Community Stories

A Muslim American Focus Group

by Chris Morrow

As a screenwriter working on a revision to my Islamically based screenplay, I’m constantly searching for perspective from the Muslim world.  Brittany Huckabee’s documentary THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN was my most recent chance to gain insight.  I sat down with a group of high school and college aged Muslims and their parents to discuss the issues in the film and gauge its relevance to their lives.  All live in the Dallas and Houston areas, and their nationalities range from Pakistani and Indian to Palestinian, Turkish and Lebanese.

The election of Dr. Hany Ammar as president was the most important problem for the youth.  “This is why I stopped going to the mosque,” one college-aged Muslima announced.  “We have a mullah just like him at the Islamic Center and once he was elected he cut out all the youth activities,” said Amna Hasan, the only high school student in the audience.  She continued by saying, “Going to mosque to watch movies and talk about the issues facing us like dating, wearing hijab and socializing with non-Muslims was important to us.  What are we supposed to think when that is taken away?”

The older generation took issue with the leaders at the Morgantown mosque.  A Muslim father questioned the initial dialogue, saying, “If Hazem Bata felt so strongly about Hany Ammar, why didn’t he call meetings protesting the election?”  Another Muslim elder said, “A silent activism never works.  As Muslims living in the post-9/11 world we strive to correct the false stereotypes associated with Muslims.  Why did it take Asra’s protests for the mosque in Morgantown to open their doors to the rest of the community?”

When asked what the audience thought about the Yusuf Estes confrontation and the MSA’s failure to have a question and answer session most were in support of Asra.  “I think the lack of Muslims in attendance speaks to what we think of Yusuf Estes,” said one Muslim parent.  “And if that girl thinks being smacked in the head with a newspaper doesn’t hurt she’s welcome to visit my house,” he added.

While most supported the heart of Nomani’s ideas, not all of her actions were supported by those I spoke with.  Most felt Asra was out of line when she visited the “progressive mosque” and demanded to pray along side the men.  “She’s a guest in their mosque, she has no right to be disrespectful regardless of how valid her point is,” said a grandmother.  When someone supported the claim that Asra’s actions were self promoting and used to increase her book sales, a debate broke out between “generations” over how to promote change.  One Muslim girl said, “Without Asra’s action’s we wouldn’t be here trying to fix our community.”

As the dialogue came to a close I asked for final thoughts on Brittany Huckabee’s film.  When asked if the film was positive for the Muslim community, everyone raised their hand.  One mother said that the documentary was a step in the right direction to move on from the stereotypes associated with 9/11.  “Since 9/11 the only issue associated with Muslims is terrorism.  Now people have an inside look of REAL issues we struggle with on a day to day basis.”  When asked to see a show of hands that wanted more documentaries and films like this one, not a single hand was left down.  “The only way we are going to make progress is if we bring these issues to the forefront.  Asra’s tactics may have been at times out of line but she got people talking and taking action,” a former leader in the Muslim community said.

 

Chris Morrow is a screenwriter based in Texas.

Tags: , , ,

Reactions

What I Learned From The Mosque in Morgantown

by Dylan Chambers

Asra Nomani is a woman with a mission.  She wants to equalize the role woman play in the Muslim community.  Also she wants to pray next to men in service and be in the same room during celebrations such as Ramadan.  Others may say that it goes against tradition but, in Asra’s defense, in the Qur’an, just like the Bible for Christians, it never states that a woman cannot sit next to a man.  It seems all these rules were manmade and are not against any spiritual rules.

As an eleven year old, I don’t understand why something like this causes such an uproar.  It seems like it shouldn’t matter. From watching the program, I don’t think that a woman praying next to a man would change or worsen the experience when at service.

As some of you may know, Asra was an amazing reporter for the Wall Street Journal for fifteen years.  And she worked alongside a very honorable man named Daniel Pearl, a man who was kidnapped by Muslim extremists and killed.  The footage of him being killed was sent to the U.S to watch.  Asra was one of the last to see him and saw him the day he was kidnapped.  It is a very sad and tragic story.

She now has also written two books and has gone on at least one book tour.  When on this tour, she met some very supportive and unsupportive people.  At one stage of the tour, Asra went into a mosque and sat next to some of the men there.  Some people asked her what she was doing, and she simply stated that she was praying.  After talking a while they threatened to get men to pick her up and take her outside.  Finally, they gated off that section and brought other women over there.

After the service she talked to some members, among many things a woman said ‘”You should be ashamed of yourself!”  Asra replied by saying, “ I pray for you.”  The woman said, “I do not need your prayers.”  I find this to be quite rude.

I have learned a lot from Asra and THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN, and I would recommend it to people of all ages.  To me, Asra is an amazingly kind and wholesome person who is definitely one of my heroes.  I feel like I have met her through the documentary and that is truly an honor.

I would like to leave you with one final but very important thought about my faith.  While Catholics may get to sing, sit, and celebrate together, we are still not fully together.  I don’t mean to question anyone’s faith, but if Asra can try and get woman to have a higher place in her religion, why do so many Catholics believe that women can’t be priests or other higher members of the church?

After all, I believe good people all go to heaven.  Maybe we need someone as brave and courageous as Asra to lead us.  While Asra is still fighting, I pray she will succeed.  My question is, why can’t we all be equal?  And, yes, I am a boy.

 

Dylan Chambers is an 11-year-old aspiring writer living in the Cincinnati area.

Tags: , ,

Reactions

The Problem with Asra Nomani

by Suhail Qureshi

After September 11th, it seems there were only two kinds of Muslims portrayed in the media.  One was the “crazy extremist Muslim” and the other was the Muslim apologist who felt Islam needs to be reformed and plays up to the stereotypes the mainstream media portrays about Muslims.  Asra Nomani fits the latter.

An example of this is when, in the film, Nomani states that domestics violence is a major problem in the community.  This plays up to the stereotype that Muslim men treat their wives badly.  What is this based on?  Where’s her proof that Muslim men in America are beating their wives at a greater clip than men of other religions or no religion.  There is no evidence whatsoever.  Brittany Huckabee, the director, does nothing to challenge Nomani’s assertion.  I wonder if a Muslim director would have.

Nomani is a person who has been published in many different leading newspapers and interviewed on popular news shows.  Now she is being featured in this documentary.  Does anyone think she would get that extensive publicity had she challenged stereotypes about Muslims, as opposed to reinforcing them?  She is being used by a media that is hostile to us and our society.

I have read many articles about Nomani and by her.  Most Muslims are not upset by what she stands for.  They are upset as to how she went about it.  If she thinks there are issues in the Muslim community, shouldn’t she have written about it in Islamic publications?  That would make sense.  Instead, she calls CNN and writes about her cause in non-Muslim newspapers.  She should have understood that this would have led to a hostile response.  If it is a Muslim problem, why involve outsiders?  It’s our community.  Let us talk about it and decide for ourselves what is right or not right without outside interference.  Change should come from within and not feel like it is being imposed by non-Muslims.

Also, I feel many people don’t like Nomani because she is trying to reform Islam when she has no crediblity within the community.  This is a person who, I guess during her tantric sex phase, had a child out of wedlock.  She wasn’t living the Muslim lifestyle when she was doing this.  If you are going to preach a religion, a person should at least try to live a lifestyle acceptable to that religion.  It’s sort of like Bristol Palin teaching abstinence.

I wonder if that experience is at the heart of Nomani’s struggle.  Is this whole feminist Muslim thing a way of getting back at the man who knocked her up and left her?  What she needs to understand is that, if he was half a Muslim man, he would have done the honorable act of marrying her.  In Islam, it is a man’s duty to take care of his family.  It is not a choice.

As far as the documentary goes, it was well done.  I was expecting a hatchet job of the Morgantown Muslim community.  Instead, I felt I got a fair portrayal of the situation.  I came away thinking the same thing that many Muslims before have expressed about Nomani.  I have nothing against her cause.  It’s the person.

 

 

Suhail Qureshi is a hijack survivor and a Muslim living in Houston, TX. His first book, In the Name of Democracy, tentatively scheduled for release in December 2009, tells the true story of his family’s ordeal on PIA Flight PK326.

Tags: , , , ,

Reactions

Reflections on Social Justice and Change

by Aminah Carroll

Life lessons can be richly taken from the verite-style documentary THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN, and they go well beyond the subject matter of Muslim identity.

Indeed this documentary is a hopeful narrative, showing that candor, civility and constructive engagement can significantly alter soul-crushing bureaucracies for the better.  This can happen in even the midst of grave disagreements over the course to be taken by organizational entities from venerable organizational cultures such as a mosque, a church, a synagogue, a temple, a tribe, a state, a nation, or an international body like the European Union or the United Nations.

What is equally apparent, and sadder, is that the social change agents among us, like Asra Nomani — progressive feminist American-Muslim denizen and globe-trotting world citizen, journalist  and professor — pay a high personal price for raising consciousness and advocating improvements that require any entrenched organization to move beyond its comfort range maintaining the status quo.

One perspective on characteristic strengths of any governed group that allow it to achieve historical longevity and fruitfulness (as opposed to entropy) is that the particular group or religion — Judaism, for example — keeps alive within it over considerable time, as healthy variants, three very different but vital sub-groups: traditional (orthodox) , moderate (conservative)and progressive (reform).

Each of these groups preserves faith and ensure that the faith doesn’t fall so far into extremes of error that it dies out without balance and correction.

This forthright documentary chronicles the clash between concerted, articulated, bold, reformative social change agency as stimulated by Nomani, and the protective defensiveness of a religion under hostile world critique, Islam.  It’s a clash that comes to life in a fairly reactionary way in the Morgantown, WV, mosque.  At times, the mosque is transcendent, and, at other times, it is an uneasy amalgam of orthodox, conservative, and reform-minded Muslims and their families.  The end result is a very healthy examination of the cultural evolution of a mosque and its people.

The pace of forward thinking, social justice and positive change may not satisfy the movers and shakers, who urge us to the light in every generation, and press us forward, often at great cost to themselves and their loved ones.

Still, this terrific documentary allows us listen to the diverse voices of Muslims who love God, their precious faith’s tradition, and also their sisters and brothers.  These voices reveal that first at home, and now in the greater community of the nation and the world, the activist Asra Nomani has succeeded in waking up sleepers in a misogynistic medieval dream to the need to restore to Islam its original feminism.

 

Aminah Yaquin Carroll, raised in Massachusetts and a former long-term New Yorker, now lives on a small farm in West Virginia and works as a writer. She has a BA in Religious Studies from Fordham University, an MPA from CUNY Baruch and is a fellow of the national Institute for Educational Leadership. She has worked in human services and public program development for more than 30 years and has been active in interfaith work for decades. She is a life-long Red Sox fan and a practicing Muslim.

Tags: , ,

General Discussion

The Issue of Bias

by admin

Is this film “biased?”

Because it centers on the story of Asra Nomani, who obviously does not represent the majority of American Muslims? Because it dwells on controversy and conflict?

Or does it manage to maintain balance even while painting a portrait of a polarizing figure and exploring controversial issues?

Tags: ,

Reactions

Seeing the Film in Morgantown

by Parween Mascari

I am an Afghan-American woman born in Parkersburg, WV, and now living in Morgantown, WV.  Jokingly, I call myself a “halfghan.”

I went to the Morgantown screening of THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN with the hope of learning more about Islam, the religion of my father, and also gaining more of an understanding of Asra Nomani’s struggle here in Morgantown.  Aside from the religious issues, I was also interested in how our small town would be depicted in a film involving such national-scale conflict.

What I got was a better understanding of Islam and of Asra Nomani’s struggle — and I left with a dedication to do whatever I can to improve the condition of women in Afghanistan, the land of my paternal ancestry.

I left the screening with tremendous respect for Islam and its practices, its focus on family, its eloquence and its traditions.  For the first time I thought about its strength and the struggle to hold onto its identity and its traditions in the face of the tremendous pressure of American pop culture.  I also left with a better understanding of how our particular mosque in Morgantown faces even greater challenges because of the great diversity of cultures, backgrounds, ideologies, and even languages of its membership.  I also realized that I have something in common with many members of the mosque solely by virtue of my Afghan appearance.  I can relate to the fears expressed by the panel members as a result of perceptions and fear in our post-9/11 society.

I also left the screening with tremendous respect for Asra Nomani.  Personally I felt a great empathy for what she went through not only in Pakistan with the death of her friend Daniel Pearl, but also in returning “home” and finding herself a young mother unwelcome in her own house of worship.  Being from West Virginia, and loving to call West Virginia home, the one thing I can always count on is that welcoming feeling I get when I arrive home safe in the mountains of WV.  That is such a special feeling and I’m not sure others from outside of West Virginia can quite understand the magnitude of it.

I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for her to come back after her tremendous personal ordeal and be denied much-needed refuge and sanctuary in her beloved “Almost Heaven West Virginia.”  It was clear from the film that she expected to be welcome in the mosque her father had helped to found but was instead told to enter through the back door and pray in a separate room.  I cannot imagine the disappointment I would have felt coming back to Morgantown and feeling unwelcome and segregated in my own church.

Learning about Asra Nomani and her work and recently meeting several brave Afghan women has inspired me to work to improve the condition of women and children in Afghanistan.  In January, I had the opportunity to go to Washington, D.C. to help host a visiting delegation of Afghan Judges and lawyers.  We met with great American women leaders like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

The Afghan women were so brave and inspiring.  Like Asra Nomani, they followed their beliefs and their conscience and sought to make change in their country, often at great personal risk.

The Afghan women judges and lawyers I met talked about the need for chairs in their schools because the children, too tired from standing, couldn’t learn.  I vowed to do what I could to help when I returned to West Virginia.  In March, I formed a company called Sultan’s Daughters, and I have been selling pashmina shawls to benefit construction and furnishing of schools in Afghanistan.  My company has already raised enough money to fund 10% of the construction and furnishing of one school in a village called Pagisam.

The Morgantown community, as it always does, has come out in support of this worthy cause and of helping others in need.  On June 26, 2009, a young professionals group here in the Morgantown community, Generation Morgantown, will host a fundraiser at a local restaurant, Cafe Bacchus, to benefit the school project in Pagisam village, by a nonprofit agency, the Nooristan Foundation.  That project will construct and maintain the village school in the Nooristan region of Afghanistan.  It will also raise awareness and hopefully make people want to be more involved in making a difference in Afghanistan’s future.

THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN inspired me in several ways.  First and foremost, the film is really about having the courage, drive, and strength of character to follow your conscience.  People can debate on Asra Nomani’s tactics — and I think rightfully so — and whether she went about things the right way.  They can debate about the merits of the respective positions about the logistics of the mosque services, and I heard valid points on both sides of that debate.

But the larger point is that she took a stand for what she believed in.  For that, Asra Nomani is a role model for myself and for my daughters.  I will teach my daughters to listen to their conscience and if they do that, like Asra’s parents in the movie, I will be behind them 100%.  I will teach them, as I have always taught them and as my parents taught me, that with hard work and perseverance they can achieve anything.  I will teach them not to let gender-based stereotypes or limitations get in the way of achieving their goals and that they deserve to be treated equally to men.

The movie also inspires me to learn more about Islam.  Growing up Catholic, the religion of my mother, and attending Catholic school I didn’t learn anything about Islam other than it existed, that it was one of the three monotheistic religions because of the belief in one God, Allah, and that we share the same old testament.  Although I am not Muslim, I am inspired by the film to educate myself about Islam.  I am also inspired to visit the mosque in Morgantown and actively try to meet Muslims living in this community.

One final point I will make is that this film is inspiring for what it says about the country we live in and the freedoms it affords all of us.  When people didn’t agree, Asra took a stand, the media was called, the media was granted access, there was controversy, there were demonstrations, elections, and even a trial.  Then a film was made and it has provoked open discussion in Morgantown and now a national debate on this website about sensitive issues where people can speak freely without fear of retribution.

When the film started the mosque was in its infancy.  Now the mosque has regular elections, a new constitution, and women in leadership position.  The controversy at the mosque wasn’t handled by physical violence or by guns or tanks in the streets but by dialogue with both sides zealously advocating their respective positions and the occasional shouting match.  This really is a beautiful country we live in where we are permitted to speak our minds and practice whatever religion we choose.

 

Parween Mascari is an attorney living in Morgantown, WV.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Feminism and Islam

The Larger Picture

by Leila Ahmed

THE TWO INTERTWINED THEMES this film explores, of women’s place in the mosque in Morgantown (and implicitly of course of women’s place in Islam) and of Asra Nomani’s activism, raise a host of interesting and important questions.

Ostensibly, of course, the principle issues the film raises relate to the topic of “Islam and feminism.”  In fact, though, the most interesting and important issues it invites us to reflect on I believe are those regarding the conditions in which we ourselves all live today in America, whatever our faith or no-faith, and the norms and assumptions that surround our lives.

Asra Nomani outside the Morgantown mosque

It is these particular conditions, conditions deeply marked by the tragedy of 9/11 and its aftermath, that form the foundational context of the story which this film narrates, and it is these conditions, along with the story the film recounts, that are most worthy of reflection.

As Nomani tells us in her book (as well as in the film) her work as a committed Muslim and feminist began in 2002 when, in the wake of the murder of her friend Daniel Pearl in January 2002, and feeling “very much at odds with my religion” she set out to “sort out” its “contradictions” as regards its apparent endorsement of violence and its tolerance and indeed even endorsement, as Nomani believed, of grave injustices towards women.

IN THE LAST MONTHS OF 2001 the issue of the plight of women in Islam and Islam’s appalling “oppression” of women — along with Islam’s apparent proclivity for violence — were subjects that were on the minds of many in America.  For a good many months as we went to war with Afghanistan the subject of women in Islam was a topic repeatedly featured in the media.  Films and documentaries showing the sufferings of Afghan women under the Taliban were played and replayed on television.  Our war against the Taliban was often portrayed as a war that was in part being fought for the cause of liberating Muslim women from the Taliban and their abusive treatment of women, treatment meted out in the name of Islam.

For many Muslims across the world today, in this era when women in many Muslim-majority countries have had the right to vote for nearly half a century or more (longer in some places such as Turkey, where women got the vote only a few years after American women got it) the Taliban’s claim that the crimes they were perpetrating represented correct Islam was not only ludicrous but also offensive.  Here in America, however, where the majority of people are naturally unfamiliar with the broad history of Islam and women, the recurring media stories of Taliban oppression of women for the most part simply confirmed earlier notions — notions inherited from old imperial Europe — about Islam’s particularly appalling treatment of women.

Throughout those first months of war, images of women throwing off their burkas as American troops liberated their towns from the Taliban became emblematic in the media of American victories and of our liberation of Afghan women.  Saving women from the Taliban and from “Islamic” oppression gave many people a sense of the deeply ethical groundings of this war.  The theme of liberating the women of Islam through our wars continued to figure into the media coverage even of the Iraq war, despite the fact that Iraqi women — although indeed suffering under Saddam Husain’s regime along with Iraqi men — had been for decades now among the most highly educated, liberated and professionally active women in the Middle East.

SUCH WAS THE CONTEXT and this was the time, as images of women’s “oppression” in Islam were inundating our society, that Nomani committed herself to the work of struggling to reform her faith and her local mosque.  Within just a couple of years of Nomani publishing her story a slew of other books appeared whose central themes similarly confirmed, even more forcefully than Nomani, the widespread belief in America of Islam’s particularly appalling “oppression” of women.  Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi appeared in 2003 as did also Irshad Manji’s The Trouble with Islam, and Ayan Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin appeared in 2006.  All offered a starkly bleak view of Islam and women, and all became instant best-sellers: perhaps in part because they helped assuage people’s uneasiness with the wars that we Americans were now so deeply enmeshed in and seemed implicitly to offer confirmation that these wars were indeed necessary and fought for a good cause.

Such was the environment in which Nomani and other American Muslims found themselves.  For the young in particular, coming of age in a time when the daily news consistently cast so dark a light on key aspects of their religious heritage and identity could not have been easy.  For many in Nomani’s cohort of young professionals, these surrounding conditions caused tremendous angst and sparked intense debate and discussion as well as a variety of creative responses.  It was in these times for example that, in addition to the publication of the books I already mentioned, the Web site Muslim Wake Up! was launched, dedicated to providing a venue for the younger generation of American Muslims to freely air their concerns and grievances and to critique Islam however they saw fit.  A young filmmaker, Zarqa Nawaz, made a film in 2005 called Me and the Mosque (2005) exploring much the same issues as Nomani explored of women’s marginalization in mosques.  Similarly intent on changing the status quo, Nawaz used a line of gentle persuasion in pursuit of her goal, in contrast to Nomani’s forthrightly critical and confrontational approach.  There are many ways of pursuing women’s rights.

These are just some of the underlying factors shaping the nature of the discussion of women in Islam that has been underway in our society through the last few years.  This film, too, of course, as well as Nomani’s activism, are themselves shaped by and part of this broader discussion.  It is important, as we view the film and turn over in our minds the people and situations it presents us with, that we are aware of this larger web of events and meanings that critically affect the ways in which the subject of women and Islam is being discussed in America today.  Included naturally in this wider web of shaping events are inevitably the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath and our ongoing wars in Muslim-majority countries.

And finally, yes, of course Nomani’s activism — and generally the way in which the subject of women and Islam figures today in the American public and media conversation — marks another and quite new chapter in the already long and evolving story of Muslim women and feminism, just as it is part too of the long and evolving story of American feminism.

In terms of Muslim feminism, Nomani is heir to a long history of activists and writers going back to Halide Edib Adivar of Turkey and Huda Sharawi of Egypt, who worked for women’s rights in the early 20th century.  The pursuit of rights for women among Muslims, men as well as women, goes back to the late 19th century.  Thus the history of feminism among Muslims does not stretch quite as far back as American feminism, which emerged about half a century earlier.  Still, Muslim feminism too by now has a long and venerable as well as a richly varied history, a history well worth exploring.

In relation to American feminism, Nomani’s work is most reminiscent perhaps of Mary Daly in her struggles with the Catholic Church in the 1960s and Judith Plaskow’s feminist work in relation Judaism in the 70s and 80s.  At the same time, the fact that Islamic “oppression” of women has been such a prominent theme in the public discourse of our wars in Muslim majority countries, as well as the fact that Muslims in America in these years have been a minority distinctly under a cloud, makes Nomani’s often clearly media-conscious activism very different from theirs.  Such factors will be part in the end of how people will view and analyze Nomani’s work and they do impart a certain ambiguity to it compared to her predecessors.  For instance, Nomani tells us that her goal is to make equal space for women in the mosque and generally to reclaim Islam for women, goals with which I am naturally deeply sympathetic, and yet watching the film and the interactions and language we are presented with, I found myself uncertain by the end as to what exactly her objectives were.

One final thought.  Among the most interesting figures in the film, although they appear only briefly, are Nomani’s parents.  Growing up in India, and both now devout Muslims albeit in very different ways, they were raised within the ethos of the old-world Islam of their era, arriving and settling in America as young adults.  As Nomani’s book details, they unhesitatingly welcomed home their daughter, unmarried and pregnant, and have in every possible way ever since stood by her and supported her and her son.  This little vignette alone invites reflection as to the varieties of ways in which devout Muslims can practice their faith and understand their ethical responsibilities.

BONUS FOOTAGE: Asra and her parents

 

Leila Ahmed holds the Victor S. Thomas chair at the Divinity School, Harvard University. Appointed the first professor of women studies in religion at the Divinity School, she is the author of several books including Women and Gender in Islam. She is currently completing her book The Quiet Revolution exploring themes in women and Islam in America in our time and following out international connections.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Feminism and Islam

The Global Islamic Feminist Movement

by Yvonne Haddad

The liberation of Muslim women has for several centuries been on the agenda of Western governments and Christian missionaries.  It has been utilized as justification for military campaigns ranging from the nineteenth century Barbary Wars in North Africa to the recent war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.  This Western agenda has produced a backlash unleashed by traditionalists and Islamists against Muslim women engaged in liberalizing traditions and customs pertaining to gender relations in Muslim societies.  They are accused of being complicit in Western efforts to undermine Islam.  Meanwhile, advocacy for women’s rights is increasingly being built into Islam itself, as evidenced by a growing international feminist movement spiritually and intellectually rooted in the faith.

The liberalization of laws governing women’s lives in the Muslim world has been the project of a select group of both Muslim men and women for over a century.  Their efforts have increased opportunities in education and employment for women.  They have brought about changes in legislation regarding personal status laws that affect the lives of Muslim women in such areas as divorce, polygamy and the legal age for marriage.  The greatest changes have been implemented in the two secularist states of Turkey and Tunisia.  Their crowning achievement is the election of several Muslim women as head of state: Tansu Ciller in Turkey, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Khalida Zia and Shaikh Hasina in Bangladesh and Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia.

Islamic feminism is the latest phase in the struggle for women’s liberation in the Muslim world.  While some have dismissed the term as an oxymoron, it has become the identity of choice for some Muslim scholars and activists both in the United States and overseas.  It was coined in the 1990s, in the milieu of the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, whose slogan was “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights.”  The conference challenged traditionalists and Islamists who saw a necessity to defend Islamic societies against what they perceived as the renewed Western agenda to undermine Islamic societies after the collapse of the Soviet Empire by promoting such “abominations” as premarital sex, abortion and the gay lifestyle.

Islamic feminism has been applied to the work of a group of scholars in the American academy who seek to address the role of women from within the heritage of Islam.  They include Amina Wadud, Riffat Hasan, Amira Sonbol, Asma Barlas and Nimat Hafez Barzangi.  They also include the first woman to translate the Qur’an into English, Laleh Bakhtiar.  Their efforts fall in contrast to the activism and advocacy of other Muslim women who seek change through recourse to secular ideas as well as those who attack the faith as misogynist at its core.  Asra Nomani and Irshad Manji are seen by some as representatives of the former category, Ayan Hirsi Ali and Wafa Sultan as examples of the latter.  Instead, the Islamic feminists have sought to reconcile the religion with feminism.  They do not question the validity of the Qur’anic text as eternally valid guidance for all humanity, but have reservations about the patriarchal interpretations characteristic of traditional societies.

Amina Wadud, right, leads a Friday
prayer service on March 18, 2005

Their discourse requires a re-examination of the Qur’anic text, which had been the private domain of male scholars.  They have scoured the narratives of the life of the Prophet Muhammad for parallels to be promoted as models of liberation.  They have challenged Islamic jurisprudence derived from patriarchal readings of the Qur’an, examining legal precedents and court decisions in order to reconstruct history.  Some have focused on reinterpreting Qur’anic verses used by traditional scholars to formulate laws that discriminate against women, especially in a marriage context.  Their revised interpretations affirm the grounding of women’s rights in the immutable Qur’an, rendering it a divine mandate for humanity, impervious to misogynist attacks.  They have dubbed their efforts a “gender jihad.”

These efforts have resulted in the emergence of an attractive feminist lifestyle that is both modern and Islamically validated.  It is an alternative to a secular liberal feminism criticized as succumbing to the changing whims and values of a West that has declared war on Islamic cultural values — and an alternative to the constraining dogmatic adherence of Muslims to traditionalism.  These feminists believe that Islam as a dynamic and inherently flexible faith calls its believers to reinterpret its teachings to address changing times.  They affirm that the Qur’an is the pioneering text; unlike other scriptures it promotes women’s rights.  They resolutely refute all allegations that its text defines an Islamic society that favors a patriarchal system privileging men over women.

In the process they have developed a Qur’anically grounded platform of liberation based on a select number of verses.  They affirm that the Qur’an clearly states that man and woman were created from one soul.  Thus the Qur’an does not sanction the submission of one gender to the other.  Others have grounded their feminism in the core teaching of the Qur’an about divine justice and compassion that are the essential characteristics of God and thus incumbent on human beings.  God’s justice would not tolerate unjust (and unequal) treatment of women.  For others, equality is the essential core of the Islamic faith; it is the essence of tawhid, the oneness of God and the oneness of the umma, the worldwide community of Muslims.  Still others ground the equality in the concept of khilafa, God’s commission to humans — both male and female — to be his agents on earth, to nurture creation, to construct a civilization and to bring forth a just society.

While the scholars are producing theological and exegetical reflections on various verses of the Qur’an in order to bolster their claims, globalization and the revolution in communications has made it possible to create activist Islamic feminist networks that collaborate on various projects.  These include national organizations such as Sisters in Islam (SIS) in Malaysia and BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights in Nigeria, both of which came into existence in response to the re-Islamization policies of the 1990s that increased segregation in society.  Their goal is to provide counterarguments to impede policies that could roll back liberalized legislation that benefited women.

Globalization has also fostered transnational organizations.  Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) has focused its energies on the project of reforming the laws of Muslim states in order to make them accord with the “spirit of the Qur’an.”  In a London conference they sponsored in 2002 on “Warning Signs of Fundamentalisms,” they discussed the growing tide of religious fundamentalism among Christians, Hindus, Jews and Muslims that were eroding the rights and freedoms of women.  They were alarmed that “the Vatican, Syria and Iran have voted consistently on the same side of international forums.  They noted that collaboration with other individuals and organizations who share their concerns, whether religious or secular, has proven helpful to their cause.  They count among their recent achievements the promulgation of the Moroccan Civil Code, the new draft of the Family Code in Indonesia, and the divorce laws in Egypt.

Several International Islamic Feminist Conferences organized by the Junta Islamica Catalana of Barcelona have brought the various groups together.  During their first meeting, participants reaffirmed a Muslim woman’s right to freely access the mosque.  These conferences bring together various theoreticians and activists to reflect and strategize; they also energize and spur them on to work to restore what they believe to be the original intent of the message of Islam.

In the post-9/11 environment, ordinary Muslim women have found themselves propelled into the limelight as the representatives of Islam.  A growing number of professional women began wearing the hijab (headscarf) and attending mosque functions.  Some mosques organized study groups to reflect on Islam in the modern world and how it can be presented to fellow Americans.  Several Islamic organizations issued guidelines to their constituents to engage women in their activities.  See for example the Islamic Society of North America’s “Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers: Working Together to Reclaim Our Heritage.” This increased engagement on the grassroots level has built on the advances of the Islamic feminist movement and undoubtedly will inspire further work in years to come.

 

Yvonne Haddad, Ph.D., is Professor of the History of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Professor Haddad’s fields of expertise include twentieth-century Islam; intellectual, social and political history in the Arab world; and Islam in North America and the West. She is the co-author of Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Community Stories

Pushing the Envelope Without Breaking It

by Shahed Amanullah

What is the best way to affect change in a community under siege?

As a believer in the greater inclusion of women in Muslim institutions in America, I have long been supportive of efforts to bring attention to gender inequity in mosque life.  The reality of this aspect of our community became impossible to ignore when, in the course of my work in promoting transparency of Muslim institutions through use of the Internet, I found that a substantial number of comments at my mosque review site salatomatic.com were written by women detailing the indignities they had faced at neighborhood mosques.  The stories — ranging from exclusion from board politics to separate (and unequal) prayer spaces — were a stinging indictment of the larger community’s ignorance of, or inability to rectify, a situation which I believe has no religious sanction within Islam.


Read The Islamic Society
of North America’s Guidelines on
Women’s Participation»


A widely publicized example of this can be seen in THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN, which details the efforts of journalist Asra Nomani to forcibly level the playing field at her local mosque.  Ms. Nomani, whom I consider a friend and colleague, deserves credit for bringing light to this issue and calling on Muslims to rise to a higher standard when it comes to the treatment of women in community circles.  It is partly in response to her very visible actions that mainstream Muslim leaders, including ISNA President Ingrid Mattson, put forth measures to educate Muslim communities of the responsibility they had, both under the law and Islamic teachings, to create a safe and equal space for women in mosque life.

But while there is widespread agreement among Muslim leaders for the need for change, what is the best way to create it?  As THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN illustrates, confrontational action can sometimes be useful in jarring the conscience of a community.  However, it can also shut down dialogue and cooperation if improperly applied.  To know when or if such measures can be effective, one must first understand the history of mosque life in America, both at a national and a local level.

Since the events of 9/11, many mosques in the US have felt under siege.  As the most visible representations of Islam in America, mosques have been host to protest marches, media spotlights, vandalism, and even violence.  The resulting defensive postures by mosque patrons leave them particularly sensitive to confrontation, even when coming from within and with a message that otherwise would garner wide acceptance within the community.

Also, mosques differ widely in their accommodation of women.  Some mosques with large concentrations of immigrants often bring with them imported cultural norms regarding women.  Other mosques, particularly those with African-American and Sufi congregations, are more egalitarian in nature.  And to the extent that American-born or raised Muslims begin to take their place in mosque leadership, mosque policies regarding women have begun to mirror those of other American institutions.

During Ms. Nomani’s journey across America to confront gender inequity in a manner similar to her actions in Morgantown, she made a stop at the mosque that I grew up in, the Islamic Center of Southern California.  The Los Angeles Times article that covered the incident carried a photo of Nomani refusing to move as directed by Ms. Azmeralda Alfi, one of the matriarchs of the mosque.

Azmeralda Alfi

(Francine Orr/LATimes)

For those who are not familiar with this institution, the Islamic Center of Southern California has been one of the most gender-inclusive major mosques in the United States.  Its Board of Directors has had women on it for over 30 years, at times making up a majority of the leadership.  Women have been encouraged to participate in all areas of mosque life regardless of their personal dress code.  Ms. Alfi in particular is one of the mosque’s most active and effective leaders, directing policy at the highest of levels, founding one of the nation’s most progressive and egalitarian Islamic schools, and inspiring a whole generation of Muslim women to believe that mosque leadership is their right.

While I was growing up, women prayed inside the main hall of the mosque at all times, even for Friday prayers.  As the Friday prayers got more crowded, many women began praying in an area behind the main hall, but open to it.  At all other times, however, women pray in the main hall and “own” it every bit as much as the men.  At no time was the main hall ever designated “the men’s area,” and there is no ideological disparaging of women.  In fact, the crowding at Friday prayer has resulted in the overflow of men going into the parking lot to pray rather than the women—probably one of the few mosques in the country where this happens.  The Islamic Center of Southern California isn’t a mosque to be protested, but encouraged as a model.

Confrontation is a powerful and sometimes necessary tactic that is appropriate when a social problem is particularly entrenched.  In other cases, such as with Ms. Alfi at my hometown mosque, it serves to alienate potential allies and create the perception that Asra’s cause is a fringe one, when it is most certainly not.   Change is best affected when it is done with care and nuance, even when the issue carries a sense of urgency.   And what’s right for Morgantown may not be right for your local mosque.

 

As editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com, Shahed Amanullah is an award-winning journalist who writes regularly about the challenges and opportunities facing Islam in America. Shahed is also a contributor to Progressive Revival, a new Beliefnet.com blog. Named one of ten “Muslim visionaries” by Islamica Magazine, Shahed’s work and writings have been featured in magazines (Newsweek), newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune), radio shows (BBC News, National Public Radio), and major websites (BeliefNet.com). Television appearances include Nightline with Ted Koppel, CNN Headline News, the Today Show, and Hannity & Colmes.

Tags: , , , , ,

Reactions

Response to The Mosque in Morgantown

by Salam Al-Marayati

Thank you for sharing the documentary, THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN. The show was not about that mosque but about Asra Nomani, a journalist. It was about Asra Nomani’s quest for peace and justice among Muslims. After viewing it, I am left with the sense that Asra Nomani’s quest is more within herself and not with her community. She needs to conclude what an American Muslim identity means for her.

BONUS FOOTAGE:
MPAC’s Edina Lekovic on social change

Her platform for moderate thinking is deficient since it is only comprised of marching in front of and protesting in mosques. Her mission for reform is better served by working with the men and women in the mosques who share the aspiration for reform in the Muslim community. The desire to pray in a mixed gathering, similar to mixed prayers in Mecca, is understandable from a visceral standpoint but not acceptable from the standpoint of one who wants to lead a reform movement. As Edina Lekovic stated in the documentary, the issue of access to mosques, leadership within the Muslim community, and other social issues facing Muslim women are keys to effective reform.

For me, an American Muslim identity means that I am free to practice Islam the way I understand it and what makes sense to me based on the Quran and the authenticated non-controversial tradition of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). “Let there be no coercion in matters of faith” as the Quran mandates in Surah 2, verse 256. If I see or sense compulsion, I have the right to challenge the authority, even and especially the authority of the mosque if they claim that they are speaking the voice of God. Challenging authority is a great American and Islamic tradition. The schools of thought and jurisprudence we find in classical Islamic law today was the product of those who challenged authority of their time and place. There is one mistake Ms. Nomani makes, however. That is, she confuses authority with the mainstream. If one works for reform, then alienating the people who want reform results in bad feelings and chaos. By imposing her approach on others who share her views, Ms. Nomani is undercutting her own objective and isolating herself to become a lonely voice. I empathize with her pain and suffering from her personal trials and tribulations in dealing with challenges facing Muslim women today.

IN THE FILM:
Asra on Literalism

Ms. Nomani points to certain translations of the Quran but fails to see that those translations are either inaccurate or incomplete in understanding the full context of what the verses are based on or what they are trying to promote. One needs to understand that translations of the Quran are just that, translations and are not always taken as the absolute Quranic reference. The translation that calls for disassociating Jews and Christians as “friends,” for example, is not accepted in mainstream Muslim thinking. That translation is misleading since the Quran also allows marriage to Christians and Jews. It is inconceivable for Muslims to marry people but not act friendly to them. Hence, the translation of “awli’aa” is not friends but actually protectors, which alludes to a particular historical point of Muslims who were under siege and the Quran is admonishing them to maintain solidarity in their defense. The verse is dealing with a specific incident, and unless the incident repeats itself, our takeaway from it is to not allow division among Muslims. Otherwise, the following verse is our orientation toward Christians and Jews:

Verily, those who have attained to faith [in this divine write], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians — all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds — shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve. (2:62)

The verse that deals with “beating” has always been placed under the difficult verses to understand. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) never struck any person. Some have proposed that the verb “dharaba” has other meanings. I’ll let scholars determine the roots and meanings of the word, but my faith in Islam and my commitment to follow the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) tells me to not tolerate domestic violence nor its justification by extremists in their exploitation of this verse (you may refer to our book, In Pursuit of Justice: The Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam).

I also believe that Asra Nomani is quick to call people extremists, similar to those extremists who are quick to label people “infidels” as a practice of what is called “takfir,” i.e. declaring someone a non-believer. Judgmentalism is bad from both the moderate and the militant perspective. However, judgmentalism is worse when it comes from moderates than when it comes from militants because we expect this behavior from militants. Speaking out against injustice is a must, as long as we are clear on what that injustice is. Conservatism and extremism are two different issues. Synagogues that don’t allow women to even enter the main area of the temple or touch the Torah are not extremist synagogues. And Asra does not know whether the people who killed Daniel Pearl pray or not. Based on FBI sting cases of bomb plots, for example, some are drug dealers if not drug addicts, and some are thugs if not petty criminals.

I agree with Asra Nomani that many, including Muslims, do not understand what actually happened at the time of the Prophet in terms of mixed gatherings. I would only ask her to continue searching for the answers and not allow people to use the name of the Prophet or Islam as a license for excluding women in the public affairs of society.

But alas, her work with the community is at an impasse, and she has decided to take a position in Washington, DC, at a non-profit journalism organization. If she produces better journalism, then good for all of us. The work for reform at the community level, however, continues with or without Asra Nomani.

 

Salam Al-Marayati is Executive Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a public service agency working for the civil rights of American Muslims, for the integration of Islam into American pluralism, and for a positive, constructive relationship between American Muslims and their representatives. He is a well-known speaker and has written extensively on Islam, human rights, democracy, Middle East politics, the Balkan Crisis and the Transcaucus conflict. He has also been deeply involved in interfaith activities. He served as co-chair of the Interfaith Coalition to Heal Los Angeles, which formed as a result of the Los Angeles uprising in the Summer of 1992. Salam works as an advisor to political, civic and academic institutions seeking to understand the role of Islam and Muslims in America and throughout the world.

Tags: , , , , ,

Please wait