Women in the Back of the Mosque

By Seema JilaniPhysician At my mosque in Houston, like almost all mosques across the country, women pray upstairs or at … Continued

By Seema Jilani
Physician

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).

Written by

  • ThishowIseeit

    Seema you haven’t got it yet. Islam is not like the R. Catholic Church were a Vatican Council can make fundamental changes as times need. No one has the authority to change the Koran. Seema, joint Christianity or even better secular humanism.

  • justillthen

    Hello ThishowIseeit, Why would someone who loves their culture and religion, yet seeks change in their systems as most do, jump ship over to a foreign philosophy? It is not congruent to do so, if one is a vehicle for change at home. You should support that work, if you feel that Islam is dysfunctional in ways and needs change. Everyone sees things in their own ways, often a result of the conditioning that they received growing up. Secular humanism may be your cup of tea but it does not work for everyone, as is the way. Unless you believe, like many of the other fundamentalists around, that your perspective is truth and it is others that are living in delusion. Hey, we all live in de land of de lusion.Perhaps it is you that hasn’t got it yet, and perhaps you won’t, but all must pursue their course. Being a vehicle for change of what seeks change is a great vocation, (even if not a great vacation!).

  • zebra4

    Seema:Asra Nomani tried to create her “own” religion. In Islam men and women are segregated in the mosque to prevent hanky panky. Prevention is the hall mark of segregation. She had a child out of wedlock. Muslims want to minimize this possibility because this kind of behavior disrupts family life.Human beings do make mistakes. The key is if one makes mistakes one truly asks for forgiveness from God. Muslims believe that infedility is violation of God’s laws as well as rights of individuals like husband or wife. Men and women are equal in this respect.Did Asra Nomani demand a change in Islamic law rather than accept responsibility for her actions? If she demanded that Islamic norms be changed then she is creating her own religion.Muslims do not want to see a high rate of teenage pregnancy, divorce, infedility and breakdown of the family system.Nomani is free to express remorse or leave the mosque. But she can not demand that Islamic norms be changed.

  • imgeorg

    It would seem that a couple of posters here either don’t care what the Qur’an says about women’s rights and want to keep women separate for practical reasons, or perhaps the Qur’an doesn’t say women and men are equal, in which case Nomani was wrong in trying to get the mosques, even the “progressive” one that disallowed her, to try to change, as it would be going against the Qur’an.So now, which is the truth?

  • zebra4

    imgeorg |Men and women are equal. They are equal but different. Why must we apply Western notions of ‘equality’, i.e. men and women must pray shoulder to shoulder?Equality mens they have a right to get education and become whatever profession they choose just like men. Just as Seema chose to be a physician.Equality means that they are neither superior nor inferior in intellect.Islam requires certain responsibilities for men in regard to women’s rights.If interested, one can read about these things in books or even on Islamic web sites.

  • havefaith

    walter-infalls church: So when the Bible requires that a wife ‘submit’ to the husband, does that indicate equality? Or that Jesus came ‘not in peace; but with a sword in hand’ means he went to war with humanity? Perhaps you place too much emphasis on words and interpretation.

  • havefaith

    ZEBRA4: your comments are misplaced and incorrect. I don’t see where Seema suggests praying “shoulder to shoulder'(while that has been the accepted practice during pilgrimage for centuries)? she has asked why women are sent upstairs in mosques, or relegated to smaller areas which are most inadequate. Does the Quran mandate this?

  • havefaith

    ZEBRA4:Please define and clarify. Thanks.

  • havefaith

    ZEBRA4:Muslims do not want to see a high rate of teenage pregnancy, divorce, infedility and breakdown of the family system. SO WHO DOES? ANY0NE? Either way, the Muslim family structure is gravely flawed right now. Abuse, disrespect, spoilt kids, and monetary acquistions are the ‘NORM’.Do you have any religious authority to demand Nomani’s remorse or her exit from the mosque? Will asking for YOUR forgiveness make it alright? Or maybe you think if she is out of your sight you personally will sleep better? BE CAREFUL, lest your arrogance makes you think you are God himself!

  • havefaith

    WALTER-INFALLSCHURCH:This should clarify what Islam says about women, race, and equality. However, how Muslims behave may be a different issue. Just as all Christians or members of other faiths are not the same, (some good, some not so good), let us not assume that the behavior defines the faith. Thanks.

  • zebra4

    RESPONSE: PART IIn discussing the rights of man and woman, the distinction between equality and similarity must be kept in mind. Man and woman have been created equal, not identical. In Islam, the rights and responsibilities of a woman are equal to those of a man, but they are not necessarily the same. Both have been fashioned differently from each other, so their roles are also different. The variation in their functions does not imply that one is inferior to the other.Here, it must be mentioned that if certain rights of woman are being ignored, restricted, or denied in present-day Islamic states, it is a fault of the Muslims — governments and people — who are not enforcing them, not Islam’s. Let’s have a brief look at some of the rights granted by Islam:1. Reward for good deeds: The Quran makes no difference between man and woman regarding the bestowal of reward for the good deeds performed by him or her: “Whoever does good, whether male or female, and is a believer, We will certainly make him live a happy life, and We will certainly give them their reward for the best of what they did.” (16:97) “Surely the men who submit and the women who submit; and the believing men and the believing women; and the obeying men and the obeying women; and the truthful men and the truthful women; and the patient men and the patient women; and the humble men and the humble women; and the charitable men and the charitable women; and the fasting men and the fasting women; and the men who guard their chastity and the women who guard their chastity; and the men who remember Allah and the women who remember Allah – Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and a mighty reward.” (33:35)2. Freedom of expression: Man and woman are equally entitled to freedom of expression. Women not only expressed their opinion freely, but also argued and participated in important discussions with the Prophet (PBUH) and other Muslim leaders. There were occasions when women expressed their views on matters of public interest and stood in opposition to the Caliphs, who then accepted their sound arguments.3. Right to education: Woman is equal to man in the pursuit of education and knowledge. The Prophet declared: “Search for knowledge is a sacred duty imposed on every Muslim man and woman.”4. Right to inherit: Man and woman have been given equal right to inherit from the parents and the near relatives: “Men shall have a portion of what the parents and the near relatives leave, and women shall have a portion of what the parents and the near relatives leave…” (4:7)Next Part II

  • zebra4

    PART II:As compared to Muslim man, Muslim woman is financially secure and provided for. If she is a wife, her husband is the provider; if she is a mother, it is the son; if she is a daughter, it is the father; if she is a sister, it is the brother; and so on. If she has no relations, then it is the responsibility of the state to maintain her. In no case she will be left helpless. Whereas, a man, except in one or two cases, is supposed to not only look after his family and other needy relations, but also to make financial contributions to good causes in society. Thus, a larger share in the inheritance does not depict the supremacy of man over woman, but it is rather a concession granted to him in lieu of his financial burden.5. Right to earn: Islam has given man and woman equal rights to contract, to enterprise, and to earn and possess independently. The Quran says: “…For men is the benefit of what they earn. And for women is the benefit of what they earn. And ask Allah of His grace…” (4:32)Women conducted trade and business even during the time of the Prophet. In fact, his first wife was a successful and famous business woman of Makkah.6. Legal protection: In the eyes of Islam, a woman’s life, property, and honour are as sacred as those of a man. If she commits an offence, her penalty is no less or more than a man’s in a similar case. If she is wronged or harmed, she gets due compensation, equal to what a man in her position would get.7. Right to contract marriage: Contrary to prevalent belief, in Islam, there is no concept of forced marriages of women. Parents have no right to force their daughters to marry against their will. Just as a woman has the right to choose her spouse, she also has the right to seek divorce from him.8. Right to participate in public life: Islam does not ask woman to confine herself to her house. It gives woman the right to participate in public life along with man. History shows that women played active role in all walks of life. Women not only participated in trade, but even took part in battles. They were never shut behind iron bars or considered worthless creatures.TO BE CONTINUED

  • zebra4

    PART III:Laila Al-Ghifaria would nurse the wounded in battles. Suffiah Bint Abdul Muttalib even fought and killed the enemies. Women were also rewarded with booty in the same manner as Muslim men. The Second Caliph of Islam, Umar, appointed a woman, Shaffa Bint Abdullah, to supervise the market. He would often consult her and held her in high esteem. Under the Fatmids, a woman, Arwa Bint Ahmad, even served as the Governor of Yemen.Conclusion: The verdict of Islam on the inter se status of man and woman is the only complete, logical, and practical declaration pertaining to the matter, as it always handles the issue by making a distinction between equality and sameness. The Quran, the Traditions of the Prophet, and the attitude of the early Muslim scholars prove that the position and rights of woman are equal to those of man. In fact, Islam has safeguarded the rights of women by putting them into practice as essential articles of Faith.

  • zebra4

    “Do you have any religious authority to demand Nomani’s remorse or her exit from the mosque? Will asking for YOUR forgiveness make it alright? Or maybe you think if she is out of your sight you personally will sleep better? BE CAREFUL, lest your arrogance makes you think you are God himself!I do not live in Morgan Town. So, I or any other individual is not the issue. I wrote in my earlier post that she must express her remorse to God. I also mentioned that adultry is a violation of not only God’s law but also a violation of the rights of husband, family members and community at large. I wrote this principle applies to both men and women. Women are given separate place from men because they carry infants and small children, who are often a distraction.It does not have to be upstairs. Some mosques are providing for baby sitting services. It depends upon the financial resources of the community.Who takes care of the infants and children is ultimately the responsibility of the family. You seem to think that Only Asra Nomani has rights and the community in which she lives or attends the mosque have no rights of their own. It is the community that collected funds to build the mosque and they have the right to regulate its affairs.All that said, it is my personal opinion, that Nomani can achieve her goal by approaching the responsible members of the community. They should determine if she qualifies for her return to the community. That goal will not be achieved by staging demonstration against the mosque.

  • walter-in-fallschurch

    zebra4, you said,you know, you can write these things, but that doesn’t make them true.koran 2:228:that really says it all. i’m sure you know the verses about a woman’s testimony being worth 1/2 that of a man’s, her inheritance being 1/2 and so on.

  • walter-in-fallschurch

    havefaith, you asked,well, YES! it’s not my contention at all that christianity treats women equally. all judeochrislamic scripture is sexist. denying that is just plain crazy. whereas muslim women can’t pray with muslim men, paul told women they could sit quietly in church if they wore hats (1Cor14:34-35 and 1Cor11:5-6).we can talk about “different but equal”, but that’s not what scripture is talking about. women can’t be priests. at fundamentalist churches only men get to vote at congressional meetings (or be pastors).and, as i’ve asked before, how many husbands can a muslim woman have?

  • zebra4

    Those who keep applying the Western notions of equality in matters of inheritance (only acquired in the previous century) should go to their search engine and find the following:Islamic Laws of Inheritance

  • walter-in-fallschurch

    zebra4,the thing i kept thinking of in the back of my mind is, “why the heck is inheritance dealt with in a religious book?” it seems like a “society” thing, not a “religion” thing. which brings me to my biggest, overriding complaint about islam: it seeks to inject itelf into non-religious matters, or perhaps, islam sees everything as a religious matter. this is why i have very little hope for “islamic societies” ever being fair for everybody in society.of course the judeochrislamic hope is that someday everyone in society is [jewish/christian/muslim, depending on your book], then these religious intrusions into society issues might seem proper.

  • zebra4

    Walter-in-Falls-Church:You wrote: “”why the heck is inheritance dealt with in a religious book?”You have yet to comprehend that Islam does not separate the code of conduct (including inheritance) and religion because religion tells us what to do or not to do.Just remember Your world view has been shaped here in Amaerica, where the dominant theme is separation of church and state, even though this separation is not fully imbibed by the people in America. Church and “family values” are often asserted by groups here.All presidential candidates and other office seekers must come out and state what their affiliations are or are not. Can you tell me why?When society 15 centuries ago did not have legislative bodies and reform was needed, religion was the only force that could “legislate” various social issues.I do not know whether such “legislations” were ever proposed by Moses and his disciples or Jesus and his disciples.I know very little about what led to protestant movement resulting in the creation of such a potent force within Christianity. Can you shed some light?Muhammad (pbh) was instrumental in bringing down traditional pre-Islamic oppressive practices. This was a social revolution.

  • walter-in-fallschurch

    zebra4,you said,i certainly comprehend it. that’s kind of the point i was making. i comprehend it. i don’t like it, but i comprehend it.you said,no doubt. religious groups here try to get their religion into my government – and i don’t like it one bit. i think the encroachments of religion on government here are real, but minor compared to what happens in “islamic states”.you said,because many americans are small-minded – and know that were they in office they would bring their religion to bear on public decisions. mitt romney had to give his “i’m a mormon, but i’m ok” speech to assuage other religious people’s fears.

  • walter-in-fallschurch

    zebra4,you said,i think that whole period beginning in say the mid-1400s was when “man” rediscovered ourselves. when we questioned authority and recieved wisdom. for martin luther it meant “the church” wasn’t needed as a mediator between god and man. men (mostly men here, because women were still barely on the human rights radar) could go to god directly.this kind of “question authority” mindset also rekindled science – long suppressed by “the church.” this thinking also led to the idea that the government doesn’t have authority over our rights – the idea that human rights precede government. they called the god-given and so on so as to put them beyond the reach of government. critics, generally religious…, will say this enlightenment thinking is what has led to “individualism” and an “exaltation of man” to god status and other crazy things like that.i don’t think this enlightenment was a christian thing. in fact, christianity has had to be dragged kicking and screaming through every step, but is now the better for it.you said,that’s nice. it’s time for another revolution (and not the ’79 iran kind – that was more a devolution). it sounds condescending, but i think islamic society needs the kind of revolution i just described above.

  • walter-in-fallschurch

    zebra4,i said,my problem is with the mixing of these “codes of conduct” with society. i don’t think we need religion to tell us “do not murder” – at least not anymore. it seems to me like islamic texts – especially the hadith – REQUIRE islamic government.i think this is an accidental reason why christianity “works” with separation of church and state. christianity was written by people tying to survive UNDER an oppressive not-christian government. it’s “bottom-up”. there’s no thought of revolutionizing society.islam, especially the medina koran verses and the hadith, was written by people IN government.

  • zebra4

    walter-in-fallschurch :”Thou shall not kill” or “Thou shall not steal” only two of the Ten Commandments are good examples of religion promoting code of conduct.Where and how did we (humans) leran these and many other codes of conduct and incorporate them in our legal systems of modern times?Many of these were internalized by us. You think you are an atheist but you probably do not know that your and my world views were shaped by religion and have been passed on to us through generations.I grant you that you might have made a conscious and studied decision not to believe in religion. But you might still be believing in many of the dictums of religion. You may not be conscious about it.All I am saying is that religion plays a major role in shaping the world views of people(s). AND there are many world views on our planet (some 3,000 languages and cultures).

  • walter-in-fallschurch

    zebra4,i come to the realisation that “thou shall not kill” is a good idea ENTIRELY WITHOUT religion. it’s really not very complicated, and i didn’t need god to tell me that.