To Muslim women’s rights activists fighting for equal access to mosques as part of a broader campaign for reform, President Obama’s visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore represents a step backwards
Asra Q. Nomani and Ify Okoye
This past weekend, dozens of girls and boys as young as about 8 years old ran up the stairwell to the main entrance of the musallah, or main prayer hall, of the Islamic Society of Baltimore, where President Obama visits Wednesday in his first presidential visit to a U.S. mosque. As the children rounded the corner, a stern mosque Sunday school teacher stood before them, shouting, “Girls, inside the gym! Boys in the musallah.”
The girls, shrouded in headscarves that, in some cases, draped half their bodies, slipped into a stark gymnasium and found seats on bare red carpet pieces laid out in a corner. They faced a tall industrial cement block wall, in the direction of the qibla, facing Mecca, a basketball hoop above them. Before them a long narrow window poured a small dash of sunlight into the dark gym.
On the other side of the wall, the boys clamored excitedly into the majestic musallah, their feet padded by thick, decorated carpet, the sunlight flooding into the room through spectacular windows engraved with the 99 names of Allah, or God, in Islam. Ornate Korans and Islamic books filled shelves that lined the front walls.
As President and Michelle Obama argued decades ago in the context of the U.S. civil rights movement, separate is indeed unequal. To Muslim women’s rights activists fighting for equal access to mosques as part of a broader campaign for reform — from equal education for women and girls to freedom from so-called “honor killings” — the president’s visit to a mosque that practices such blatant inequity represents a step backwards. While it may be meant to convey a message of religious inclusiveness to American Muslims, the visit demonstrates tacit acceptance of a form of discrimination that amounts to gender apartheid. For that reason, we will be standing outside the mosque on Johnnycake Road, as close as the Secret Service allows, to protest the separate and unequal standards inside and advocate for equal rights.
We believe it is the role of government to protect women’s rights within religion, if a place of worship gets federal nonprofit benefits, just as it protects civil rights in the secular space. Places of worship in the U.S. would not be allowed tax-exempt status if, for example, they were to seat African Americans in segregated spaces. To condone the mosque’s gender segregation is particularly ironic coming days after the White House announced efforts to win equal pay for women and increased workplace benefits for women in the military.
President Obama should be aware that on any given day a woman or girl worshiping in the mosque would be dispatched away from the musallah where he will stand to speak out against “Islamophobia,” to the “prayer room for females,” as one worshipper described it. In much the same way that he wants to mitigate Americans seeing Muslims as the “other,” we have to challenge the Muslim systems that segregate women as the “other.” He should know that promoting women’s rights in mosques is a key part of fighting the ideology of extremism — a fight that he asked American Muslims to help wage in an address to the nation in December. A theology of Islamic feminism is our best answer to the extremism of ISIS, al-Qaeda and other Muslim militant groups. Even the most conservative of Islamic scholars acknowledge that, in the 7th century, the sunnah, or tradition of the prophet Muhammad, was to allow women to pray in the main hall of his mosque in Medina without any barrier in front of them.
“While the free world awaits a Muslim reformation, the leader of the free world shows blatant disregard for gender equality by visiting a mosque that treats females like second-class citizens,” says Raheel Raza, a Pakistani-Canadian activist, author and cofounder of the Muslim Reform Movement, a new initiative that we support, advocating for peace, women’s rights and secular governance. “This makes our work as activists extremely difficult because equality is one of the main tenets of our reform movement.”
The president has an opportunity to shine light in a place once associated with the darkest extremes of Islam. His motorcade will re-trace the path of al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki: FBI surveillance notes document that al-Awlaki, then a local imam, drove down Johnnycake Road to enter the Islamic Society of Baltimore at 5:56 p.m. on the evening of November 11, 2001. (A copy of the notes was released under the Freedom of Information Act).
Today, in an estimated two-thirds of mosques around the United States, women and girls are segregated in dark basements, sparse balconies, separate rooms and even behind shower curtains in the “sisters’ section,” listening to Friday sermons piped in through shaky sound systems and watching them, if we are lucky, via TV screens. It’s too often only on “interfaith” occasions like the president’s visit that women and girls get to step forward into the “brothers’ section.”
Muslim Americans, like us, are not alone in pushing back against such discrimination. A movement of women and men within orthodox Judaism, Open Orthodoxy, is seeking to create greater equality in prayer space, religious leadership and educational roles. Synagogues, such as the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., are begining to hire female religious leaders. (Reform movements within Catholicism, like the Women’s Ordination Conference, also question discriminatory practices).
Fourteen years ago, in the fall of 2003, Asra started challenging the rules at her hometown mosque in Morgantown, W.V., writing an opinion piece, “Going Where I Know I Belong.” Over the years, many women — and men — have come forward to challenge the inequities, arguing that they are not “Islamic,” but rather vestiges of cultural sexism. In Canada, film director Zarqa Nawaz produced a 2005 film, Me and the Mosque, exposing the injustices.
In early 2010, Fatima Thompson, then a member of the Islamic Society of Baltimore, dared to pray in the “men’s section” there, ignoring a man who tried to shoo her away. “I was never welcomed in that community,” she says.
That year, she started a movement that we, with other local women and men, joined to end gender segregation in mosques. We staged protests in the main prayer areas of mosques behind the men. Taking a page from the civil rights movement’s sit-in protests, we called ourselves “Pray In Protest.”
We dared to pray in the main halls of the Islamic Center of Washington, a flagship mosque on Massachusetts Avenue in D.C. largely run by the government of Saudi Arabia, and Dar-al Hijra, a mosque in Falls Church, Va., where al-Awlaki, the future al-Qaeda leader, preached and 9/11 hijackers prayed. Mosque officials called the police and had us evicted.
In late April 2010, Ify published photos from the Islamic Society of Baltimore, documenting the second-class conditions women endure in spaces akin to a “penalty box.” She showed women behind barriers and called her site, “A photoblog for change, in sha Allah,” or “God willing.” Later, Chicago activist Hind Makki published a blog, “Side Entrance,” with the squalid images of mosques from a woman’s perspective.
Last year, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) launched a campaign on “the inclusion of women in masjids,” or “mosques,” with other organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), but, after over a decade of our protests, these organizations have failed to protect women’s access to prayer halls. In a tour Asra has taken of mosques in the Washington, D.C., area over the last several weeks, she has found herself, like other women and girls, relegated to subpar conditions.
“Go upstairs!” a man barked at her when she went into the main hall of Madina Islamic Center, a mosque in Springfield, Va. At Springfield’s Darul Huda mosque, in the separate “sisters’ room,” packed with the school’s children, a woman arbitrarily turned the TV screen off in the middle of the imam’s prayer. At the Islamic Circle of North America mosque in Alexandria, Va., Asra couldn’t even see the imam, or prayer leader, behind the strung-up curtain. At the Islamic Center of Washington, a staffer picked up the phone to call the police when Asra and other women prayed in the main hall. The staffer reconsidered at the last minute.
ISNA and the mosques didn’t return queries seeking comment. Corey Saylor, a spokesman for CAIR, said, “CAIR continues to advocate for women to have equal access in mosques. Until that goal is achieved, the initiative is not complete,” and he said that officials at the Islamic Society of Baltimore told CAIR there is “no policy in place preventing women from having access to the main area of the mosque.”
Of course, what we have experienced is very different. Why does this activism matter? Presence means voice. This week, in India, where women are typically denied access to mosques, a brave group of women have rightly filed a petition with the Supreme Court of India to reject clear policies of “discrimination” and allow women entry into all of the country’s government-funded mosques.
At the Islamic Society of Baltimore this past Sunday, the air was filled with the scent of Sherwin-Williams paint that workers were rolling onto the walls of the run-down balcony section where women and girls are usually segregated, unable to see the imam unless they peek over the balcony’s edge. A sign outside the door to the balcony said, “STOP Please. No Shoes. No Strollers. No Diaper Change. Beyond this point.”
Asra slipped into the mosque’s main hall to join the “halaqa,” or study circle. There, the study circle leader, teaching a half dozen men gathered around him, talked about the virtues of the first Muslim community in Medina, saying that a society isn’t “civilized” just because it’s technological.
Then, a young man, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned “Who Do You Love?” piped up, “So that means the West isn’t civilized.”
“That’s right,” the study circle leader said.
Another man railed against the West and its “atheists.”
Asra took a deep breath, listening to the sound of the crew white-washing the mosque for the president’s visit. “That’s a very unfair conclusion,” she said. “You are sitting in the West and railing against the West as not being civilized? It is not fair to make the assumption that the West ‘isn’t civilized.’”
The men tried to backtrack. They spoke with more nuance, before the study leader digressed again into the idea that those who aren’t Muslim act out of “self-interest,” while Muslims act out of an “order from God to do righteousness,” a point that Asra also politely refuted as motivated by “self-interest” and as an unfair representation of the many good people who aren’t Muslim.
As women and girls, we should be supported by policies that allow us to be part of such conversations. The president can support this urgent cause by speaking out against gender segregation in American mosques. In the spirit of the civil rights moment when whites stood with blacks, we hope men and women will refuse the privilege that “interfaith” events give them, and, in act of solidarity, stand outside with us on Johnnycake Road and the other pathways leading to the mosques in our world, advocating for equal rights for all.
Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and cofounder of the Muslim Reform Movement. “The Mosque in Morgantown,” a PBS documentary of her activism for women’s rights, will be rebroadcast on PBS channels starting February 16. She can be reached at asra asranomani.com. Ify Okoye is a freelance writer who frequently attended the Islamic Society of Baltimore before tiring of the gender segregation. Both writers are based in the Washington, D.C., area. She can be reached at prayinprotest gmail.com.