Going Where I Know I Belong

by Asra Q. Nomani

On the 11th day of the recent Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in a pre-dawn lit by the moon, my mother, my niece and I walked through the front doors of our local mosque with my father, my nephew and my infant son. My stomach churning, we ascended to a hall to pray together.

Islamic teaching forbids men and women praying directly next to each other in mosques. But most American mosques have gone well beyond that simple prohibition by importing largely from Arab culture a system of separate accommodations that provides women with wholly unequal services for prayer and education. And yet, excluding women ignores the rights the prophet Muhammad gave them in the 7th century and represents "innovations" that emerged after the prophet died. I had been wrestling with these injustices for some time when I finally decided to take a stand.

I had no intention of praying right next to the men, who were seated at the front of the cavernous hall. I just wanted a place in the main prayer space. As my mother, my niece and I sat about 20 feet behind the men, a loud voice broke the quiet. "Sister, please! Please leave!" one of the mosque's elders yelled at me. "It is better for women upstairs." We women were expected to enter by a rear door and pray in the balcony. If we wanted to participate in any of the activities below us, we were supposed to give a note to one of the children, who would carry it to the men in the often near-empty hall. "I will close the mosque," he thundered. I had no idea at that moment if he would make good on his threat. But I had no doubt that our act of disobedience would soon embroil the mosque, and my family, in controversy. Nevertheless, my mind was made up.

"Thank you, brother," I said firmly. "I'm happy praying here."

In fact, for the first time since the start of Ramadan, I was happy in prayer. In the nearly two months since that day, I have entered the mosque through the front door and prayed in the main hall about 30 times. My battle has been rather solitary; only four women, including my sister-in-law, and three girls have joined me from time to time. And yet I feel victorious.

In a sense, the seeds of my rebellion go back to childhood. I am a 38-year-old Muslim woman born in Bombay and raised in West Virginia. My father and other men started the first mosque here in Morgantown in a room they rented across from the Monongalia County Jail. When we were young, my brother used to join them in prayer. I don't remember ever being invited. What I do recall is celebrating one Muslim holiday trapped in an efficiency apartment with other women, while the men enjoyed a buffet in a spacious lounge elsewhere. As I grew older, I felt increasingly alienated because I didn't feel I could find refuge in my religion as a strong-willed, open-minded woman.

When I became pregnant last year while unmarried, I struggled with the edicts of some Muslims who condemned women to be stoned to death for having babies out of wedlock. I wrote on these pages about such judgments being un-Islamic, and my faith was buoyed by the many Muslims who rallied to my side. To raise my son, Shibli, as a Muslim, I had to find a way to exist peacefully within Islam.

I had tried to accept the status quo through the first days of Ramadan, praying silently upstairs, listening to sermons addressed only to "brothers." After so many years away, I felt I would be like an interloper if I protested. But my sense of subjugation interrupted my prayer each time I touched my forehead to the carpet. I lay in bed each night despising the men who had ordered me to use the mosque's rear entrance. "Your anger reveals a deeper pain," my friend Alan Godlas, a professor of religious studies at the University of Georgia, told me when I described the conflict I felt.

It was true. I had witnessed the marginalization of women in many parts of Muslim society. But my parents had taught me that I wasn't meant to be marginal. Nor did I believe that Islam expected that of me. I began researching that question, and I found scholarly evidence overwhelmingly concludes that mosques that bar women from the main prayer space aren't Islamic. They more aptly reflect the age of ignorance, or Jahiliya, in pre-Islamic Arabia. "Women's present marginalization in the mosque is a betrayal of what Islam had promised women and [what] was realized in the early centuries," says Asma Afsaruddin, a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame.

And that marginalization seems, if anything, to be worsening. CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has concluded, based on a 2000 survey, that "the practice of having women pray behind a curtain or in another room is becoming more widespread" in this country. In 2000, women at 66 percent of the U.S. mosques surveyed prayed behind a curtain or partition or in another room, compared with 52 percent in 1994, according to the survey of leaders of 416 mosques nationwide.

And yet, notes Daisy Khan, executive director of ASMA Society, an American Muslim organization, "The mosque is a place of learning. . . . If men prevent women from learning, how will they answer to God?"

The mosque was not a men's club when the prophet Muhammad built an Islamic ummah, or "community." Nothing in the Koran restricts a woman's access to a mosque, and the prophet told men: "Do not stop the female servants of Allah from attending the mosques of Allah."

The prophet himself prayed with women. And when he heard that some men positioned themselves in the mosque to be closer to an attractive woman, his solution wasn't to ban women but to admonish the men. In Medina, during the prophet's time and for some years thereafter, women prayed in the prophet's mosque without any partition between them and the men. Historians record women's presence in the mosque and participation in education, in political and literary debates, in asking questions of the prophet after his sermons, in transmitting religious knowledge and in providing social services. After the prophet's death, his wife Aisha related anecdotes about his life to scribes in the mosque. And Abdullah bin Umar, a leading companion of the Prophet and a son of Omar bin al-Khattab, the second caliph, or leader of Islam, reprimanded his son for trying to prevent women from going to the mosque. "By the third century of Islam, many [women's] rights slowly began to be whittled away as earlier Near Eastern . . . notions of female propriety and seclusion began to take hold," said Afsaruddin.

The Fiqh Council of North America, which issues legal rulings for the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), supports women's rights in the mosque. "It is perfectly Islamic to hold meetings of men and women inside the masjid," the mosque, says Muzammil H. Siddiqi, a Fiqh Council member. He adds that this is true "whether for prayers or for any other Islamic purpose, without separating them with a curtain, partition or wall."

All too often, however, the mosque in America "is a men's club where women and children aren't welcome," said Ingrid Mattson, an Islamic scholar at the Hartford Seminary and an ISNA vice president.

One of the issues working against American Muslim women -- an issue not much discussed outside the Muslim community -- is the de facto takeover of many U.S. mosques by conservative and traditionist Muslims, many from the Arab world. Most of these are immigrants, many of them students, who follow the strict Wahhabi and Salafi schools of Islam, which largely exclude women from public spaces. They stack our mosque library with books printed by the government of Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabi teachings reign. Here in Morgantown, students from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, mostly male and conservative, were virtually nonexistent 10 years ago. More precisely, there were three. Today there are 55, and their wives regularly glide through the local Wal-Mart wearing black abayas, or gowns. (Ironically, the Saudi government says that partitions and separate rooms aren't required in mosques.)

Sadly, the students' presence emboldens (or in some places cows) American mosque leaders, many of whom try to rationalize the discrimination against women through a hadith, a saying of the prophet: "Do not prevent your women from (going to) the mosques, though their houses are best for them." But scholars consider this an allowance, not a restriction. The prophet made the statement after women complained when he said Muslims get 27 times more blessings when praying at the mosque.

Much of this discrimination is also practiced in the name of "protecting" women. If women and men are allowed to mix, the argument goes, the mosque will become a sexually charged place, dangerous for women and distracting to men. In our mosque, only the men are allowed to use a microphone to address the faithful. When I asked why, a mosque leader declared, "A woman's voice is not to be heard in the mosque." What he meant was that a woman's voice -- even raised in prayer -- is an instrument of sexual provocation to men. Many women accept these rulings; their apathy makes these rules the status quo.

I am heartened that some Muslim men are fighting for women's rights. On that 11th day of Ramadan last month, when I made clear that I would pray in the main hall, my 70-year-old father stood by me as a mosque elder said to him, "There will be no praying until she leaves."

"She is doing nothing wrong," my father insisted. "If you have an issue, talk to her." Four men bounded toward me. "Sister, please! We ask you in the spirit of Ramadan, leave. We cannot pray if you are here." But my answer was: I have prayed like this from Mecca to Jerusalem. It is legal within Islam, I said. I remained firm.

The next day, the mosque's all-male board voted to make the main hall and front door accessible solely by men. My father dissented. Mosque leaders have not prevented me from worshiping in the main hall while the decision receives an internal legal review. "Grin and bear it. It will change one day," one American Muslim leader suggested to me. A woman in my mosque pleaded with me not to talk about any of this publicly. But gentle ways protect gender apartheid in our mosques, and we do no one a service by allowing it to continue, least of all the Muslim community. So I have filed a complaint against my mosque with CAIR, whose mandate is to protect Muslim civil rights.

After one of the final nights of Ramadan, considered a "night of power," my father gave me an early eidie, a gift elders give on Eid, the festival that marks the end of the holy month. He handed me a copy of the key to the mosque's front door, sold the night before at a fundraiser. I traced the key's edge with my thumb and put it on my Statue of Liberty key chain, because it is here in America that Muslims can truly liberate mosques from cultural traditions that belie Islam's teachings.

"Praise be to Allah," my father told me. "Allah has given you the power to make change."

I rattled the keys in front of my son, who reached out for them, and I said to him, "Shibli, we've got the keys to the mosque. We've got the keys to a better world."

Author's e-mail: asra@asranomani.com

Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is the author of the forthcoming "Daughters of Hajira," about women in Islam (Harper San Francisco).

Webmaster’s note: It is apparent that one of the reasons for the early separation of men and women in the mosque was based not so much on a distinct legal issue but rather one of matrices. The early synagogues and churches were so constructed, and there was therefore an architectural model to follow. Also, if we believe the hadith, the early mosques did not have many doors, and the women were at the back since there was a door there to allow for easy exit – presumably they had domestic matters that could necessitate their emergency departure. Whatever the issue that allowed for early separation, those issues no longer exist. While it would be problematic to advocate for a complete change – indeed this has not been done in Judaism which has been trying since the 19th century, and different denomination synagogues have different rules – the fact that each mosque could have an independent policy based on the prevailing custom of the land seems viable.

Posted December 30, 2003. The above article was printed in the December 28, 2003 edition of the Washington Post. It is posted here with the permission of the author.