SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. A new group called the Women's Mosque of America held their first Friday prayer service yesterday in Los Angeles. It was led by women, for women and only women. It isn't the first women-only mosque in the world, but as far as its organizers know, it is the first of its kind in America. NPR's Nathan Rott and Rebecca Hersher report from Los Angeles.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: We'll start with me. I'm at the King Fahad mosque in Culver City, Calif. It's a fairly traditional mosque, and the Friday prayer, or jumma'a, is starting in a few minutes. Men are walking up a set of marble steps, removing their shoes and entering the mosque through the main door. Women walk through the parking lot and enter through a side door.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing prayer).
Inside, during the call to prayer, it's only men sitting on the main floor. Women are in a separate room above. Now, it's important to know that not all mosques separate women this much, or even at all. Every mosque has a different way of doing things. But traditionally, there is some degree of separation between men and women and the prayers themselves are almost always ran by men - almost always.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Almost.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing prayer).
HERSHER: A few miles away near downtown LA it's the same prayer, but it's a woman leading it. The Women's Mosque of America doesn't actually have its own mosque. About a hundred women have gathered in this former synagogue. The stained-glass windows actually have Jewish stars on them. It's a safe space - no men. Young and old women kneel side-by-side on the carpet. The sermon is about empowerment as a Muslim woman. At the end, everyone makes a big circle and the floor is open for anyone to ask a question about the Quran. After the service, Noor-Malika Chishti tells me that Q and A session is really different from what happens at her usual mosque.
NOOR-MALIKA CHISHTI: It's so packed that when the imam finishes, there's already a circle of men waiting to ask him a question, and he's out of time by the time he gets through all the men. So pretty much, women don't have an opportunity to ask a question.
HERSHER: Michelle Hashmi brought her daughter Nyla to the service.
How old is Nyla?
MICHELLE HASHMI: How old are you, Nyla?
HASHMI: She's 4.
HERSHER: Hashmi says she doesn't usually go to Friday prayers.
HASHMI: I've grown up in LA and haven't really found a mosque where I really connected. But, it seemed a little more progressive and liberal, so this place - it's a good vibe here.
ROTT: Sana Muttalib and Hasna Maznavi are the co-founders of the Women's Mosque of America. They created it for reasons similar to the ones you just heard. Here's Muttalib.
SANA MUTTALIB: Ever since I was a little girl I, you know, was used to kind of entering through a side entrance and being in a completely separate room. And it was something that never sat well with me.
ROTT: A recent study co-sponsored by the Islamic Society of North America found that only 14 percent of American mosques do an excellent job of being women-friendly. Maznavi says it's not malicious, it's culture and tradition. Many mosques are built with that separation in mind, which is why they decided to establish their own.
HASNA MAZNAVI: When we build this mosque, we are reflecting our own culture - and that's American culture.
ROTT: A diverse culture, she says, Muslims from every part of the world.
MAZNAVI: Sunni, Shia, conservative, progressive. We want everyone's input.
ROTT: Something that both of them say has a precedent. Islam has a rich history of women scholars and leaders. Kecia Ali is a professor of religion at Boston University, and a Muslim herself.
KECIA ALI: The Women's Mosque is one of a number of initiatives towards more inclusive worship.
ROTT: And Ali says the issues they're tackling are not unique to Islam.
ALI: Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhists, Mormon. The question of women's participation and female authority is complicated, it is fraught and it is very much in flux.
ROTT: And of course, that's not unique to religion. Nathan Rott, NPR News.
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