By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
Published: July 22, 2004
The last time Nasreen Aboobaker attended communal prayers with other Muslims was on the major holiday of Eid al-Fitr. The local mosque in Fremont, Calif., had rented space in a nearby Hilton Hotel to accommodate the crowd. As the men congregated in the spacious ballroom, Mrs. Aboobaker said she and the other women were ushered into a small conference room and told to follow along with the prayers piped in from the men's space.
After the women waited about an hour for the prayers to begin, the door to their room flew open and husbands arrived to take their wives home. "We did not even know the prayer had ended," said Mrs. Aboobaker, explaining that the sound system had failed. "We were locked up like sheep and cows."
Since that incident last November, Mrs. Aboobaker prays only at home, shunning the segregated mosque. But she is not the only Muslim woman who is beginning to bridle at the men's club culture of many American mosques. Gradually and with mixed success, a small number of Muslim women are challenging the lack of inclusion of women in worship and communal life. In Morgantown, W. Va.; Prince George's County, Md., and the San Francisco Bay Area, women have pushed to remove partitions or walls - or simply the rules - that prevent women worshipers from seeing or hearing the imam.
Another group of women led by a social worker in Winnipeg, Manitoba, is about to introduce a guide to making mosques more "sister friendly,'' proposing such measures as creating prayer space that does not exclude women, allowing women access to lectures, bulletin boards and donation boxes, and providing child care during mosque events.
Though they include college students and grandmothers, they represent a new generation of Muslim women raised and educated in North America. They include immigrants and the descendents of immigrants from the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere, as well as African-American and Anglo converts to the faith. Some of the younger women in their 20's and 30's, and their male supporters, identify themselves as "progressive Muslims" - a loose but growing network of activists and writers linked by books, Web sites and Listservs.
The Muslim women have not coalesced into anything resembling a mass movement, however. The women are often isolated and unaware of one another, and there is no agreement on tactics.
Overshadowing their endeavors, even now, are the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Many Muslims who support women's rights voiced the concern in interviews that it was counterproductive to air their divisions and dirty laundry when Islam is under scrutiny and Muslims' civil liberties are at risk.
Nevertheless, a poll taken about a year ago by the Islamic Society of North America, a large umbrella group of American mosques, found that the members' No. 1 priority is improving mosque leadership, especially on gender issues, said Ingrid Mattson, the society's first female vice president.
"People felt that women weren't well treated in mosques, and excluded from decision making," said Ms. Mattson, a professor at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
Mosques in the United States vary in their practices, and some are more inclusive of women than others. At the Islamic Center of Southern California, in Los Angeles, women have long served as board members and spawned a generation of young female activists. At the other extreme are mosques that have constitutions prohibiting women from voting in board elections. More common is to find women serving as laborers but not leaders.
"If women are involved in the mosque, what they're doing is secretarial work, child care, cooking and cleaning," said Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, the former chief executive of "Azizah,'' a magazine for Muslim women and a Columbia University graduate. "We'll kick a door down at Harvard or Columbia, but kicking a door down at our local mosque, we won't do."
Some women advocate working quietly for change from within established Muslim organizations, whose leadership is predominantly male. One such pioneer, Shahina Siddiqui, has drafted a booklet for mosque leaders on how to make mosques more "sister friendly" and is now circulating it to Muslim scholars for their feedback. She began the effort four months before the Sept. 11 attacks, and laid it aside until now.
"Interaction with modesty between the sexes is what is desired, and if we separate or segregate totally, how do they learn?" asked Mrs. Siddiqui, who lives in Winnipeg and is president of the Islamic Social Services Association in Canada.
Other women despair of ever winning concessions from the men in leadership and are using more confrontational tactics. Asra Q. Nomani, a journalist in Morgantown, W. Va., created a stir when she entered the mosque there through the door designated for men and refused to budge from the men's section during Friday prayers. Her Rosa Parks-style civil disobedience has won change but few supporters in the mosque. She is now trying to fight off an effort by some members to ban her.
What these women do share, however, is the conviction that the Prophet Muhammad, founder of the faith, would have been on their side. They argue that excluding or isolating women in separate rooms for prayer are practices based on cultural traditions and not religious mandate. As proof, they cite the words and actions of the prophet, and references to Islamic law.
Looking to Muslim countries to set a standard only muddies the picture, scholars said. In Pakistan or Bangladesh, women never set foot in most mosques. In Mecca and Medina, the holiest mosques in Islam, women pray apart from the men but not in separate areas or behind a curtain, said Khaled Abou el Fadl, a professor at U.C.L.A. School of Law.
He said there is nothing in Islamic jurisprudence dictating that women must pray in a separate room or behind the men, as long as the sexes do not pray shoulder to shoulder.
"The immigrant community in the United States tends to be more conservative on this issue than a lot of Muslim countries," said Mr. Abou el-Fadl, who wrote "Speaking in God's Name: Islamic Law, Authority, and Women''(Oxford: One World, 2001).
"Among Muslim immigrants there's a lot of anxiety and insecurity about their Islamic identity, and a lot of it is expressed in ways that are restrictive about women," he said.
He also attributed the restrictions on women to the influence of the Saudis, who for decades have supported American mosques with money, literature and imams.
In the prophet's era, the mosque was a center of community life for men, women and children, said Mrs. Siddiqui. Weddings and funerals took place there, charitable contributions were collected and disbursed, and disputes were resolved.
"I keep telling people we are going back to the prophet's time," Mrs. Siddiqui said, "not going forward."
Traditionalists say that separation between the sexes is necessary to preserve modesty and prevent distraction during prayer, which involves bowing and deep prostrations. And the practical reason why men usually monopolize the prayer space is that communal prayer on Fridays is an obligation for men, while for women it is optional.
However, Muslim women said in interviews that they had visited mosques in the United States where women were sent to pray in basements, hallways, parking lots and rented apartments down the street. At some mosques, they said, they had been turned away entirely.
If the sexes share a space, men are usually in the front rows and women in the back, sometimes separated by a partition. An exception is the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, a majestic dome in an Ohio cornfield, attended by Muslims from about 22 countries. There, women sit on the left and men on the right, separated only by a three-foot movable divider, said Cherrefe Kadri, the former mosque president and a lawyer who is believed to be the first woman in the country to hold that position. In many mosques the explanation for segregating the sexes is lack of space, and it is true that many mosques are little more than storefronts. But even some mosques that are newly built or under renovation have not made room for women.
Shahed Amanullah, an engineer and editor in chief of the Web site alt.muslim, said that about six months ago he was shown the blueprints for a mosque being built in Berkeley, Calif. The organizers were renovating a large, gracious historic building. Yet the women's prayer area turned out to be a hallway wedged between the kitchen, the women's bathroom and a door, closed off entirely from the men's space, he said.
When he questioned the all-male board members, a few felt strongly that they would be "safer" to interpret Islamic law more restrictively. Mr. Amanullah said, "You've got a minority of people who are very rigid, and unfortunately the most conservative interpretation is presented as the most authoritative."
Babar Yasin, one of the Berkeley mosque leaders, said that the reason to segregate the sexes was that "mostly the women are not comfortable praying with the men." But he said that some of the younger Muslim women had said they wanted to be allowed to pray in the main hall, behind the men. He said the mosque leadership would permit that.
In the late 1990's, Mr. Amanullah and his wife, Hina Azam, traveled to two of the world's most famous mosques: the Azhar Mosque in Cairo's old city, and the Qayrawiyin in Fez, Morocco. Ms. Azam, a doctoral student studying classical Islamic law at Duke University, said that in these mosques women and men prayed in a single unbroken space.
In Fez, she said, "We prayed within two feet of each other. There was a woman in front of us and a man behind us. I thought, O.K., that's odd. Then the imam walked by and I thought, 'We're busted.' But all he said was 'Welcome, I haven't seen you here before. Let me show you around the mosque.' "