SISTER ASRA NOMANI: MUSLIM WOMAN FIGHTING FOR EQUALITY INSIDE THE MOSQUE

 

On a Salat Al-Jummah (Friday Prayer), a veiled Sister Asra Nomani entered a crowded Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles, CA. In the front, a few hundred men waited for the call to prayer. In the back, women and children in a separate area behind tinted glass.

 

With barely a pause, Sister Asra Nomani made her choice. Defying age-old Islamic traditions, she stepped over a low partition, sat with the men - and kicked off a furor.

 

A man brusquely approached her: "You are not allowed to pray here with men. The women are on the other side." A female elder tried to coax her out, then lost patience and tried to lift her up by the elbow. A man stared at Sister Nomani and muttered, "She must be mentally sick."

 

Through it all, the petite woman in pink veil and long coat stood her ground. No, she was not going to move. Yes, she had an Islamic right to sit there. As a burly security guard towered over her, she began softly chanting Allahu Akbar, God is Great, to keep herself focused. But she noticed her fingers trembling.

 

Eventually leaders at the Islamic Center of Southern California on Vermont Avenue cordoned off her space with a red rope, called other women to join her and started the prayer.

 

Although we at the Islamic Center of Beverly Hills support the concept of Female Imam and the idea that Female Imam may lead prayer for males and females, we do not support the actions of Sister Asra Nomani. When she prayed in the middle of men, it only created chaos. We have indicated that males and females must be separated side by side toward Qibla. At the same time, males should not be sitting in the front and females should not be sitting in the back. We hope in the future our sisters think a little more before creating chaos in a Jummah Prayer.

 

"For that Friday Prayer, a woman was able to sit in the main hall and create a new reality for our Muslim world," said Sister Nomani, a 40-year-old India native, author and journalist who lives in Morgantown, W. Va. "We have to take back our mosques with an expression of Islam that fully values women." Recently, she has authored her memoir "Standing Alone in Mecca".

 

Sister Nomani's activism was ignited by life-and-death events: the birth of her son, Brother Shibli, and the murder of her friend and then-fellow Wall Street Journal reporter, Mr. Daniel Pearl, by Islamic terrorists in Pakistan.

 

On that night in Karachi three years ago, when news broke about Mr. Pearl's beheading, Sister Nomani was with the reporter's wife, Mrs. Marianne Pearl. As she listened to Mrs. Pearl's wails, Sister Nomani said, she buried her head in her hands and murmured a prayer for protection taught to her as a child. She says she realized then that she had to fight efforts to use Islam in the name of hate.

 

The birth of her son later that year further pushed her to advocacy.

 

"We have to take on the way religion has been corrupted to destroy people," said Sister Nomani, who has left the Wall Street Journal and chronicled her experiences as a Muslim woman in her memoir. "I feel I am fighting for all of the disenfranchised people who don't have a place in Islam."

 

Among Muslims, many women complain that they live double lives, one in the workplace and one in the mosque.

 

"I don't know how many women I've talked to who are professors, doctors, lawyers, professionals in their secular lives, treated with respect, sitting in the front of the room...and then you walk into the mosque, and you are catapulted back into some medieval world," said Sister Sarah Eltantawi, 28, a Boston-based Egyptian American who says she was "spiritually damaged" by lifelong experiences of being shunted to the back of the mosque and chastised for not covering herself properly.

 

Recent Movements to Overcome Limits on Female Access to Muslim Prayer Space, Female Religious Leadership, and Female Decision-Making Power:

 

1 - In 2004, Islamic Society of North America, the nation's largest umbrella group of mosques, began a training program for imams highlighting the need to give women leadership roles and adequate prayer space behind men in the main halls.

 

2 - The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group, is planning to distribute nationally a new booklet calling for spiritual equality between the sexes.

 

3 - The Progressive Muslim Union of North America, recently launched by Sister Sarah Eltantawi and others, sponsored a groundbreaking town hall meeting in Los Angeles in June 2005 to debate the contentious question of whether Islam allows women to lead prayer. The meeting, which packed the USC Religious Center with both liberals and traditionalists, featured Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a UCLA Islamic law professor who believes that Islam requires the most knowledgeable person to lead prayer, regardless of gender. Arguing that most Muslims are ignorant of their own vast and diverse intellectual heritage, Brother Abou El Fadl cited examples of female prayer leaders in the past, along with three schools of thought in medieval Islamic history that embraced the practice.

 

4 - A few women have quietly led mixed groups in prayers for years in the United States, Canada, and South Africa.

 

5 - In March 2005, Sister Amina Wadud, a female Islamic scholar, led a mixed congregation in prayer at a New York event covered by the international media. Dr. Amina Wadud is an Islamic studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. She drew a global chorus of condemnations and provoked threats of violence. An anonymous appeal for Osama bin Laden to issue a decree to kill Sister Wadud was circulated on the internet, prompting Virginia Commonwealth to move her lectures off campus - with remote hookup - for the rest of the semester, a university spokeswoman said. "This issue is a major challenge to the hegemony of patriarchal authority," said Sister Wadud, who argues that qualified women have the right to all positions of public ritual leadership, including leading Friday prayers, delivering sermons, and performing funerals and other ceremonies. The scholar asserts that Islam's concept of tawhid, the oneness of God, along with Quranic stories that creation came in pairs, require gender equality. But that equality, she says, became lost over the centuries as male scholars and thinkers developed an Islamic tradition that relegated women to "subservience, silence and seclusion."

 

6 - Imam Moustafa Al-Qazwini, an Iraqi immigrant pulled down a curtain dividing the sexes at the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa some years ago after women complained that it prevented them from seeing the prayer service or speakers. They now sit unobstructed behind men in the prayer hall.

 

7 - Brother Souleiman Ghali, a native of Lebanon, says the Islamic Society of San Francisco plans to tear down a dividing wall in its mosque and recently welcomed Sister Nomani to pray in the main hall with men during Friday prayers. "The important thing is not to be stubborn, holding onto our traditions without opening our minds to listening and learning from others," said Brother Ghali, president of the center.

 

Reference: “Breaching the Wall at Prayer” by Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times, June 27, 2005, Pg. A1, A12.