U.S. Muslim Women Fight for Power
Young, educated women are demanding more authority at the mosque
It’s Ramadan, and Sara Elghobashy and a group of her women friends, having broken their fast, are looking for a mosque where they can hear the recitation of Koran.
“We could go to Medina,” said one, suggesting a mosque nearby, in New York’s East Village.
“No, don’t go to Medina. They don’t like women there,” Elghobashy says, and laughs loudly.
There is an awkward silence. The other girls blink and change the subject.
Elghobashy doesn’t really think mosques’ treatment of women as second-class citizens is funny. In fact, she finds it absurd and depressing – but also motivating.
Elghobashy wants to crash what she calls the boys’ club of Islam. She wants to lead congregations of both men and women – a rare thing in the Muslim world, where mosques often have separate, distinctly inferior seating for women, and the few women who do rise to positions of religious authority tend to lead only other women.
She aspires to become a certified Islamic scholar, or a sheikha. It’s a serious undertaking. After graduating from New York University, she plans to devote a year to memorizing the 114 chapters of the Koran. There is a specific art to reciting them correctly, in the rhyme and rhythm, in the intonation and pronunciation. Only upon mastering this would she have the chance to join the ulama, the community of religious scholars.
The most prestigious place to study is Al-Azhar in Cairo, the world’s oldest university and the Harvard of Islamic sciences.
Elghobashy recently passed the first cut toward admission. But she’s troubled.
Though Al-Azhar started admitting women in the 1970s, its classes are gender-segregated, and the quality of both professors and lessons for women is notoriously inferior. Al-Azhar is a beacon of Islamic orthodoxy, a place where tradition is cherished and protected, and part of what Elghobashy wants to do is change those traditions—the ones that say that the role of religious authority is Islam is reserved for men.
Muslim women have served as chaplains, publishing their own interpretations of the Koran, even issuing fatwas, or religious rulings. But they rarely command as much respect as their male counterparts.
“Gender segregation is at the heart of every function,” at the mosque, argued Asra Nomani, an Indian-American author and journalist who leads a controversial Muslim feminist movement she calls her “gender jihad.” Traditionally, “women aren’t allowed in the front of the mosque, not allowed to lecture, not allowed to speak for the community.”
Nomani and her colleagues have organized mixed-gender prayers led by female imams, shocking to most Muslims.
A few women do lecture to mixed groups, and Muslim-American groups often let women lead. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the largest Muslim organization in North America, elected its first female president in 2006.
But it’s much rarer for a woman to lead a mixed-gender congregation in the mosque; in fact, mosques seem to be growing more conservative in this regard. In some 66 percent, women pray in separate sections, where they sometimes cannot even see the imam, according to a 2001 study by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). That was up from 54 percent in 1994. And in 31 percent of the mosques surveyed, women were barred from serving on executive boards.
The problem does not just lie with the men. Too few women have spoken up, many activists complain.
“Women have to come forward and say, ‘we are knowledgeable and we have a right and a responsibility to our community to share our knowledge,’” said Mohamed Elsanousi, ISNA’s communications director. “Women have to step up and help educate men on these cultural misperceptions.”
Women like Nomani and Elghobashy are trying to do that, but disagree on how to break up the men’s club.
Nomani wants to shock the mainstream Muslim community into change. She set off a fierce debate in her small community of Morgantown, West Virginia, by walking into the local mosque and praying in the men-only main hall — an act meant to be as provocative as Rosa Parks’ taking a seat in the front of the bus. The mosque tried to ban her, but this only egged her on. Soon afterward, she launched a “Muslim Women’s Freedom” campaign, and has been traveling to mosques across America.
“Images matter, shock blasts matter, because you end up with a tremor and then change,” Nomani said. “We have to upset the status quo, because we’ve had to wait long enough. Shock waves are a good thing, because maybe they will help jolt us into the 21st century.”
Elghobashy, though, advocates a gentler approach.
“A larger crowd of people will feel more compelled to take your views in, and you can affect more people if you’re not completely ostracizing yourself from the rest of Muslim society,” she said.
The female scholar Duha Abd El-Hakim, who studied at Al-Azhar, was dissatisfied with her experience there. She felt compelled to look for traditional Islamic learning in other ways.
“In Cairo, it was difficult to find male tutors who were willing to work with me, because they didn’t want to be alone with a woman,” she said. She joined a study group in a sheikh’s home, but the women were asked to sit in a separate room where they couldn’t see him, and could barely hear the lesson.
Yet Abd El-Hakim likewise opposes Nomani’s shock approach. She compares it to “a teenager rebelling against her parents.”
“It’s not that there shouldn’t be change,” Abd El-Hakim said, “but change should be more reasonable. The best way to open up eyes as a woman is to prove yourself by learning and being as well-rounded as possible. There are so many different groups of Muslims out there, and you need to be aware of all of them and be able to communicate with all of them. Start small and grow from there.”
To Nomani, this is just naïve. “Talk to me in 15 years after you try to change the community that way,” she says. “Go to Al-Azhar and you’ll still come back and be stuck preaching to women in the cubicle space in the 96th Street Mosque,” she said, referring to a large gender-segregated mosque on New York City’s Upper East Side. “If you live long enough, you recognize that you have to work from the outside to some degree. Because who in power wants to give it up?”