Muslim Women Debate Gender Segregation In Mosques

Recently a group of Muslim women in Washington, D.C. sought to protest what they considered to be an injustice — being confined to a separate prayer space from their male counterparts. The issue of gender segregation is one that many Muslims are talking about and to get some perspective host Michel Martin speaks with Asra Nomani who participated in the protests and wrote about them for The Daily Beast, and Asha Abdi, a student studying sociology at San Jose State University in California.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im Michel Martin.

Coming up, we hear from you, our listeners in backtalk, thats just ahead.

But first, its time for our weekly Faith Matters conversation, where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Last weekend, a group of Muslim women filed into the Islamic Center of Washington, thats a prominent mosque located here in the Washington, D.C. area. And they positioned themselves for prayer in the main sanctuary where the men typically gather rather than going to a separate section behind a wooden partition.

Eventually, the women were escorted out of the mosque by the District of Columbia police officers at the request of mosque officials, a scene which was captured on a camera by one of the protestors.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible), they want you to leave. Theyre asking you to leave.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Unidentified Man: We have to ask you to leave. If you refuse, we have to arrest you all.

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man: We will. Yes, we will.

MARTIN: The protest was part of an ongoing movement by some Muslim women who insisted there is nothing in Islamic law that requires that women pray either separately or behind the men. That this part of a cultural tradition that like the horse and buggy or white and colored waiting rooms needs to go. But there are other Muslim women who say that the practice of separate worship spaces has value. So, we will hear from both perspectives today.

Asra Nomani is a journalist and an author. She often appears on this program as part of our parenting roundtable. But her efforts against gender segregation and worship have been chronicled in a PBS documentary, among other places. She participated in last weekends protest and wrote about it for the Daily Beast, in an article titled "Let These Women Pray."

Also, joining us is Asha Abdi. She is a student of San Jose State, where she is studying sociology and I thank you both for joining me.

Ms. ASHA ABDI (Sociology Student, San Jose State University): Hello.

Ms. ASRA NOMANI (Journalist, Author): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Asra, Im going to start with you. As I mentioned, you have engaged in these acts of, do you want to call it civil disobedience...

Ms. NOMANI: Yes.

MARTIN: ...before a protest, you think thats a fair term?

Ms. NOMANI: I think so, yeah.

MARTIN: Okay, so, why last weekend? Was there was some particular significance to last weekend or did the spirit just move you?

Ms. NOMANI: Oh, whats so beautiful is that this is a movement thats organically coming out of the Muslim community here in America. There is a woman, Fatima Thompson, a convert here in the local area, who just got fed up of this partition and the phenomena of gender segregation. So, she used the Internet to rally other women. Shes part of a progressive Muslim group here in the area.

And we arrived at the front gate of the mosque, and we walked through together, went into the main hall. There were only about a dozen men there. This is a space that is like a banquet hall. There was more than enough space for everyone. And it was announced that the afternoon prayer would not be held because the women were in the main hall. And it really broke my heart because while Ive been doing this for years, there is a young Indonesian woman, who was there for the fist time and she just started crying. She started weeping because this kind of hostility, this kind of aggression against womens entry into that main space is such a violation of the feminist principles with which Islam was born.

So, we stood together as women shoulder to shoulder in that main hall. We walk in and youre just, you know, awed by the beautiful Turkish tiles of this sanctuary, and then youre told to go to this corner thats darkened. What you have in front of you and to your side is a seven foot high partition, thats a wooden partition. So, theres always this argument that, you know, separate can be equal in these places of worship, but separate isnt equal.

MARTIN: Its never - youre saying its never equal.

Ms. NOMANI: Yeah.

MARTIN: But let me ask you this, though, and for those who are not familiar with your argument, you make the analogy towards separate but equal in the United States in what had been a legal requirement and then a cultural tradition that the racists be held separate. You make the argument that gender separation is like that, that there is really no basis for it in humanity or in human rights.

The argument is that this is that this is different in that praying, particularly the Friday prayers, are a religious obligation for men, but they are not an obligation for women. So, therefore preferred spaces ought to be held aside for men who are required to attend, whereas women are not. And what do you say to that?

Ms. NOMANI: That is a religious interpretation used to basically keep women out of mosques. And it has become mainstay, but there are challenges to that interpretation. And the mosque is not just a prayer space, it is a community hall. It is a place where public policy in the community is established. And what happens when you sequester women into these corners, is we dont vote at elections. We dont participate in policy development. And so, you allow these places to become safe houses for ideology that may not be peaceful always. And you dont allow women to be a part of the policy of the congregation.

MARTIN: Lets hear from Asha. Lets hear your perspective on this. Would it be accurate to say that you like the separate prayer space for women?

Ms. ABDI: Yeah, definitely. I favor it and I definitely like it. I think, speaking on behalf of my community, we have a beautiful and really large community center and our prayer halls are very, very large, and our partition is mainly glass. Its tinted. And it gives us the room, like you said, its a community center, people come there to gather, socialize, theres lectures and I definitely dont see that were being held back.

MARTIN: Can you hear the prayers? Can you see the imam?

Ms. ABDI: Yes, yes, we have TVs that come down. We see the imam, we see the khatib, the Friday lecturer, and we have it all.

MARTIN: What is the benefit that you see in having the separate prayer space, because Asra makes the point, her perspective is she has said is that she feels that: A, Islamic law does not require this and the most sacred place in Islam women are not segregated in this way. So, the question is why do you need to be separate?

Ms. ABDI: Depending on the community and the mosque that you live in, things will be run a little different just like every church to church, synagogue to synagogue. And ours, there is a lot more men that come. And, you know, Islam is a religion that asks us to prevent any sort of evil that might come about. And theres certain regulations that women need to come by when they come to the masjid, and in general, the Muslims and that is wearing proper hijab. And coming to the community, you know, to protect the integrity of the community. And I see it as more of a benefit for us than of others.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Were having our weekly Faith Matters conversation, and were talking about a conversation in Islam and indeed with other religious tradition that practice gender segregation and worship about whether women really need to be separated from men during worship. Im speaking with Asha Abdi. Shes a student in San Jose, who appreciates the opportunity to worship separately from the men at her mosque. Im also speaking with Asra Nomani. Shes a journalist and author who participated in protest against segregated worship in the mosque, and she wrote about it recently for The Daily Beast.

MARTIN: Asra, if I could get you to engage her argument. Her argument is never one, this is a design problem that if these mosques are giving women inferior spaces, then thats wrong, but a separate space on its own is not objectionable. And she argues that she enjoys having a women only space, that she feels more comfortable there. She feels it allows her to express herself more freely and to worship more freely. What do you say to that?

Ms. NOMANI: Well, you know, I respect that need. And I understand that in our community we have people coming from traditions in which they have a different sense of mixing between the genders. But what my issue is the fact that ultimately when you sequester women like that, you dont allow those who want to come forward to step forward.

At the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., its not a choice thats left to us. They tell all women to go into that corner. And they then refuse on Sunday to have the prayer because we werent there. And so, what happens is that idea that women have to protect the integrity of the community, as Asha had put it, becomes a responsibility of all women.

Typically, the argument is that a man will get sexually distracted by the presence of a woman in the prayer hall, and so then we become responsible for holding up the integrity of the community.

But in fact, at the time of Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century, when he heard about men who were distracted he admonished them. He never put the women behind shower curtains, one-way mirrors. I mean, just the most absurd articles of partition we have.

MARTIN: What about the argument that the posture of prayer in Islam is one that makes some women uncomfortable to be in the presence of men, because you are kneeling, you're prostrate, right?

Ms. NOMANI: Right.

MARTIN: And there are some women who say it makes me uncomfortable to pray in the company of men, which is different from the prayer posture that other religions adopt. What do you say to those women?

Ms. NOMANI: I completely respect their position. You know, if they dont want to pray in the main prayer hall, I do believe that we have to have room for them also because if we exclude women with traditional interpretations or more conservative interpretations, then were being equally exclusionary. And so, in...

MARTIN: Its no different from say a woman who wanted to be a police officer or a firefighter. Maybe all women dont want to be, but if some women do...

Ms. NOMANI: Right.

MARTIN: ...youre saying they shouldnt be barred from that if they feel they have a particular gift or desire to do that work. So Asha, what about that? What about Asra's point that that is true for some, then all should not be bound by that? That's the argument I'm asking you to engage. Even if you prefer a women's section, is it your view that all women should have to pray there?

Ms. ABDI: Like, for example, in our community, sometimes when the mic goes out or there's shrines that always say other than the Friday prayers, women are encouraged, they can go to the back of the men's prayer area.

MARTIN: Okay. But why do they have to go to the back? I don't know how familiar you're with American racial history, but in America...

Ms. ABDI: So are you asking for...

MARTIN: No, I'm asking you, because in American racial history, this was the -this - the custom was to segregate African-Americans in worship at the back of...

Ms. ABDI: I don't...

MARTIN: ...white - no, let me finish my question. And so the question then became - this was deemed demeaning in this context. So what do you say about that?

Ms. ABDI: Islam is not acting or demeaning or, you know, putting down women or putting them in the back. We hear all this from the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks, get in back. Islam is not about that. I've even heard one scholar say that if there was a feminist movement today and the prophet was with us today, he would be the leader of the feminist movement because he understands the rights that God has given us. And this is not, you know, get-in-the-back thing. This is worshipping. We come to the Masjid to pray, so let's pray and move on. Honestly, I don't - we have so many things going in a Muslim world today, arguing about partition - I mean, the partition's a separate thing (technical difficulties) might be fine with it. It's just the conditions and the design that we're arguing about.

MARTIN: Asra, what about her point? Her point is that Muslims have a lot of things on their minds. This is not a priority for most, in her view.

Ms. NOMANI: The place of women in our Muslim community is, to me, an integral part of how Islam's defined in the world, on great global issues, from war to violence to our contributions to the world. If half of our population is stuck in a corner where the mic goes out, where you are basically paying attention to the messages of the leaders through a television set, we're cutting off half of our population. What we have, then, to bring this all full circle is we decided as a nation that we were not going to accept slavery and segregation. And to me, it's a time that we recognize that as a nation, we cannot accept this idea of separate and unequal, basically, in mosques.

MARTIN: Asha, I'd love to hear a final thought from you. Where do you think this conversation is going? Is this a conversation you are having or is being had in your home in the San Jose area? Is this something that you feel is being discussed among - particularly, I would say, among younger Muslims of your generation?

Ms. ABDI: No. In my family and in the community that I live in, we discuss these things that we hear that, you know, are nearby, and communities are dealing with them. If the issues that you're having, Asra, that are going on in the D.C. area are really happening, then these things need to be addressed. If you're not allowed to given the freedom to hear the prayer or the Friday sermon, then it's something that you need to fight for. I think it's by design, and if you want a bit more than that, then, you know, there's many mosques around our country, and if you can't hear the Friday sermon, then that's a problem of its own.

MARTIN: Asha Abdi is a student at San Jose State, where she's studying sociology. She was kind enough to join us on the phone from there. We're also joined here in Washington by Asra Nomani. She frequently appears on this program in our parenting roundtable. She wrote a piece about her efforts to desegregate the Islamic Center in Washington, or to pray alongside the men, in The Daily Beast. She's also the author of "Standing Alone in Mecca: An Americans Woman's Journey to the Soul of Islam," and she was here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. NOMANI: Thank you, Michel. Thank you, Asha.

Ms. ABDI: Thanks very much. Bye.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.