Muslims split over gender role
American Muslim women challenge the tradition that only men can lead ritual prayers.
(Page 2 of 2)
Nomani describes her own journey and her struggles to bring reform to the Morgantown mosque in her new book, "Standing Alone in Mecca."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Some critics charge the prayer events are being staged to promote her book. Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, says both are part of her jihad that flows from the Islamic teaching that one must "stand up for justice."
While many women seek change, they may not support the prayer venture. It is "violating a principle of Islamic law - the forms of ritual prayer are fixed by revelation" and can't be changed, says Ingrid Mattson, a professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary. "Yet outside of those obligatory prayers, it is very open," so that women can lead prayer in other settings.
Women can be spiritual leaders in the mosques without leading ritual prayer, or can do so for women, she adds. "In China, women's mosques are part of the larger mosque, and women imams are paid by the community."
Salma Kazmi, who attends the Islamic Society of Boston, says this has "sparked a lot of debate and e-mails." But when it comes to worship, "you don't start making changes" to what is a "unifying point in the community," which is important when people come from so many different cultures.
At the same time, the prayer event helped bring about a forum in her mosque last week, where women and some male leaders discussed issues of access and the place of women in the mosque.
Still, others see this as a legitimate battle worth fighting, including US Muslim groups such as the Progressive Muslim Union and Muslimwakeup.com. Two young men from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell participated enthusiastically in the prayer led by Nomani.
"I'm honored to be a part of this," says Shahjerhan Khan, a Pakistani-American student, who issued the call to prayer.
So much said at the mosque "doesn't relate to our lives," adds his friend, Basim Usmani. "This is directly relevant to us and can be part of our own jihad."
In her Morgantown mosque, Nomani found that some sermons were taken from an extremist website originating in Saudi Arabia; they promoted denigration of Jews and Christians and called Muslims who associated with them "nonbelievers."
Her battle is not only to stand against oppression of women but also against extremism, she says. In fact, it was the beheading in Pakistan of her good friend Daniel Pearl, also a Wall Street Journal correspondent, that sent her on pilgrimage to Mecca to seek the heart of Islam.
"My family taught me the spirit of love in Islam," she says, "but those who murdered Danny had said their prayers before killing him." It was a betrayal of her faith, and she had to find answers. Her book describes how she found them and her conviction Muslims must not be silent.
When others criticize her bold steps, Nomani is not fazed, despite the many threats she's received. She says many more people have thanked her. "We need to bring about change quickly, because the direction of our Muslim world is perilous, and we mustn't placate fears but overcome them - in our hearts and our communities," she says. "I'm simply the voice I kept looking to hear when I felt darkest, and my desire is to give others hope."