Sunday, October 24, 2004

Muslims, the Media, and the Masjid

If you bring up the topic of “Women and the Masjid”, to a Muslim woman, it doesn’t matter if she is religious or secular, liberal or conservative, traditional or modernist. The response is usually the same. We feel that in most American mosques, women do not play an active role. We are not involved in decision making, program development or management. When considering the floor plan of a masjid, the women’s area is usually an afterthought. It’s as if they are saying, “Well, IF some women decide to come here for Jumuah, we’ll stick them here.” “Here” usually being a small balcony or side room that should magically fit in all the women and their children. Or, it’s a side room where the women are cramped together in a messy, uncomfortable room. Or worse, the poor Muslima who lives in an area where the men are so indoctrinated with backward cultural beliefs that the mosque does not even allow women. “Hey, Islam does not oppress women,” we tell non-Muslims as there are musallas where the women’s prayer area is small, unkempt, and inadequately maintained (which is a just a passive aggressive way of saying we don’t want you here). “Do not keep the maidservants of Allah from entering the houses of Allah,” spoke our beloved Prophet (peace and blessings upon him) and yet dozens of masajid around the world are doing just that. They may confident that they can escape social criticism for their behavior but they will be questioned about it on Yaum al Qiyama.

So I must give credit to the Progressive Muslim movement for pointing out this gross violation which is against the tenets of our religion. For too long, educated Muslim women who wanted to contribute to their masjid, in the same way that many women in our history had done, were turned away—some quite harshly. This has lead to pent-up resentment and frustration against the extremist (meaning extremely incorrect) behavior posing as true Islam that would render our deen of rahma into an all boy’s club. Unfortunately, out of this anger and frustration, this has led some of the fighters against this injustice to embrace another equally extremist and incorrect interpretation. Since women were not allowed to have adequate prayer sections, the left-wing extremists would demand that women pray shoulder to shoulder or right next to the men (even if that means ignoring the Sunnah?). And if their requests were not met immediately, they would take it by force. Hence the battle at a West Virginia mosque led by Tantrika author Asra Q. Nomani. After her spiritual and sexual exploration in the South Asian continent, she launched a campaign to “Take back the masjid!”

Great! This is EXACTLY what we need. One heroic voice crying out in the night for equality…oh wait. Wait a minute! What does that article say?!

Yes, from the New York Times to, we have read stories of how ALL of our masajid are filled anti-female sentiment. Our houses of worship are just crawling with sulking, brooding men looking to throw a woman out like a bouncer at some upscale night club. And while I am not denying that this ogre exists, to say that ALL masajid are like this, or that ALL masjid-going Muslim men are violently barring women from their Islamic rights, is laying it on pretty thick. Once again, we do have a problem with women’s spaces, but not to the point where America has turned into a mini Afghanistan. These are problems that must be addressed but I would talk about how we SHOULD NOT address them.

Muslims and Media

Writing scathing articles for Western media outlets do not solve the problem—in fact, it only makes it worse. It is counter-productive to write articles for the New York Times or Time Magazine, publications that are not known for being fair when it comes to Muslims and Islam. How could they be when NYT hired Judith Miller, a woman who can’t speak Arabic and has no Islamic knowledge, as a Middle East expert? She craftily penned a book called God has Ninety-Nine Names in which Palestinian scholar Edward Said slams for incorrect translations and gross generalizations. (Yes, Mrs. Miller. God does have 99 names and you don’t know any of them.)

And how nice it was to see an article in Time Magazine with Ms. Nomani and crew protesting in the streets against the sexist policies of her masjid while also featuring an article as to whether or not the Qur’an condones beheadings and kidnappings. These publications could care less about Muslim women and more about presenting their readers with entertaining stories about “them crazy Moozlims.” Also, they are published by ignorant people who have an abysmal knowledge of Islam so these articles do nothing but enforce their stereotypes when they come from Muslim women. It doesn’t matter if you say, “We can change Islam,” or “This is behavior is not Islamically correct.” The impression has been made and the idea of oppressive Muslim men, enforced.

And why can’t these issues be addressed from within the community? Why must we run to media everytime there’s a dispute or crisis? Are we so inadequate at handling our own problems that we must run to “Big Daddy West” to solve them? I would like to think not. Shame tactics do not work. Education works. Having good adab while your opponents shame themselves works; not embarrassing your community and shaming those who don’t deserve that negative attention.

Muslim men care about women’s rights, too

I noticed that in all the articles, the male Muslim voice is absent. (Except for Nomani’s father regretting his past mistakes about excluding women from their masjid.) This is not a "men vs. women" issue. This is a righteous struggle to see that mosques adhere to the Sunnah. These articles create the impression that there isn’t a strong collective voice among American Muslim men that care about seeing their sisters receive their Islamic rights. And yet, Imam Zaid Shakir, Yahiya Emerick and Abdul Malik Mujahid have spoken and written on the subject. But their voices aren’t heard or read on NPR or NYT. Is it because they don’t want the American public to know that Muslim men actually care about Muslim women? How many Shaykh Hamza Yusuf lectures have we’ve heard where he admonishes men for not being appreciative and kind to their wives? How many times has he criticized and educated our less enlightened brothers on the rights of women in Islam? American media outlets would rather give voice to the disgruntled among us who are half-way between belief and unbelief rather than pay attention to those of us who fight for our rights within a classical Islamic framework.

Not all masajid are the same

I live in a city with about nine different masajid. I have attended almost of all them and what strikes me the most is how differently each masjid divides its men and women. There are two masajid where the women and men are in one room, all together, with ample space for both genders and everyone can see the imam. There’s another where the women pray in a small balcony while the men have the larger bottom floor. There’s also another where, the women are in a side room, while the men have a huge prayer area in the main hall. You noticed how I mentioned the two masajid with equal space for men and women? When these articles are written about American masajid, there is never any mention of the ones that are doing the right thing. They never say, “Well there’s this mosque in Anywhere, USA and they adhere to the Sunnah. Why can’t we be more like them?” The mosques that I mentioned are predominately African-American and maybe it’s just me but I notice that some of these polltakers and reporters systematically leave them out. I wonder why. (And sadly enough, some Muslim orgs. do that as well but that’s a topic I’ll get into another time.)

Since all masajid are not the same, the way that they handle the problem of female exclusion (if they decide to tackle the problem) should differ according to the consensus of the people of that particular masjid. But whatever each masjid decides, what is important is that women feel like active members of their communities. But launching vicious invectives and “literary jihads” only pours salt on a gaping open wound. This problem must be addressed by all Muslims together who strive to please their Lord, not Western commentators or our own egos.

Here are some articles written on the subject and how we SHOULD address this problem.

The Twin Halves of Men: A Guide to Establishing a Woman-Friendly Community

Make Way for the Women

Challenges of Women Space in Masjids

Flight from the Masjid

Women in Mosques


Blogger DrMaxtor said...

I believe PM's are only using this issue to promote themselves as "acceptable Muslims." Most of them freely admit not even attending a masjid to begin, infact they want their "own" exclusive masjids where they dont have to pray with us.
The number one problem facing the masjid today is not womans access but security. Masjids are vandalized all the time yet we never hear the PM taking local law enforcement to task for dragging their feet. You wont hear about this in TIME magazine either. Muslim woman today are far more likely to be attacked or harassed than be denied access to a masjid. Yet the PM's sole target is the Muslim community itself. Newsweek anybody ? Its hard enough opening a new masajid, let alone operating one in the face of dwindling donations but PM's dont care to take this reality under consideration.
As for tantric adultress Nomani, her escapades at the Morgantown masjid had far more to do with her inability to get elected to a position there than discrimination, real or imagined.

2:28 PM  
Blogger izzymo said...

Salaam Doc,
I understand what you are saying. The PMs have not criticized law enforcement for their lack of protection with all the attacks that I have happened since 9/11. So I am not sure how they are going to build PM masajid when 1) many Americans are not confortable with a masjid in their neighborhood and 2) unless their funding comes from the gov't, they will run into the same problems that regular masajid run into in terms of funding.

However, I do believe that women as a whole are not fully included in many masajid in the United States and now is the time to pull together as a community. I don't understand how some of these men can marginalize women, ask then to cook iftar dinners and then leave them out of important decision-making for the community. I think if women formed groups that could be active inside and outside of the masjid, that would definitely create more sisterhood. But as women need access to Islamic knowlegde and if you are a convert, single or don't have internet access, your only choice is to go to the masjid, if they accept you.

12:57 PM  

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