By Seema Jilani
At my mosque in Houston, like almost all mosques across the country, women pray upstairs or at the back of the prayer hall. Watching elderly and pregnant women, often with young children attached at the hip, painstakingly traverse the back entrance and hike up concrete stairs evokes a cognitive dissonance within me as a young, progressive Muslim woman. It triggers the question: can women take on truly influential roles and achieve their full potential if they are consistently told to remain in the back of mosques, both literally and figuratively?
Asra Nomani, a prominent Muslim writer and former Wall Street Journal and Salon.com correspondent, confronts this question head on in “The Mosque in Morgantown,” a documentary by Brittany Huckabee, which will air June 15 on PBS. The film chronicles Nomani’s frustrating battle to achieve what she upholds as gender equality, symbolized by Muslim men and women praying alongside one another. She struggles to create an identity for Muslim women that embraces female autonomy and intellectual independence. Throughout her journey, Nomani encounters opposition from Muslim men — and women — in the Morgantown, W.V., community.
As the film documents, Nomani was still recovering from the murder of her friend and fellow journalist Daniel Pearl at the hands of Muslim militants when she returned to Morgantown in 2003. At the same time, she was abandoned by the father of her unborn child and turned to her faith for strength. Back in Morgantown, she found that a conservative group of Muslims had been elected to leadership positions on the mosque’s governing board, leading to a practice and view of Islam with which Nomani strongly disagreed.
Nomani felt extremism was entering the mosque through certain sermons that she saw as condoning racial intolerance and domestic violence. The film highlights her endeavor to replace this ideology with one that she finds more progressive, resulting in division within the mosque’s constituents.
In the film, Nomani strives for women’s rights, where women have the power to make decisions and take on leadership roles within their religious communities. She draws on Islamic history and rituals for inspiration. In 2003, she participated in the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca, which had a profound affect on her. At the Kaaba, the most sacred site for Muslims, she was able to pray alongside men, but controversy erupted nationwide when she attempted to do the same in her Morgantown mosque. The larger Muslim community disparaged this avant-garde approach to addressing feminist issues in the mosque.
The film reflects a deeper predicament in some American mosques – apathy and an unwillingness to address difficult but important issues. The majority of Muslim Americans support a vision of Islam that upholds women’s dignity. Still, few of us are willing to step up and actively speak out for women’s rights. Regardless of Islam’s rich history of promoting gender equality, the fact still remains that we are losing ground on women’s rights in certain parts of the Muslim world.
We need to do much more to give women a voice in our communities, and to strengthen the voice of women around the world.
Huckabee’s “The Mosque in Morgantown” engages its audience and has the potential to both empower and enrage, depending on one’s opinions. Either way, it will prompt an intense dialogue and, hopefully, advance the conversation on these issues. Many criticize Nomani for trying to change well-established traditional Muslim practices. However, her feminist principles are not about a revolutionary transformation, but more about returning to core principles of the religion, which acknowledged men and women’s equal worth.
Islam was a progressive faith to begin with, endorsing the spiritual equality of men and women and giving women legal standing. Perhaps Nomani expressed it best when she was confronted by a gentleman in the mosque who stated that Islam does not have any room for feminism. Her daring response: “Islam is feminism.”
Seema Jilani, M.D. is a physician with a concentration in pediatric international health and a freelance journalist. “The Mosque in Morgantown,” part of the “America at a Crossroads” series, will premiere across the country on Monday, June 15, 2009 on PBS at 10 pm (EST). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).