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.
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.
Nomani describes her own journey and her struggles to bring reform to the Morgantown mosque in her new book, "Standing Alone in Mecca."
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."