This month, local news stations in Washington D.C. reported on a protest by Muslim women at the Islamic Center of Washington, who demanded the right to worship in the Center’s main prayer hall. The police were called and the women asked to leave.
But they say their struggle will continue. The source of contention is a small room created with seven foot high wooden walls. Jannah B’int Hannah describes how she feels in there where she cannot see the imam, or leader of the mosque, speak.
“Boxed in, stifling, suffocating and totally a second class citizen,” says Hannah.
The movement to integrate Muslim prayer spaces–two out of three U.S. mosques are segregated–has been ramping up in the past few years, led in part by Asra Nomani, an American Muslim journalist and feminist activist.
“We have this generation of American Muslim women who are saying look you want us to go to Harvard, to rise to the highest level of Wall Street firms and you want us to sit where in the mosque?,” says Nomani.
Why keep women confined to a separate and unequal prayer space?:
Syed Burmi, the imam of Islamic Society of Western Maryland, says the physical separation helps maintain women’s privacy and modesty as well as keeps the focus on prayer.
“If I stand next to a lady or a woman stands next to me, maybe the focus will change and no longer be on God the Almighty. So that’s why we put the partition.”
Imam Burmi seems to believe that men’s dicks act like compass needles–automatically swinging towards the nearest vagina, which somehow demagnetizes their brains. Never mind that adult men are perfectly capable of focusing their attention on things other than sex; they do it all the time at work, when shopping, when attending social events, etc. But religious leaders feel men must be incapable of that same restraint when in a house of prayer.As a Jewish woman, I’m intimately familiar with this rationale; it’s the same one used by Orthodox Jews, who also relegate women to a separate area–usually a gallery or balcony above the sanctuary–so that they cannot easily be seen by the men worshipping on the floor.
Segregationists insist that the mere presence of women’s bodies in the same prayer space as men is ungodly. Forget that God Almighty is present in women–including those men’s mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. Forget that Muslim women worship side by side with men at Mecca’s Masjid al-Haram, the holiest site in Islam. (Unlike Jewish women, who are segregated at our holy sites in Jerusalem, and have been threatened and attacked during attempts to integrate).
The arguments for gender segregation during worship are irrational and fundamentally indefensible, as well as insulting to both men and women. And yet, segregation persists, and women are forced to stake their claim to equality over and over again.
When Asra Nomani led the move to integrate the mosque in her hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia, she and her parents received death threats. But she persevered, launching the “Muslim Women’s Freedom Tour,” which travels from city to city encouraging women to speak out in favor of integration, and take leadership roles in their mosques.
“It’s about time,” says religious scholar and historian Reza Aslan. “This conception of the separation of men and women is something that never occurred during the prophet’s lifetime.” He adds, “What she has done is perfectly in line with Islamic values, traditions and the prophet’s own desire to have men and women working side by side, praying side by side and even fighting side by side.”
Asra Nomani’s Indian-born father agrees:
“Muhammad was one of the greatest feminists. Islam first gave rights to women 1,400 years ago. . . . When I see Islam today and the way people behave towards women, I am very sad. I am for women’s rights, respect, women’s equality. Islam teaches that.”
As long as women are insulted and excluded by religious authorities, and barred from worshipping openly with their male relatives and neighbors, their religious communities–be they Muslim or Jewish–fall short of true oneness with God.