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.
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.
Building Muslim American Identity
by Jenan Mohajir
The story of the Mosque in Morgantown is not a new one. Nor is the issue raised by Asra Nomani regarding women’s space in the Morgantown mosque unique. In fact, it reminded me very much of the mosque in my own community, the American Islamic Association (AIA). Comprised of mostly South Asian immigrant families, attendees of AIA stretch across the religious spectrum, including those labeled as “conservative” and as “progressive”. My parents and I have attended the AIA since our migration to the south suburbs of Chicago, when the mosque was still housed in an old airplane hanger. For years we waited & worked to collect enough money to construct a new building for our beloved mosque.
Finally, at the start of Ramadan in 2005, the new building for the AIA had been constructed — and of us all, my mother was most ecstatic. But upon returning from the mosque’s open house, I sensed my mother was disappointed. The women didn’t have a separate prayer space, she told me. Instead, the prayer sanctuary was one big hall, where men and women would both pray, men in the front rows and women taking up the back ones. But on Muslim holidays, when the number of congregants overflowed the space of main hall, the men would pray in the main hall upstairs and the women would pray in the community room, downstairs in the basement, like so many other mosques across the country. Feelings of disappointment and betrayal rang high amongst the “conservative” women who preferred a segregated space — while the more “progressive” women were excited about having an incorporated space for women in the main prayer hall.
The issue of women’s space in mosques is one that our Muslim American community is still grappling with. The real issue is not about where Muslim women pray, but rather what roles do they play in the space between the prayer hall and the parking lot? The women in the AIA have taken key leadership roles in our community since its inception. They played a lead in making many decisions — whether it was deciding on the Sunday school curricula, the architectural design of our current building, or organizing the annual food drive collected for the Chicago Food Depository. And women in mosques across America are playing similar roles. It is this story of the roles that Muslim American women play in their communities that defines our emerging Muslim American identity.
Dr. Umar F. Abd-Allah, one of America’s leading Muslim scholars and the Nawawi Foundation’s Scholar-in-Residence, addresses the topic of an indigenous Muslim American culture in his essay, Islam and the Cultural Imperative. He begins with a simple metaphor: Islam is a river, a river with crystal clear waters that takes on the color of the bedrock over which it flows. So, in India Islam looks and feels Indian. And in China Islam looks and feels Chinese. In America, this river flows over a mosaic made of many colors — indicative of the ethnic and cultural make up of the Muslims who live here. A recent Gallup report, Muslim Americans: A National Portrait, shows that the Muslim American community is the most racially and ethnically diverse religious community in the United States. With no dominant ethnic majority, the varieties of ritual and cultural practices of the Muslim American community are representative of its diversity.
So what happens when we engage this inherent diversity? Despite the many ethnic and cultural differences that exist within the Muslim American community, any intra-faith conversation will reveal the values shared by most Muslim Americans, indigenous and immigrant alike. Values like service, hospitality, compassion and mercy — all of which connect to our religious and ethnic inheritance, but also connect to our American ideals.
Over the last few decades, as Muslims in the United States have flourished, our mosques have transformed from places of worship into spaces of community. While our mosques have expanded to include Islamic schools, community centers, youth groups, health clinics and more, Muslim American culture has grown alongside those expansions. Despite our differences of where women pray, Muslim women have shouldered equal parts of creativity and responsibility in constructing our community. As we have engaged in our building our community, we have also engaged in building our Muslim American identity. We must continue to act on the values that we share within our mosques and beyond its walls, in our lives as citizens, as Americans, and as Muslims.
Jenan Mohajir is the program associate for the Outreach Education & Training program at the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that brings together young people from different religious traditions through an emphasis on shared values. Jenan is a frequent speaker at college campuses nationally and trains youth leaders in organizing local interfaith youth service-learning events. Prior to joining IFYC, Jenan was a full-time teacher at the Universal Muslim Day School and worked with the Inner-city Muslim Action Network. She has also volunteered with the Nawawi Foundation since 2001. She is originally from India and grew up in Qatar and the United States.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: Amina Wadud, Amira Sonbol, Asma Barlas, Asra Nomani, Ayan Hirsi Ali, gender and Islam, Interpreting the Quran, Irshad Manji, Islamic Society of North America, Laleh Bakhtiar, Nimat Hafez Barzangi, Riffat Hasan, Wafa Sultan
Looking at the World As If Women Matter
by Tayyibah Taylor
“Looking at the world as if women matter” is just one of the many ways feminism is explained. Some definitions are more academic and others are less generous, but searching through the philosophical pile of feminist theory and movements, one will discover first-wave and second-wave feminism, post colonial feminism, Western feminism, Black feminism, radical feminism, Islamic feminism and more, all with varying solutions to the issues women face.
As the Muslim American community grows and develops, the feat of building institutions requires our social architects to consider the religious, intellectual and political discourse on women’s equality. Standing at the intersection of gender and Islam, Muslims are looking down a road with some smooth stretches, as well as some huge potholes.
Muslim scholars and imams who begin their ‘Women in Islam’ chapters and lectures with glowing reports of the rights Islam restored to women, then proceed to interpret the primary sources of Islam in ways that negate those rights, have created confusion and illusion. To clarify we may ask, “When it comes to leadership in Islam, can gender trump competency? If so, what else can trump competency and what else can gender trump?” These and many other questions are asked in the conversation about the construction of the Muslim American landscape and culture.
Let’s look at who we are. In the Muslim American community we have over 80 ethnicities represented; there are people following every school of Islamic thought, on all levels of adherence and observation. In this fantastic mosaic there are people who are Muslims by choice and those who are Muslims by chance; there are Muslims of culture and Muslims of conscious. There are those whose ancestors were here before this nation was founded and others who just arrived from Muslim-majority countries. There are those who are learned in the nuances of Qur’anic hermeneutics, and those who cannot read or write a word of Arabic, relying on translations in English, Urdu, Persian and other languages.
It stands to reason this multiplicity of ethnicities, experiences, expertise and excitement about Islam is bound to yield varying readings of the Qur’an and different interpretations of women’s equality. Some of us want to fill those potholes with material to neutralize patriarchal privileges, others want to fix them with secularism, while others want us to maneuver around the potholes.
In a community this complex, one size really does not fit all and neither does one style. It becomes problematic when one Muslim’s experience, be it positive or negative, is the point of extrapolation from which to typify solutions for all Muslims. Some would have us teetering in stiletto solutions that are two sizes too small, and others would have us lumbering in laced-up boots with solutions three sizes too big.
Expecting others to be where we are, spiritually, intellectually or socially, is second in folly and futility only to forcing our perspectives and beliefs on others. The Muslim community in particular, and humanity in general, will stunt its evolution until each and every person can be viewed as a spiritual being on their way back to the Creator; until we each master the ability to slip from one frame of reference to another with the same grace, ease, understanding and non-attachment, that we can move from speaking one language to another.
Muslim women in America are in a privileged position. On one hand we have our American legacy of freedom of speech, freedom of movement and an academic heritage of critical thinking (things not always present in some Muslim-majority countries). On the other hand we have our Islamic legacy of spiritual agency, a contract to pursue knowledge, and a universal worldview. We are poised in this privileged position to create a community where all voices are heard and respected; a community where our plurality is acknowledged and where unity does not hinge on uniformity.
Islam is more than a religion and it’s more than a way of life; Islam is a state of being. When we truly live our lives in the state of Islam, that is in a state of wholeness, serenity and in alignment with the laws of the universe, every second of existence, and every fiber of self is centered on connecting to the Divine. In that state, the flame misogyny has no oxygen. In that state, a world is created where women, and all humanity, matter.
Tayyibah Taylor is the founding editor-in-chief and publisher of Azizah Magazine and has presented workshops and lectures on Islam and Muslim women throughout the country. Born on the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean, Taylor grew up in Toronto, Canada and studied biology and philosophy at the University of Toronto. She lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for several years and attended King Abdul-Aziz University for Arabic and Islamic studies. She presently serves on the steering Committee of WISE, an organization that convenes global Muslim women leaders and fosters Muslim women’s participation in Islamic law and contemporary debates. She presently sits on the board of the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta and the board of directors of Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters and has also served on the board of trustees for the Georgia Council for International Visitors.  Taylor is the mother of five children.
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.
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.
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.
Real Indicators of Female Empowerment:
Women’s Space and Status in American Mosques
by Hadia Mubarak
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.
The Real Feminist Leaders
by Kari Ansari
Islam teaches that men and women are equally capable of attaining the highest level of spirituality, and that both will be judged on equal terms by God. The teachings of Islam protect and defend the rights of a woman; she has the right to demand dignified treatment by all people — men included. She has the right to voice her opinion, and the value of that opinion is judged upon the same merits and criteria afforded to men.
When men or women pray in jammat (group prayer service), they stand in a straight line, and squeeze together tightly enough to touch shoulder to shoulder. This unity in worship — following the person leading the prayer — allows the individual to maintain his or her focus on the Divine. One would be hard-pressed to find a Muslim woman who would prefer to prostrate in prayer beside, behind, or in front of a man she does not know. With this in mind, Ms. Nomani’s book tour and campaign to integrate the prayer areas in America’s mosques is self-serving at best, and divisive at worst.
It would be disingenuous to state that women are not marginalized in some American Muslim communities. This is most often due to cultural attitudes and behaviors brought over from patriarchal societies abroad, not from the teachings of Islam. However, with that said, I believe there are just as many American Muslim mosques that have grown out of their ethnic roots to establish a more just and dynamic community that embraces the role of women in the leadership of the mosque and the greater society.
The American Muslim faith community has many female leaders. Dr. Ingrid Mattson, the current President of the Islamic Society of North America is a good example of a practicing Muslim woman who has been elected by her peers to lead the largest Muslim organization in America. She did not get to her position of leadership and scholarship through media hype or press conferences. Rather, she gained the respect of Muslim men and women through her intellect, wisdom and quiet perseverance to change what she and most American Muslim women see as problems within the incredibly diverse and relatively young faith community in the United States. Hadia Mubarak, (briefly shown speaking in the film) routinely defends the rights of women in Muslim society, often to the chagrin of the established Muslim leadership. Hadia is far more effective in bringing about change of attitudes through her erudition and experience than she would be by sensationalizing and scandalizing the people she seeks to enlighten. The film also depicts another dynamic Muslim leader, Edina Lekovic. Ms. Lekovic works tirelessly for the American Muslim community through her work with the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and she does so without labeling or humiliating the Muslim community she serves.
The above-mentioned women are examples of leadership displayed all across the country by Muslim women of every ethnicity, age, and socio-economic background; we just don’t see them on television, or the New York Times Bestseller List. They are women who are changing the status quo at American mosques; they are working behind the scenes to establish domestic violence support services for immigrant women, they are running food pantries in the inner cities, they are teachers in Islamic schools–teaching tolerance and love for their neighbor. These Muslim women are homemakers and engineers, they are doctors and lawyers, and they are bankers and nurses. These women do not seek notoriety or fame; instead they are integrating into a society that often misunderstands them, and even sometimes pities them unnecessarily. Still, Muslim American women persevere, having faith in God and faith in the future of the American Muslim society as it matures and grows.
Kari Ansari is Editor-in-Chief of America’s Muslim Family Magazine, based in Chicago. Mrs. Ansari was born and educated in the United States, and is a convert to Islam. She has been an active member of the Muslim community for a dozen years, working toward the positive inclusion of Muslims into the mainstream American society. Her four children range in age from 20 to 7. She and her husband, Ahmed, a native of India, live in the suburbs of Chicago, IL, with their children.
The Mosque in Morgantown is a production of Version One Productions, Inc., in association with WGBH. It is a presentation of the Center for Asian American Media with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding was provided by the LEF Moving Image Fund. PBS broadcast is presented by WETA-TV, Washington, DC. © 2009 Version One Productions, Inc.