Islam in America: When two women decided to pray with men

Published October 18, 2014
The debate about the need for interpreting Islam from a woman’s perspective continues. —Photo by AP
The debate about the need for interpreting Islam from a woman’s perspective continues. —Photo by AP

Muslim women in the West do not disown Islam. Like other Muslims, they too love it. They also are not afraid of the anti-Muslim sentiments that emerged after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

When confronted, they defend their faith with as much fervour and clarity as men and women in the Islamic world do.

This helps them learn more about their faith, and in the process, develop a new understanding of Islam. This understanding encourages some of them to interpret their faith from a woman’s perspective.

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Nimat Hafez Barazangi, who has a Ph.D. in Islamic and Arabic Studies, says it’s time for Muslim women to have a peaceful, silent revolution, firmly grounded in the Holy Quran.

Asma Barlas, director of the Center for the Study of Culture at Ithaca College, New York, says that for her as a Muslim, “the starting premise is that the Holy Quran, ontologically, is the speech of God. The problem thus lies not in the divine discourse of the sacred text, but in its interpretation.”

Another Muslim woman scholar, Laleh Bakhtiar, has translated the holy book and her translation attempts to take a female perspective of her faith.

While working for an American news agency, UPI, I met two women who went beyond interpretations and tried to practice Islam as they considered it right.

The two — one a veteran campaigner and the other a novice — prayed beside men one Friday in Washington's Islamic Center, the hub of America's Muslim community.

"It felt so beautiful," said Rahat Khan, a tax accountant from Maryland. "I was really proud and pleased to see all these Muslim men, creating space for us."

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Khan, new in this campaign for demanding equal rights for women inside the mosque, almost turned away from the door of the Islamic Center in Washington's diplomatic enclave.

"I told Asra I may not go in but I did," she said, referring to Asra Nomani, the woman who started the campaign many years ago from a mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia. 

"The night before we prayed, I was afraid. After the prayers it felt very nice," said Khan who was not willing to go to the mosque with Asra when she first asked her but later changed her mind.

The two were not scholars of Islam. Instead, they depended on the American constitution, which gave them the right to pray besides men if they wanted to.

Khan said that her desire for regaining the equal status that she believed Islam had given her, but had been denied to her by Muslim men, overcame her fear. 

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"I felt like I have to do it because nobody else will do it for me. All my friends were saying it is dangerous, why are you doing this?" said Khan. "I also thought it may be violent, I may be arrested."

Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and the author of a book on Muslim women, was already a veteran. Besides praying in the same hall as men at various mosques, Nomani also participated in the first-ever woman-led prayers in New York and Boston in March 2005.

According to Nomani and her supporters (including the Islamic scholar Amina Wadud), Islam does not prevent women from leading prayers or saying their prayers beside men. They said that even today, men and women prayed side by side in Islam's two holiest mosques in Makkah and Medina.

The mainstream Muslims, however, disagreed with their claim. They acknowledged that women prayed in the same space as men in Makkah and Medina, especially during Haj when millions come to the two cities for Hajj. But they argued that those were special occasions and very sacred places where men and women both focused on their prayers.

In ordinary mosques, they argued, a woman's presence can distract a man.

"If our presence distracts men, it is their problem, not ours," said Nomani.

While her efforts had won her many admirers, it also earned her many critics who said that there was no precedence in Islam for Nomani and her followers tried to do.

Undeterred by such criticism, Nomani and Khan arrived at Washington's Islamic Center on the day they planned to pray with men. There were about 600 men in the mosque and about 100 women in the basement. The women watched silently but did not join the two protesters.

When they went up the main stairs, a man informed them that women prayed downstairs. They ignored them. Three more men came, and said there's a separate section for women in the basement. Yet another came and asked them to go downstairs.

"Then a man turned to me and said, 'Sister, I want to hear what you have to say, you are violating this rule, what's your basis?'" said Nomani.

"I told him at the time of Prophet Mohammed there was no separation. He said, 'You are doing the wrong thing.'"

Nomani and Khan insisted and prayed in the main hall.

"It was a beautiful place, very different from the basement. It was wonderful for meditation," she said. "We read the Holy Quran. More men came and told us to go downstairs, they were polite though."

The prayer leader did not interfere. "Instead, he gave us a beautiful sermon on how compassion and equality strengthens a family. We were experiencing kindness, equality and tolerance because the leadership had decided to allow us to pray," said Nomani.

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A day before the prayers, Nomani visited one of the mosque's administrators, Farzad Darui, who told her that for 40 years women at this mosque had prayed in the basement. They were not allowed to pray in the main hall.

"But when we arrived, I discovered that men did make space for us. I met Mr Darui later who told me that half a dozen men complained against allowing women to pray inside the main hall," she said.

"But what we experienced inside the mosque was mutual trust and happiness. We were able to experience tranquility and peace," said Nomani. 

"One of the men who had admonished me, turned to me and said, 'I learned something from you today. Thank you.' Another man said, 'Sister, this is your place, you are welcome here anytime.'"

"God did not strike the Islamic Center with a lighting bolt because women prayed in the main hall," she added.

Nomani said it was so different from what she experienced at the 99th street in New York when she prayed there in March 2005. The imam had asked Nomani to go behind the curtain. She refused. For two hours, they debated the issue.

The imam told her that Muslims in America also have to observe Islamic laws, which required a woman to pray separately.

So Nomani prayed on the sidewalk outside New York's Islamic Cultural Center.

Nomani’s defiance, however, did not change much. Men and women still pray separately at the center and at other mosques across America. Apparently, she did not succeed in convincing other women to come forward.

The debate about the need for interpreting Islam from a woman’s perspective continues.



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