “meetings between candidates,” as the imam prefers to call them – often take place in his distinctly unromantic office, amid rows of Islamic texts. As a couple get acquainted, the imam sits quietly at his desk, writing a sermon or surfing the Arabic Web sites of CNN and the BBC. If there is an awkward silence, the imam perks up and asks a question (“So tell me, Ilham, how many siblings do you have?”) and the conversation is moving again. Candidates are vetted carefully, and those without personal references need not apply. But instinct is Mr. Shata’s best guide. He refused to help a Saudi from California because the man would consider only a teenage wife. Others have shown an all-too-keen interest in a green card. Those who pass initial inspection are listed in the imam’s version of a little black book – their names, phone numbers, specifications and desires. Some prefer “silky hair,” others “a virgin.” Nearly all candidates, men and women alike, want a mate with devotion to Islam, decent looks and legal immigration status. Scanning the book, the imam makes his pitch with the precision of a car salesman. “There is a girl, an American convert, Dominican, looks a little Egyptian. Skin-wise, not white, not dark. Wheat-colored. She’s 19, studies accounting,” Mr. Shata told a 24-year-old Palestinian man one afternoon. “This is my only choice?” replied the man, Yamal Othman, who lives in Queens. Such questions annoy Mr. Shata. An imam, he says, should be trusted to select the best candidate. Often, though, his recommendations are met with skepticism. “It’s harder than choosing a diamond,” said Mr. Shata. Sometimes, on the imam’s three-legged dates, no one seems more excited than Mr. Shata himself. He makes hurried, hearty introductions and then steps back to watch, as if mixing chemicals in a lab experiment. Love is rarely ignited, but the imam remains awed by its promise. Mr. Shata discovered love 15 years ago, when he walked into the living room of the most stately house in Kafr al Battikh. The imam was tall, 22, a rising star at the local mosque. For months, Omyma Elshabrawy knew only his voice. She would listen to his thunderous sermons from the women’s section, out of view. Then, one evening, he appeared at her home, presented as a prospective groom to her father, a distinguished reciter of the Koran. The young woman, then 20, walked toward Mr. Shata carrying a tray of lemonade. “She entered my heart,” said the imam. After serving the drinks, she disappeared. Right then, Mr. Shata asked her father for her hand in marriage. The older man paused. His daughter was the town beauty, an English student with marriage offers from
doctors. The imam was penniless. But before Mr. Elshabrawy could respond, a sugary voice interrupted. “I accept,” his daughter said from behind a door. “I loved him from the moment I saw him,” Ms. Elshabrawy said. They now have four children. The family posed last year for a Sears-style portrait, taken by a woman in Bay Ridge who photographs Muslim families in her basement. A blue sky and white picket fence adorn the background. The imam sits at center, with the baby, Mohammed, in his lap, his three daughters smiling, his wife wrapped in a lime-green hijab. Mr. Shata carries the picture in the breast pocket of his robe. It is as close as most people get to his family. At the mosque, they are a mystery. His wife has been there twice. Their years in America have come with great hardship, a subject the imam rarely discusses. The trouble is the illness of his 7-year-old daughter, Rawda, who is severely epileptic. She has dozens of seizures every day and rarely leaves home. No combination of medicine seems to help. “Rawda is the wound in my heart,” the imam said. Mr. Shata offers long, stubborn theories about the value of marriage, but to observe him at home is to understand the commitment he seeks to foster in other Muslims. The family lives in a spare, dimly lighted apartment two blocks from the mosque. Headscarves are piled over Pok_mon cards. The gold-painted words “Allah is Great” are framed over a threadbare couch. In the next room, an “I {sheart} New York” bumper sticker is slapped on the wall. Mr. Shata spends long hours away from his family, lecturing at mosques, settling disputes, whispering the call to prayer in the ears of newborn babies. On his walk home at night, he shops for groceries, never forgetting the Honey Nut Cheerios, a favorite American discovery of his children. When he walks in the door, his face softens. Loud kisses are planted on tender cheeks. Mohammed squeals, the girls smile, sweet laughter echoes. But then there is Rawda. “My beautiful girl,” the imam says softly one evening, holding his limp daughter in his lap after a seizure has passed. He places one pill in Rawda’s mouth, then another. She looks at him weakly. “There we go,” he whispers. “Inshallah.” Her lids close with sleep. He lays her in bed and shuts off the light. Hardship, the imam believes – like marriage, like life – is a test from God. Foreign and Familiar It is proof of the imam’s uncommon popularity among women that he is trusted with roughly 300 female marriage candidates. The mosque on Fifth Avenue is a decidedly male place. Men occupy every position on the board of directors. They crowd the sidewalk after prayer. Only they may enter the mosque’s central room of worship. Only men, they often point out, are required to attend the Friday prayer. One floor below is the cramped room where the women worship. On Fridays, they sit pressed together, their headscarves itching with heat. They must watch their imam on a closed-circuit television that no one seems to have adjusted in years. But they listen devotedly. Teenage girls often roll their eyes at foreign imams, who seem to them like extraterrestrials. Their immigrant mothers often find these clerics too strict, an uncomfortable reminder of their conservative homelands. Mr. Shata is both foreign and familiar. He presides over a patriarchal world, sometimes upholding it, and other times challenging it. In one sermon, he said that a man was in charge of his home and had the right to “choose his wife’s friends.” Another day, to the consternation of his male congregants, he invited a female Arab social worker to lecture on domestic violence. The women were allowed to sit next to the men in the main section of the mosque. The imam frowns at career women who remain single in their 30’s, but boasts of their accomplishments to interest marriage candidates. He employs his own brand of feminism, vetting marriage contracts closely to ensure brides receive a fair dowry and fighting for them when they don’t. Far more than is customary, he spends hours listening to women: to their worries and confessions, their intimate secrets and frank questions about everything from menstruation to infidelity. They line up outside his office and call his home at all hours, often referring to him as “my brother” or “father.” He can summon the details of their lives with the same encyclopedic discipline he once used to memorize the Koran. “Are you separated yet?” Mr. Shata asked a woman he encountered at Lutheran Medical Center one day last July. She nodded. “May God make it easier for you,” he said. A Chaperoned Date By most standards, the Egyptian bachelor was a catch. He had broad shoulders and a playful smile. He was witty. He earned a comfortable salary as an engineer, and came from what he called “a good family.” But the imam saw him differently, as a young man in danger of losing his faith. The right match might save him. The bachelor, who is 33, came to Brooklyn from Alexandria, Egypt, six years earlier. He craved a better salary, and freedom from controlling parents. He asked that his name not be printed for fear of causing embarrassment to his family. America was not like Egypt, where his family’s connections could secure a good job. In Brooklyn, he found work as a busboy. He traded the plush comfort of his parents’ home for an apartment crowded with other Egyptian immigrants. His nights were lonely. Temptation was abundant. Women covered far less of their bodies. Bare limbs, it seemed, were everywhere. In Islam, men are instructed to lower their gaze to avoid falling into sin. “In the summertime, it’s a disaster for us,” said the bachelor. “Especially a guy like me, who’s looking all the time.” Curiosity lured him into bars, clubs and the occasional one-night stand. But with freedom came guilt, he said. After drifting from his faith, he visited Mr. Shata’s mosque during Ramadan in 2004. The imam struck him as oddly disarming. He made jokes, and explained Islam in simple, passionate paragraphs. The bachelor soon began praying daily, attending weekly lectures and reading the Koran. By then, he had his own apartment and a consulting job. Now he wanted a Muslim wife. If the bachelor had been in Egypt, his parents would offer a stream of marriage candidates. The distance had not stopped them entirely. His mother sent him a video of his brother’s wedding, directing him to footage of a female guest. He was unimpressed. “I’m a handsome guy,” he explained one evening as he sped toward Manhattan. It was his second date with Mr. Shata in attendance. “I have a standard in beauty.” From the passenger seat, the imam flipped open the glove compartment to find an assortment of pricey colognes. He inspected a bottle of Gio and, with a nod from the bachelor, spritzed it over his robe. The imam and the bachelor were at odds over the material world, but on one thing they agreed: it is a Muslim duty to smell good. The religion’s founder, the Prophet Muhammad, was said to wear musk. The car slowed before a brick high-rise on Second Avenue. Soon the pair rode up in the elevator. The bachelor took a breath and rang the doorbell. An older woman answered. Behind her stood a slender, fetching woman with a shy smile. The young woman, Engy Abdelkader, had been presented to the imam by another matchmaker. A woman of striking beauty and poise, Ms. Abdelkader is less timid than she first seems. She works as an immigration and human rights lawyer, and speaks in forceful, eloquent bursts. She is proud of her faith, and lectures publicly on Islam and civil liberties. She was not always so outspoken. The daughter of Egyptian immigrants, Ms. Abdelkader, 30, was raised in suburban Howell, N.J., where she longed to fit in. Though she grew up praying, in high school she chose not to wear a hijab, the head scarf donned by Muslim girls when they reach puberty. But Sept. 11 awakened her, Ms. Abdelkader said. For her and other Muslims, the terrorist attacks prompted a return to the faith, driven by what she said was a need to reclaim Islam from terrorists and a vilifying media. Headscarves became a statement, equal parts political and religious. “There’s no
thing oppressive about it,” said Ms. Abdelkader. “As a Muslim woman I am asking people to pay attention to the content of my character rather than my physical appearance.” The pair sat on a couch, awkwardly sipping tea. They began by talking, in English, about their professions. The bachelor was put off by the fact that Ms. Abdelkader had a law degree, yet earned a modest salary. “Why go to law school and not make money?” he asked later. Ms. Abdelkader’s mother and a female friend who lived in the apartment sat listening nearby until the imam mercifully distracted them. The first hint of trouble came soon after. It was his dream, the engineer told Ms. Abdelkader, to buy a half-million-dollar house. But he was uncertain that the mortgage he would need is lawful in Islam. Ms. Abdelkader straightened her back and replied, “I would rather have eternal bliss in the hereafter than live in a house or apartment with a mortgage.” An argument ensued. Voices rose. Ms. Abdelkader’s mother took her daughter’s side. The friend wavered. The bachelor held his ground. The imam tried to mediate. Indeed, he was puzzled. Here was a woman who had grown up amid tended lawns and new cars, yet she rejected materialism. And here was a man raised by Muslim hands, yet he was rebelliously moderate. After the date, the bachelor told the imam, “I want a woman, not a sheik.” Months later, he married another immigrant; she was not especially devoted to Islam but she made him laugh, he said. They met through friends in New York. Ms. Abdelkader remains single. The imam still believes she was the perfect match. That evening, the imam stood on the sidewalk outside. Rain fell in stinging drops. “I never wanted to be a sheik,” he said. “I used to think that a religious person is very extreme and never smiles. And I love to smile. I love to laugh. I used to think that religious people were isolated and I love to be among people.” The rain soaked the imam’s robe and began to pool in his sandals. A moment later, he ducked inside the building. “The surprise for me was that the qualities I thought would not make a good sheik – simplicity and humor and being close to people – those are the most important qualities. People love those who smile and laugh. They need someone who lives among them and knows their pain.” “I know them,” said Mr. Shata. “Like a brother.” Copyright 2006The New York Times Company Home Privacy Policy Search Corrections XML Help Contact Us Work for Us Site Map Back to Top

Muslims In Philly Shun Men Who Abuse Wives

By Kristin E. Holmes PHILADELPHIA — The veil shrouding spouse abuse in Muslim families is being torn away by some mosque leaders — putting them at the forefront of efforts by American Muslims to stem domestic violence. The Philadelphia clergy council — known as the Majlis Ash’Shura of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley — has adopted a tough policy of public shunning of Muslims who abuse their spouses or abandon their families. Under the initiative, adopted in May, offenders will go on a list circulated among area Muslims. They will be banned from future marriages in communities that adhere to the policy. Fellow Muslims will be discouraged from patronizing any businesses they own. “We need to take a public stand,” said Imam Isa Abdul-Mateen, secretary of the Majlis Ash’Shura, an association of 30 imams. “We want people to know that this will not be tolerated.” In coming months, the council will address issues such as the criteria for putting names on the list and safeguards to protect spouses who step forward. Domestic violence appears no more prevalent in Muslim communities than elsewhere, but Islamic advocacy groups and others have tried to push the problem into the open. With the new policy, Philadelphia leaps over other Muslim communities that are just starting to confront the issue, said Maha Alkhateeb, project manager of the Peaceful Families Project, a Virginia-based nonprofit that addresses domestic violence among Muslims. A striking aspect of the initiative is that it was started not by female advocates but by the male leadership, said Amina Wadud, author of “Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text From a Woman’s Perspective.” “This is setting a new precedent, globally.” The Rev. Marie Fortune of the FaithTrust Institute in Seattle, a leading domestic-violence policy center, said she knew of no other religious community in the country that had “so specific and rigorous” a policy. Within Muslim families, domestic violence remains largely a taboo subject, Alkhateeb said. Some Muslims deny its existence in a faith in which men are supposed to be protectors of women and children. Some immigrant families are too focused on building a better life to deal with the issue. Activists also cite a widespread reluctance to air problems and expose fellow Muslims to public scandal. As a consequence, there is little data on the extent of the problem. One study, done in 2000, surveyed 500 Arab women in Dearborn, Mich., and found that 18 percent to 20 percent said they had suffered spouse abuse, a rate similar to that in the general population. Approximately 98 percent of the sample was Muslim, said Anahid Kulwicki, a professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., who did the study. There are signs that Muslims are awakening to the problem. A group of imams signed a pledge to fight domestic violence at a recent Peaceful Families conference in Washington. A turning point in Philadelphia may have come in 2001 when a city police officer killed his wife and then himself. Both were Muslims, and the incident shook the Muslim community, said Taalibah Kariem-White, of Germantown, a domestic-violence expert who lectures nationally on the issue. The policy applies to both men and women. Though there are few female batterers, Mateen envisions the sanctions applying to women who make or threaten false claims to police or vindictively deny a man visitation with his children.

Legal sanctions come into force against female genital mutilation performed outside Spanish borders.

Some cases of individuals performing the operation while abroad on trips have been noted, and the Spanish government moved to make these prosecutable, as with other crimes such as genocide, terrorism, piracy, prostitution, and the corruption of minors with drugs. {(continued below in Spanish)} El Pleno del Congreso de los Diputados dio luz verde el pasado 23 de junio a esta norma que permite la persecuci_n extraterritorial de este delito cuando se realiza en el extranjero, ‘como sucede en la mayor parte de los casos, aprovechando viajes o estancias en los pa_ses de origen’ de los inmigrantes. Esta pr_ctica, que va desde la extirpaci_n del cl_toris hasta el cosido de los labios vaginales ya est_ tipificada en el C_digo Penal, con una pena de entre 6 y 12 a_os de c_rcel. Sin embargo, ahora se modifica la Ley Org_nica 6/1985 del Poder Judicial para que pueda ser perseguida fuera de Espa_a. A partir da ahora, la jurisdicci_n espa_ola ser_ competente para perseguir estos hechos, tal y como sucede con delitos como el genocidio, el terrorismo, la pirater_a, la prostituci_n, la corrupci_n de menores o el tr_fico de drogas. Pa_ses Subsaharianos Y Asi_ticos En Espa_a se tuvo constancia de estas pr_cticas a ra_z de varios casos en los que ni_as inmigrantes pidieron auxilio a sus profesores en el colegio, ante el temor de que sus familiares les mutilaran durante un periodo de vacaciones en su pa_s de origen. El Defensor del Pueblo tambi_n se ha hecho eco de casos en los que inmigrantes acudieron a centros sanitarios para que procedieran a la mutilaci_n genital de sus hijos. Este tipo de pr_cticas se realizan en cerca de 25 pa_ses de la franja subsahariana y en algunos de Asia por parte de distintas culturas y confesiones religiosas (el Islam, animistas y cristianas), como un rito de iniciaci_n a la pubertad, tal y como explic_ la diputada de CiU Merc_ Pigem, responsable de la ponencia por parte de su grupo. Los expertos calculan que un total de 135 millones de ni_as han sufrido mutilaci_n del cl_toris y que cada a_o se producen 2 millones de casos nuevos; esto es 6.000 al d_a y 5 cada minuto.

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.”

First Women-Only Mosque Opens In Amsterdam

A number of Dutch Muslim women opened Saturday, March 19, a women-only mosque in the metropolitan city of Amsterdam. Inaugurated by controversial Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El-Saadawi, the mosque is a part of a project carried out by the De Balie cultural center and the cultural development institute of the Forum organization, both financially backed by the government. The mosque is run by women from A to Z, with a woman leading the prayer and another raising the Adhan (call to prayer). The traditional curtains separating male and female worshipers in mosques disappeared from the novel mosque. Men were conspicuous by their absence though a few of them attended the inauguration ceremony out of curiosity and sat at the back. The project sponsors argue that it is a milestone as it will meet the “spiritual needs of Muslim women” and serve as a meeting point for “isolated” women away from male dominance. Saadawi took the podium, preaching against what she called the “oppression” of Muslim women and urging women to “resist” for equal rights with men. Saadawi faced an apostasy case in 2001 before an Egyptian court after she had been quoted by Egyptian newspapers as saying that hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Islam, was “a vestige of a pagan practice” and that Islamic inheritance law should be abolished. A spokeswoman for the De Balie center, who requested anonymity, told IslamOnline.net that Saadawi has been selected because “she set herself up as a paradigm for women liberalization and their struggle to lift the oppression.” She, however, said that the mosque has nothing to do with the woman-led mixed-gender Friday prayer in New York City on March18 . IOL correspondents says the project fits within the government’s tendency to boost what it sees as “liberal” Muslims against “extremists”. Diverting Attention Ahmad Al-Rawi, the chairman of the Union of Islamic Organizations in Europe (UIOE), said things like the woman-led prayers and the new women-only mosque are western attempts to distract Muslims’ attention from pressing issues facing them in the West. “Muslims [in the West] should rather be preoccupied with educating the young generations about their religion and protecting them from moral aberration,” he told IOL. Rawi underlined that Muslim women in Europe are in no way inferior to their male partners. “They [women] play a leading role in our organization and face no discrimination whatsoever,” he added. Marzouk Abdullah, professor of Shari`ah in the Islamic European University in the Netherlands, urged Muslim women in Europe to display good intentions, cautioning them against committing wrongdoing unabashedly. “We can never deny them their right to form an assembly to raise the awareness of the rights and responsibilities of women under Islam, if they are really for that,” he told IOL. It is a sort of clich_ to say that women are oppressed under Islam, but it is a fact to say that immigrant women in the country – particularly Muslims – are being discriminated against, Dutch Muslim female lawyer Famille Arslan told IOL on Monday, March14 . She said that Muslim women in the Netherlands take the brunt of religious discrimination and racial profiling in the labor market because of their attire and names. Muslims make up one million of the Netherlands’s 16 million population. Turks represent 80 percent of the Muslim minority. There are some 450 mosques in the Netherlands,1,000Islamic cultural centers, two Islamic universities and 42 preparatory schools, according to recent estimates. Press reports have underlined that Dutch Muslims were subjected to religious discrimination and racist attacks on their places of worship in 2004.