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Breaching the Wall at Prayer

Muslim women who enjoy equality outside the mosque are fighting the barriers inside that constrain them as worshipers and leaders.

June 27, 2005|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

On a recent Friday, a veiled woman entered a crowded Los Angeles mosque and surveyed the scene. In the front, a few hundred men waited for the call to prayer. In the back, women and children sat in a separate area behind tinted glass.

With barely a pause, 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 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.

"For that Friday prayer, a woman was able to sit in the main hall and create a new reality for our Muslim world," said 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."

Nomani's controversial tactics outrage many Muslims. Among them are critics at the Islamic Center, who viewed her recent visit there as a self-serving stunt to publicize her new memoir, "Standing Alone in Mecca," and an unfair ambush of the Los Angeles mosque, which is known for its women-friendly policies.

Mosques have traditionally kept the genders apart because the prophet Muhammad ordered them to pray in separate rows, leaders say. This has been interpreted over the years, they add, as a way to keep men from becoming distracted during prayers.

Still, friends and foes alike agree that Nomani has helped bring global attention to a long-festering issue: the limits on female access to Muslim prayer space, religious leadership and decision-making power. Today, a growing group of Muslims, most of them North Americans and some galvanized by the intense scrutiny of Islam since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, are pushing for wider roles for women.

Such battles over women's religious rights and authority have raged in many faith traditions -- ongoing struggles for Roman Catholic women priests and greater female access to Talmudic studies in Orthodox Judaism, for instance.

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 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.

Many Muslims are tackling gender segregation in the mosque. They are urging that women be allowed to pray as a group behind men in the main prayer hall, rather than be physically isolated by curtains, walls or separate rooms as they are in the majority of U.S. mosques. The most liberal are arguing for a hall with men on one side, women on the other and a mixed-gender row in the middle for families who want to pray together.

Some are also calling for greater shared leadership, with more women serving on governing boards and as public speakers at community programs.

Last year, the 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.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group, is planning to distribute nationally a new booklet calling for similar measures, saying that Islam calls for spiritual equality between the sexes.

Other Muslims, however, are pushing edgier issues. The Progressive Muslim Union of North America, recently launched by Eltantawi and others, sponsored a groundbreaking town hall meeting in Los Angeles this month 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 Khaled Abou El Fadl, a UCLA Islamic law professor who believes that Islam requires the most knowledgeable person to lead prayer, regardless of gender.

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