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Can Mosque Pray-ins Change the Conservative Culture of Some American Mosques?

June 16, 2010

by Jehan S. Harney

Mosque pray-ins are springing up across the U.S. They’re orchestrated by a group of Muslim women wanting to end gender segregation in nearly two-thirds of American mosques. To get their point across, some of these women are literally walking out from behind the seven-foot barrier separating men and women in some mosques to pray side-by-side men.

Activist Fatima Thompson, who converted to Islam two decades ago, hopes mosques can return to a “truer expression, a truer spirit of Islam.” But her attempts to sway mosques in that direction by organizing two mosque pray-ins with her group, Muslims for Progressive Values, provoked mosque officials to call police and file a restraining order against the group.

On June 11, I was touched by Fatima’s recorded interview, which was part of the taping of our show on mosque pray-ins on PBS To The Contrary.

I agree with Fatima, we need to bring today’s Islam back to its truer spirit, back to the days of Prophet Mohammed, when women and men shared the same space, either praying side-by-side or behind men.

As I said on the PBS show, “we first must draw the line between Islam and its cultural practice in mosques.” Many immigrant Muslims in America come from conservative cultures, requiring women to pray in secluded rooms in mosques, some of which are specifically designed in the architecture of these mosques.

Syrian-American Imam Mohammed Bashar recently traveled to Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world. He told me a Muslim woman in his congregation was banned from an Indonesian mosque during the Friday prayer. Imam Bashar was personally shocked and disappointed.

Only in few mosques in America this has been reported. Nonetheless it is indicative of the blind following of the words of Prophet Muhammed when he said: “The best mosques for women are the inner parts of their houses.” Here, Imam Bashar clarified the rationale behind the Prophet’s words. “Islam, being a religion of compassion, doesn’t want to burden women by making it mandatory for them to go to mosques when they already have family responsibilities at home.”  However, should women choose to go to the mosque, the Prophet stressed, they should be always welcome.

Yet, some Muslim women in America don’t feel welcome enough in some mosques, particularly those located in homes, basements, or apartment buildings, where space is too tight and mostly taken by men, especially during the Friday prayers.

Some women, like Fatima, who are pushed in a separate space or behind some barriers, feel they cannot follow the prayers. They lose connection with the Imam who leads the prayer. They cannot get their prayer cues from the men praying ahead of them because they simply can’t see them. In the end, they feel totally cut off from the community, or as Fatima puts it, “feel like a second class citizen.”

It appears there is a growing conservative trend in Islam we’re now witnessing in America, here manifested in the acceptance of segregating mosques.  I believe this isn’t healthy for supporting Muslim women, who bring up future generation of Muslims. It further isolates them further from the mosque community and could weaken their faith.

What these women are asking for was practiced traditionally and historically in Islam. In the Grand Mosque of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Islam’s holiest shrine, women and men continue to perform all the hajj rituals, including praying, without segregation. Fatima’s movement definitely brings to the forefront the role of women in American mosques.

Personally, I don’t mind praying in a separate space in a mosque, as I did in the Islamic Center in Washington, DC or the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, MD. The architecture of their spacious rooms is spiritually evoking, while the rooms themselves are equipped with speakers to stay connected with the Imam. This can be suited for some women who prefer solitude while connecting with the divine without much distraction. Among these women also is Kimberly King, AKA Khayriyyah, who was the subject of my documentary, The Colors of Veil. The former US soldier, who converted to Islam and now is the wife of Imam Bashar, feels more comfortable praying and meditating in a segregated space within the mosque.

Perhaps mosques should allow women to choose where to pray and make them to feel welcome in the house of God instead of filing a restraining order against them. Similarly, I believe women activists, like Fatima, can gain more supporters to her progressive movement by further spiritualizing their message: Not necessarily by demanding mosques change their policies to have men and women pray side-by-side, but rather demanding mosques to give women their right to choose where to pray.  After all, Islam is a about democracy and it is a religion that respects women enough, naming one verse of the Quran after them: “Women.”