Monday, 2 May 2011

Reclaiming Islam : Part 2 (Women and Islam)

After 9/11, a number of American Muslims began to reclaim the core values of Islam. One vehicle for this was a book entitled “Taking Back Islam - American Muslims Reclaim their Faith (Ed: Michael Wolfe, Pub:Rodale) which contains essays from a number of prominent American Muslims, as well as non-Muslims working in faith related fields.

This post touches very briefly on some of the topics discussed in the book, in the hope that this will provide some food for thought. And in keeping with the theme of this blog, some emails sent by BFTF as a results of the comments in the book are also listed:

Reclaiming Islam : Part 1 (The Muslim State and the Muslim Ummah, Democracy)
Reclaiming Islam : Part 2 (Women and Islam)
Reclaiming Islam : Part 3 (“Critical Friend” Emails)

Women and Islam
Saraji Umm Zaid (a freelance writer and poet) describes how she once took a trip to Colorado with her family and was dismayed to find that she would not be allowed to pray in the local mosque (her husband was later told that there just “wasn’t room” for women).

Similarly, she recounts how, whilst shopping in New York with her daughter and a friend they tried to perform the afternoon prayer at a mosque but were met at the door by a very angry teenager who told them that they should return to their homes and that they were a fitna upon the brothers who were there.

She comments that “If a small child and two sisters in hijab are a fitna upon these men then whatever do they do as they walk around New York and encounter women who cover nothing more than what they are legally required to cover?” Again, another brother told her that “it’s not that women aren’t allowed, just that there isn’t any room for you in this mosque”

Feeling that this excuse is getting a little old, she mentions that she once went to a tiny mosque in Monterey, about the size of her living room , where the brothers had curtained off a corner of the room for women to use, if required

Saraji comments that mosques will not explicitly ban women from entering, because the Prophet specifically forbade keeping women from the mosque. “’We don’t have room’ becomes code for ‘we don’t want you here, go home’. If people were really interested in keeping with the Prophets practice then they should make sure their mosque doesn’t aid them in violating this command”.

She further comments that people who speak out against this injustice are often labelled as “troublemakers”. When she wrote a letter to that New York mosque, giving reasons for from Quran, Sunnah and the writings of our esteemed scholars as to why it is forbidden to block women from the mosque, she was labelled as a “radical feminist”

Furthermore, Saraji feels that keeping women away from the mosques has the result of eliminating their viewpoints, ideas and energy.

“When you ensure that women are included in the mosque, you are ensuring that the entire community has access to the teachings of Islam. You are showing others that Islam does not stand for the exclusion of women and children, that Islam is not a “mans religion”. You are showing others that a woman can be modest, can be religious and can still participate in community life. You are showing the next generation of Muslims that cultural ideas about excluding women and keeping them in the home are not from Islam.”


Samer Hathout (founding president of the Muslim Women’s League) gives the example of Mirian (not her real name). Miriam was married to Ali, she was often beaten and abused. “When Mariam did attempt to speak with her local Muslim community leader, she was made to feel that the abuse was her fault – if she was a better wife, Ali would not have to beat her. She was also told not to discuss her marital problems with other people and that it was important for her to stay married at all costs to preserve the family.”

Eventually, Mariam left home and sought refuge in a local battered womens shelter. She received assistance and Ali was convicted in US court for spousal battery. “But when Mariam appeared at Muslim functions she was shunned, the Muslim community wanted nothing to do with her. She was viewed as a woman who had left her husband for no reason. Ali, on the other hand was viewed as the victim of a broken marriage and of the United States criminal justice system. He was greeted by the Muslim community with open arms. Mariam found no support from the Muslim community and eventually stopped attending Muslim functions.”

Hadouth also describes the experience of “Iman”, a student activist who wants to organise relief efforts for countries such as Bosnia and Palestine. Whilst she is able to form coalitions with other groups at University to achieve these aims, she finds that when she tries to organize similar efforts at local mosques she finds that she cannot reliable access the mens section and is not allowed to make announcements after Friday Prayers because she is a woman, nor is she allowed to run for the board of the mosque. Instead she is invited to participate in activities such as organizing Eid carnivals and preparing iftar meals during Ramadhan. Eventually, she stops going to the mosque because she is able to achieve more through the non-Muslim groups at University.


Kecia Ali (a researcher in marriage and spousal rights in early Islamic Jurispudence) has a number of comments to make regarding classical Islamic Jurispudence and begins by stating that “The legal schools have historically demonstrated significant variability in method and doctrines. . .These differences are not, as some have suggested, merely matters of detail”. She goes on to explain in more detail that, “The Shafi’i school allows a wife to obtain a divorce on the grounds of nonsuppot after as little as three days, the Hanafi School never does, even if the wife is indigent and her husband fails to support her for decades. The Maliki school allows a father to contract a marriage for his never-married daughter over her objections even if she is a thirty five yr old professional; conversely, the Hanbali school says that the fathers power to force a girl into marriage ends when she turns nine. . . .These mutually contradictory positions cannot all be equally correct interpretations of an infallible divine will. All, however, are significantly shaped by the patriarchal constraints of their times of origin. Once Muslim recognise this, the need for qualified Muslims to create a renewed jurisprudence should be clear.”

Update : 13 Aug 2012 See also this disheartening experience of a Muslim woman wishing to pray at a mosque in the US. Here is a snippet :

"I asked someone if there was an area for women to pray and how to get there. He said there was and pointed us in the direction of what lead to a shoe rack. He then asked someone else how to get to the women's area and this second young man told us to go outside and around the corner where we would find a back entrance that led into the area designated for women. . .as we turned the corner we stumbled over a hose and breathed in the fresh scent of garbage from three cans placed conveniently there. We then turned into a pitch black darkness that was illuminated all of a sudden with a sensor light that turned itself off almost as quickly as it turned itself on."


And also this by Hind Maliki, which includes the following :
After a week of praying Taraweeh in a cramped and over heated basement, with some bug-infested areas smelling like mildew, she asked her male relatives what their praying experience was like. Upon hearing that they had air conditioning and extra space in one of the 3 levels of the mosque, my friend and a few other young women decided to pray behind the men on the 2nd floor. For their trouble, they were yelled at and were threatened that the mosque would call the police if they didn’t leave the men’s area. In the end, these brave women prayed outside on the grass (where they could see that the all-male first and second floors were not full).


Or, you get the awesomely hilarious glass panels at another multi-million dollar mosque. This mosque has one of the best prayer spaces for women in the Chicago area, but the interior design caters to the male experience, right down to the glass panels on the ladies mezzanine floor engraved with “Allah” and “Muhammad” that face outward. As I joked to my friend, the only people who can read the panels are the men downstairs who look upward trying to get a glimpse of the ladies.





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