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Muslims split over gender role

American Muslim women challenge the tradition that only men can lead ritual prayers.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 28, 2005

During her pilgrimage to Mecca, Asra Nomani was surprised when men and women prayed all together; in her mosque in the US, women weren't allowed in the same room.

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That experience fueled her personal jihad (or struggle), which, she says, is to reclaim the rightful role of women in Islam given by the prophet Muhammad, but denied by centuries of cultural tradition.

After years of trying to bring change in the mosque, Ms. Nomani and a woman scholar have taken the revolutionary and controversial step in recent weeks of leading the ritual prayer in front of both men and women. That bold action has sent e-mails flying globally, stirred vigorous debate in the United States, and brought condemnation by scholars across the Muslim world as a violation of Islam.

"This is a misleading heresy and sedition," responded the Islamic Fiqh Academy of the 55-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference. Sheikh Mohammad Sayed Tantawi of Cairo's Al-Azhar University said women may lead other women in prayer, but not a mixed-gender congregation. Muslim organizations in the US issued similar critiques.

But a few scholars and women's groups argue that it is not that definitive, pointing to a situation in which the prophet Muhammad designated a woman to lead prayer for a group including men. Whether the men were of her own household or beyond is disputed.

"That revealed to me that the prophet didn't discriminate about the ability of a woman to lead prayer," says Nomani in an interview. She adds that Islamic law scholar Khalid Abou El Fadl of UCLA "pointed me to books of women jurists, including one who led a school of jurisprudence and was an imam [prayer leader] centuries ago."

The sparks flew after Amina Wadud, professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of "Koran and Woman," first led 150 Muslims - about half men - in the Friday prayer on March 18 in New York City.

Nomani, who was born in India and raised in Morgantown, W.Va., led a small mixed group in prayer on March 23, after speaking at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. She plans to organize more events.

"This is one of the more controversial issues in Islam," says Amaney Jamal, an assistant professor at Princeton University. "One group feels it is an established norm that men lead the prayer, and Islam shouldn't be singled out, since in Catholicism and [orthodox] Jewish denominations men also lead.

"Another group believes the segregation of the sexes has moved to the extreme in Islamic theology today," more so than in the time of Muhammad, she adds. "They also feel ... the inequitable treatment of women has misrepresented the religion to the world, and this needs to be addressed so women understand it is not Islam that is oppressing them."

Some Muslim women have worked for years on women's rights and on encouraging more equitable conditions in mosques.

Only men are required to attend the traditional Friday prayer at the mosque, and in some countries women rarely go. But as US mosques developed as community and educational centers for immigrant families, women participated regularly. Segregation of the sexes remains common, and women may be relegated to cramped or undesirable spaces. Many American mosques now have women on their governing boards, but others do not permit this.