Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Towards Women Friendly Mosques

The Islamic Social Services Association and Woman in Islam have released a guide underlining a set of principles rooted in Islamic sources that outlines the rights of Muslim women to have full access to the masjid, and calling on Muslim leaders to privilege Islamic principles and values over cultural habits and traditions. The guide is entitled “Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers: Working Together to Reclaim Our Heritage.”

The guide presents a serious attempt to deal with an issue that requires an immediate attention by Muslim communities: the place of women in the masjid and the community. I personally faced the issue for the first time two decades ago when a Muslim Student Association board member objected to the inclusion of women in an executive meeting. He based his position in Islamic traditions, but his argument was found lacking by everyone else on the board. The meeting went on without him but with the two sisters.

The point of view that was expressed by the MSA board member alluded to above continued to be well represented over the years within the Muslim community, particularly among immigrants who grew up in societies were women did not take an active role in social life and community development. The point of view that was hostile to the presence of women in the masjid gained more following in many Islamic centers throughout North America, as the community grew more dependent on imams and scholars educated in universities that provide a narrow Islamic education.

Hammered by Islamic opinions apparently rooted in Islamic sources, many masjids started to erect barriers and drop curtains between the men and women areas. Eventually, many masjids designated a separate and secluded area for Muslim women. The strict seclusion often mimicked arrangements adopted by masjids in Muslim countries, and was tolerated by women who grew up in a condition of seclusion.

American-born Muslim women, including women grew up in immigrant families, find it increasingly difficult to accept the regime of seclusion in the masjid that cut them off from education and decision making. Some have chosen to stay away and find alternative ways to acquire Islamic education and engage in social services. Others went back to understand Islamic sources and to find out that there is no ground for the regime of seclusion.

The “Women Friendly Masques” guide is the outcome of a quest by Muslim women who made the journey to examine the Islamic sources and to face head on the arguments employed to perpetuate a regime that cuts Muslim women off from Islamic education and community service. The journey took them into direct contact with the Islamic text and put them in touch with Muslim scholars. The conclusion they came back is both refreshing and relieving for every Muslim women that was troubled with the sense of alienation she develop by visiting the center of Islamic life, whose prophet, peace be with him, came to reaffirm the spiritual and moral equality of both men and women.

The guide demonstrates that the regime of women’s seclusion is rooted more is social rationalization than in Islamic teachings. It demonstrates that the Prophet was concerned about the possible exclusion of women by overzealous men, and unequivocally instructed the community to make sure that women are not prevented from attending the masjid. The guide also shows that the arguments against women’s participation in the masjid boil down to the principle of dar’ al mafasid (prevention of corruption); such a principle cannot be invoked to invalidate an established right sanctioned by Islamic law.

The guide does not stop at articulating a position rooted in the most authentic Islamic sources, but provides practical guidelines to help community leaders ensure that the masjid is a center for spiritual growth and learning for all Muslims. It also shares the perspective of women who experienced seclusion first hand, and documents through statistical data the extent of women’s seclusion and marginalization in North American masjids.

The guide is intended to clarify the Islamic position concerning women’s participation in the masjid by ascertaining Islamic sources. The conclusions will not sit well with Muslims who have already established their positions on the basis of their cultural experiences. The guide is likely to be dismissed by two groups: those who are convinced that women should stay away from the public square, and those who are oblivious to the importance of community support and maturation for realizing moral and spiritual equality.

Regardless of initial reactions, I am sure that most Muslims will view it as an important tool to deal with a complex issue. I do pray that those who agree with the guide’s conclusions will not only node their heads in agreement, but will do their level best to make its guidelines a part and parcel of the daily life of the Islamic center and community. The fact that five of the largest and most influential mainstream Muslim organizations have embraced the guide will go long way towards translating the ideals it articulates to reality.

Link to “Women Friendly Mosques” at: http://www.ildc.net/womens-involvement/

This article appeared in the following publications:

American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences - USA


Edward Ott said...

I have nominated quite a few sisters for election to the board all decline when asked. they all work very hard for the community but seem to refuse to be on the board of the Masjid. Until we can get them there i fear our community will never truely mature.

Anonymous said...

I think that some progress is being made on this issue as some of the newer masjids are being made more woman friendly as we are learning from our mistakes of the past.