THERE IS NO SINGLE BLUEPRINT of the American mosque. The internal structure of the mosque, the position women are given within the mosque’s leadership, and the value attached to women’s participation all vary according to the congregation’s demographics. Age, gender, ethnicity, religious ideology, educational backgrounds and the professions of the mosque’s congregation significantly influence the space that women are allotted within the mosque and the roles they ultimately play in managing the community’s affairs. Although the space in which women pray is subordinate to more important issues like women’s participation in community events, educational programs and religious affairs, my experience has taught me that the two tend to be interrelated. While not always the case, women’s visibility in the main prayer hall often reflects their overall position and status within such a community.
In the mosque in which I grew up in Panama City, Fla., women prayed in the same room behind the men, separated by a few short wooden balusters like ones typically used for stair railings. The first elected president of our Islamic Center happened to be a woman — Iman Elkadi, a respectable and active member of the community. Despite the fact that at least one board member protested to “being led by a woman” at the time, the rest of the board members insisted that he should therefore resign. Mrs. Elkadi and her husband (the late Dr. Ahmad Elkadi) had paved the road for the creation of the Bay County Islamic Society, establishing the first Islamic school, Muslim private clinic and mosque in our small city in the early eighties.
Women were not only visible in my community, but they also played an active role in the mosque’s administrative, educational and religious affairs. After the first female was elected as president of our Islamic Center, women have been elected to the board on a regular basis. The director of our Sunday school was a woman. The girls’ youth group, of which I was an active member and officer, conducted regular fundraising banquets for the mosque, organized our community’s religious festivals and held annual open-houses on behalf of the community. At an early age, I and the other young women in our community were accustomed to speaking in front of mixed crowds of men and women, attending General Assembly meetings, passing out flyers and selling baked goods in mixed gatherings. Our voices were heard, opinions expressed and participation recognized and appreciated.
When I moved to Tallahassee, Fla. to attend Florida State University as an undergraduate student, I was disappointed to find that women were cordoned off in a shed that had been carpeted and affixed to the main building of the mosque. Our only connection to the main prayer hall of the mosque was a crackling sound system that allowed us to hear the Friday sermon from our small, isolated space. This internal setup of the mosque relegated women to invisible observers. We could hear the men, but they could never hear us. We could not see them, nor could they see us.
The experience taught me that although the physical space allotted to women is not women’s primary concern within a community, there tends to be a correlation between where women physically sit in the mosque and the greater role they are accorded in running the mosque’s affairs. In contrast to the Panama City mosque, women did not attend General Assembly meetings at the Tallahassee mosque. Not a single woman served on the mosque’s annually-elected board. Worse yet, when I signed up to become an official “member” of the Islamic Center a few months before the annual elections, I was told by the mosque president that women did not have the right to vote in the annual elections because their “husbands voted on their behalf.” I demanded a copy of the mosque’s Constitution, which made no mention of gender as a criterion for membership or leadership of the Islamic Center.
Refusing to accept the status quo, I and five of my friends registered as members and attended the general body elections. We sat in the main prayer hall, which had been partitioned into two sections that day, a large section for the men and a smaller one for the women. Citing the mosque’s Constitution and religious textual sources, we demanded the right to vote like everyone. Our demands incited a heated and emotionally charged debate. Although it was clear that the majority of the men were on our side, the small minority of men who were against us, including the chair of the elections committee, dominated the debate. Exploiting his position, the elections committee chair took up a motion that put in his own hands the power decide whether or not women should vote — without subjecting the motion to a general vote.
I and my five friends left the mosque that day without voting for the men who would manage our mosque, make decisions on our behalf and represent us within the larger community. We left feeling disgusted, isolated and enraged. But we never for a second questioned the status that Islam accorded women or our God-given right to elect the leaders of our community. We knew that Islam was on our side and that ignorance was on theirs.
IN 644 CE, UPON THE DEATH OF THE SECOND CALIPH, `Umar ibn al-Khattāb, a council of six individuals had commissioned one of its members, ‘Abdul-Rahmān Ibn Awf, to solicit the Muslim community’s opinion to determine which of the two finalists (‘Uthmān ibn ‘Affān or ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib) would become the third caliph. It is historically documented that ibn ‘Awf asked the women in the marketplace and in their own homes which of the two candidates they would prefer as caliph — something similar to a modern-day referendum. If there was any doubt in the minds of the men in the Tallahassee mosque whether or not Islam gave women the right to vote, there was no doubt in the minds of the Prophet’s companions that women had every right to choose their leaders. The fact that the leaders and members of the Tallahassee mosque even debated in 2001 whether or not Islam allowed women the right to vote is a reflection of a serious religious crisis.
Muslims in the twenty-first century have become so disconnected from their own religious tradition that we are posing questions that have long been resolved and unraveling threads of consensus that have formed the basis of Muslim historic practice for centuries. In nearly every mosque in America, precious time, energy and resources have been wasted on emotionally-charged debates over where women should pray, whether or not to erect a barrier between the men and women, and whether or not women can serve on mosque boards. Even a primitive knowledge of Prophetic traditions would demonstrate that such debates are pointless. The Islamic tradition is replete with examples of women praying in the same place as men without a physical barrier between them, of women speaking out in the main prayer area and of women serving in administrative capacities. The Prophet (peace be upon him) was unequivocal in his injunction that women be granted access to mosques. Hence, when women are denied adequate space in mosques, they are being denied access and that mosque’s leadership is culpable of violating a Prophetic injunction.
Does this mean that I believe women should pray side by side with men or lead men in prayer? No. If I am going to empower women in my community by pointing to textual, religious evidence of rights that Islam has given us, then I must abide by the limitations of those rights. Without question, women have the right to pray in mosques, to enjoy adequate and equal space with men, to be active participants, to vote, to run for elections and most importantly, to be heard and respected. There is no textual evidence, however, to support the notion of women praying side by side with men. As a Muslim feminist (a term I define according to my own conception of female empowerment), the issue is not one I care to champion or support.
I cherish my modesty and privacy and would much prefer not to rub thighs and shoulders against another man in the midst of praying. Whether I stand behind, in front of or next to the men of my mosque while praying is not my measure of female empowerment or progress. To adequately gauge women’s status in a particular mosque, we must instead look at real indicators of equality and empowerment: Do women serve on the mosque’s board? Are women granted equal and adequate space? Does the community invite female scholars and guest speakers or all lectures dominated by men? Are the women visible? Are they empowered to make their own choices regarding decisions that affect them?
As a woman, I feel empowered by God’s laws — laws that I know with absolute certainty are for my own spiritual, emotional and physical well-being. At the same time, I refuse to rely on the interpretations of men to understand the laws of God. Women must engage the Islamic tradition themselves in order to restore rights that they were granted as early as the seventh century. When armed with knowledge of our God-given rights, then no human being can stand between us and our prerogative to exercise those rights.
Hadia Mubarak was the first National President of the Muslim Students Association to be either female or born in the United States. Her parents are from Syria; she grew up in Florida. She is now a graduate student at Georgetown and a researcher in the Islam in the Age of Globalization program.