Excerpt: Reality Check at My Local Mosque
Oh ye who believe!
Stand out firmly
For justice, as witnesses
To God, even if it may be against
Yourselves, or your parents
Or your kin.
“Al-Nisa” (The Women), Qur’an 4:135
Morgantown — For most of my life I quietly bypassed traditions instead of directly challenging them. When I was married [Editor’s note: Nomani had an arranged marriage in her early twenties that lasted only a few months.], in Islamabad, Pakistan, an uncle told me that my grandmother couldn’t be a witness. Two women equaled one man as a witness, according to Pakistan’s sharia. Neither relenting to nor opposing the edict, I had my grandmother and my aunt serve as one witness.
I had always distanced my life a bit from the Muslim community. After 9/11 and the murder of my friend Danny Pearl, I recognized that the stakes were huge for how Muslims expressed themselves in the world. Muslims like me sat silently while militants wrenched the religion from us and declared they were the protectors of the faith. My immersion into darkness and my experience in the light of the hajj transformed me. It made me recognize that I have a role in standing up to the extremists in my religion who try to intimidate us into respecting and following them. The purpose of religion is to inspire in us the best of human behavior.
Having chosen to raise my son Shibli as a Muslim, I wanted to find kinship in my local Muslim community. The opportunity came two weeks after Shibli’s first birthday. The board of trustees at the Islamic Center of Morgantown was opening a new mosque that had cost approximately $500,000 to build. It was a new three-storey brick building on a street off the campus of West Virginia University, not far from a McDonald’s and Hartsell’s Exxon. It had a large community room, a kitchen, a small library and a small office on the first floor, a massive prayer hall on the second floor and a small balcony on the third floor. The afternoon before the opening a local West Virginia woman, a convert, called me to ask for my help in making sure that leadership set the right precedent for women’s rights at the mosque. She had stood in the parking lot across the street from the old mosque when the men claimed there was no room inside for women. She and another convert were turned away from the door when they went to the old mosque to join in breaking the fast during the holy month of Ramadan. She had organized private swimming for Muslim sisters on Sunday nights at an indoor pool, even taping newspapers to the windows, but puritanical gossipmongers sniped at her efforts. And she had organized a family day at Valley’s Worlds of Fun, an entertainment centre with laser tag and other games, but an extremist protested an activity called ‘Rock and Roll Cage’, thinking it would promote improper Western dancing. In fact, it was an innocent four-person ride.
These conflicts reflected the imposition of cultural hang-ups on the community, but I realized that there was a much more serious threat to the community than the exclusion of women and cancelled activities. Years earlier an Iranian American professor of international communications at American University, Hamid Mowlana, taught me that the mosque plays an important role in defining and disseminating Islamic ideology in the world. He identified the mosque as a place that serves not only as a site for daily prayers but also as a communications model for spreading news and opinion and as a forum for political decision making. My friend Danny’s kidnappers had used a mosque in Karachi as a drop-off point for the photos the world saw of Danny in shackles. I felt it was imperative to make mosques – not to mention all places of worship – safe refuges for men, women and children, not safe houses for hatred, division and puritanical ideology.
I agreed to meet the West Virginia convert at the McDonald’s by the mosque, and I drafted a seven-point ‘Manifesto for Equal Participation by Women’ that included equity in access, accommodations, facilities and services. The women’s restroom, for example, included no foot baths, while the men’s restroom had spacious facilities for wudu, the ritual cleansing mandatory before prayer. My father joined us and took the manifesto to a meeting of the board members that night. He reported to me that they didn’t respond, but they listened to the points. With hope, I walked with great enthusiasm to the freshly painted green doors of the new mosque, Shibli on my hip. It was the eve of Ramadan, the holiest of months for Muslims and a time when we abstain from food, drink and sex from sunup to sundown on the path to liberate us from our attachments to worldly desires. I had enjoyed this month since my childhood days as a sort of spiritual boot camp. I wore the same flowing white hijab I had worn in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.
“Sister, take the back entrance!” the board president, an Egyptian American man with a PhD, yelled at me. I was stunned, not only by his message but also by his tone. It had none of the warmth I’d received from not just women but also men in Mecca and Jerusalem. He didn’t even give me the typical Muslim greeting, “As-salaam alaykum.” I was taken back to Mina, where I had learned that small acts of kindness can mean so much.
He expected me to take a wooden walkway along the right side of the building to a back door. It opened into a back stairwell that led to an isolated balcony considered the “sisters’ section.” I was so stunned that I continued through the front door, but I didn’t dare go up a set of stairs to the right, inside the front door. They led into the main sanctuary. Somehow I knew it was off-limits to me as a woman. I walked through the community room and slipped into the back stairwell and climbed into the balcony. Resentful, I sat down on the carpet, cross-legged, Shibli on my lap. I felt humiliated and marginalized as I stared at a half wall. I couldn’t see into the main hall unless I looked over the edge, and I – a woman who had fearlessly crisscrossed the globe, meeting with heads of state, the Taliban and chief executives – didn’t have the nerve to even look over the wall. I heard the disembodied voices of prayers and lectures from the main hall downstairs, but with the distance, the inadequate sound system and the chatter of women who were socializing because they were disconnected from the mosque’s main activities below, I could barely make out what they were saying. I didn’t have the nerve to speak up or protest. If I had something to say, I was supposed to write my thoughts on a piece of paper, pluck some child from play and ask the child to pass my note to the men in the main hall. I felt like a second-class citizen.
"An Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in Mosques" by Asra Nomani
Worse yet, I was confused. I had never been treated so rudely at the Sacred Mosque in Mecca or in the Holy Sanctuary in Jerusalem. I had walked through those gates freely. I had navigated the halls without restraint. In Mecca I had emerged into the courtyard that housed the Ka’bah without interference. Even though I opposed most of Saudi Arabia’s policies towards women, the government made the hajj experience more equitable than I could have ever imagined. The Saudis hadn’t forced families to separate to observe the usual strict segregation that the state imposed on men and women in the public sphere. And yet it was unacceptable for me to walk through the front doors of my own mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia. I hadn’t attached much significance to the moment when I had stood before the Ka’bah with my family, unhindered by gender segregation, but in a lesson I was slowly learning, I realized there really were no moments from the hajj that were without meaning.
I went to my parents’ home, angry. I yelled at my father in the kitchen. “Who decided women are so worthless?” He shook his head, sharing my frustration but feeling helpless. We were lucky that we hadn’t been consigned to a totally closed-off room. The board originally had accepted a design in which the wall overlooking the main hall would have been floor-to-ceiling. My father protested that it would cut women off too much. The board wouldn’t abandon the design until the fire marshal told the board that it would have to pay thousands of dollars for a sprinkler system if it kept the balcony barricaded. It was an uphill battle to assert women’s rights in the Morgantown mosque. “They’re male chauvinists,” my father said. I tried to accept the status quo through the first days of Ramadan, praying silently upstairs, listening to sermons addressed only to “brothers.”
On Friday the discrimination became really obvious. The community was gathering to break the fast at a sunset meal called iftar. A new female medical resident at the university arrived at the new mosque for the iftar. Enthusiastic about being a part of her new Muslim community, she walked up to the front door with a covered dish. A man wouldn’t even look her in the eye as he issued his order. “Women – over there!” he yelled, pointing to the old mosque. “This is the opening of the new mosque. I want to enter,” she protested. But how could she penetrate the phalanx of engrained cultural misogyny and discrimination that made the new mosque a men’s club? She slunk over to the cramped old mosque, where a posse of kids ran wild.
The women got a dingy room in the old mosque. We sat on white trash bags on the floor next to ratty filing cabinets that seemed ready to topple over. It was so cramped that my plate of food tumbled to the floor when I stood up as a boy ran by me while playing. I went outside and stared at the brightly lit new mosque across the street. I could see the chandeliers inside sparkling in the main hall. The men streamed in and out of the mosque, happily enjoying their dinner inside the spacious community room. We were not included in their definition of community.
Fed up, my mother dispatched a boy to get my father. On the ride home my mother expressed her frustration. “If I was a man, I couldn’t even eat my dinner if I was getting the best while the women and children were getting the worst. I would take the worst and give them the best.” I thought of my nephew, Samir, in Medina refusing to see the Prophet’s original mosque when his sister Safiyyah couldn’t. This was the kind of enlightened thinking we needed to awaken in our men. Not a single one of them should have accepted their entitlement to the spanking new mosque knowing their wives, daughters, sisters and children were being denied access to it.
Despite my outrage, I felt I would be like an interloper if I protested. But my awareness of our subjugation interrupted my prayer each time I touched my forehead to the carpet. I lay in bed each night despising the men who had ordered me to use the mosque’s rear entrance and questioning the value my religion gave women.
I called the scholar Alan Godlas at the University of Georgia for guidance. He empathized immediately with me. He said it wasn’t Islamic to treat women as the men in my mosque were doing. But he also knew that the wound I was feeling ran deep. “Your anger reveals a deeper pain,” he said. Over the next few days I wondered about what he had said, and I realized it was true. I had witnessed the marginalization of women in many parts of Muslim society. But my parents had taught me that I wasn’t meant to be marginalized. Nor did I believe that Islam expected that of me. I began researching that question. I wanted to know the truth. Once I discovered it, I had a larger question before me: Would I have the courage to act?
Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam
by Asra Nomani
I am a Muslim woman who lives with her parents and young son in Morgantown, West Virginia. The men who are the leaders of my mosque are considering banishing me for attempting to claim the rights of a Muslim woman at the mosque and to stand up for a tolerant and inclusive Islam.
Facing trial for disturbing the peace of these men, I have reflected on how we need to restore our Muslim world to the principles of Islam that the prophet Muhammad practiced in the 7th Century, transforming an ancient desert town called Medina into "the City of Enlightenment." My experience teaches that Islam must redefine the way it expresses itself so that modern-day Cities of Enlightenment will shine throughout the Muslim world.
We have inspiration in the names for God in Islam. Among them: compassion, truth, tolerance, justice. I present "99 Precepts for Opening Hearts, Minds and Doors in the Muslim World," modeled after those names and the essential messages of a book I have written about my ordeal at the mosque, Standing Alone in Mecca.
To realize these precepts for women, I offer two charters of Muslim justice -- an Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in Mosques, and an Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom. The precepts or the bill of rights call not for "reform of Islam" but rather restoration of Islam.
Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam
by Asra Nomani