Europe's female imams challenge Muslim patriarchy – and fight Islamophobia

The 'imamas' see their mosques as home for young, liberal Muslims who feel out of place at more conservative mosques with imported imams. And they think they can change the narrative of Islam in Europe.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Sherin Khankan sits in a room in the mosque where she serves as imam in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Sherin Khankan flits about the window sills, lighting wicks and placing bouquets of roses in just the right places as she prepares for Friday prayers.

“We being women, there are always a lot of candles and flowers,” explains Denmark’s first female imam, placing a single, deep pink rose in a potted plant.

A second-floor walk-up off an upscale street in Copenhagen, the Mariam mosque indeed feels as snug as it does spiritual, and is intended foremost as a faith community for Danish Muslims who’ve failed to find one at more traditional mosques.

But the efforts here, the first of their kind in Denmark, could have a much wider impact. Ms. Khankan says by challenging patriarchal structures, she and other women imams – they use the term "imamas" – can help counter growing Islamophobia across Europe. The imamas are undertaking the challenge amid a spate of terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists and raging political and cultural debates over everything from burkinis to Islam’s place in Europe.

“It’s very difficult to hold onto the narrative that Muslim women are suppressed, that Islam is a suppressive religion in its essence, when they can see that women are taking the lead and building up their own female-led mosque," says Khankan. "This is in itself proof that this anti-Islamic rhetoric is incorrect. It’s not the total picture.”

The Mariam mosque is rare but is not the first of its kind. Women have served as imams since the early 19th century in China, and now preach from the United States to South Africa. In June a well-known Muslim feminist, Seyran Ates, whose parents came to Germany as Turkish guest-workers, opened a liberal mosque in Berlin to welcome all sects of Islam, Muslims of all sexual orientation, and men and women to worship together. “There's so much Islamist terror and so much evilness happening in the name of my religion,” she told the Associated Press, “it's important that we, the modern and liberal Muslims, also show our faces in public.”

Mistrust of the Muslim community has deepened since 9/11, especially in the era of the so-called Islamic State. Denmark has not been spared. Copenhagen witnessed its own attack in February 2015. Ten years earlier, cartoons of the prophet Muhammad published by the Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper sparked riots around the globe and thrust Denmark into the center of a debate over freedom of speech and cultural values. At the same time, many observers say the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the Danish People’s Party has hardened views, and politics, around immigration and Islam.

Lissi Rasmussen, a pastor and chairwoman of the Center for Coexistence, says that in this environment, young Danish Muslims have trouble finding a place to worship that they can identify with. “The young people, most of them don’t go to established mosques where they speak of the politics of Turkey, for instance, with imported imams,” she says. “That’s the older generation. They don’t feel at home there.”

That’s what has drawn many to the Mariam mosque. One member, Lea, who is half Iranian, half Nordic, attended a predominantly Shiite mosque in Copenhagen before this but often found herself “irritated,” she says.

“In Copenhagen, I feel a second-class citizen when I have to go all the way upstairs and not even look down at the men’s section,” she says. Instead, the 19-year-old gave her first khutbah (sermon) this day, after a rich, female voice sings the adhan (call to prayer).

Her sermon was on the cultural traditions that get too easily conflated with the religion of Islam, including myths about forced marriage and polygamy. It’s a perfect 101 for non-Muslims, but a worshiper visiting the mosque for the first time also said afterwards that she planned to bring some of the lessons home to her own father.

The Mariam mosque has been criticized on both sides. Traditionalists dismiss it as outside the realm of Islam. Ms. Khankan, the daughter of a Syrian refugee and Finnish mother who says she has bridged worlds her entire life, says not a single mainline imam from Denmark has visited. Progressives say it doesn’t go far enough. While the mosque is open to men and women, Friday midday prayers – the biggest weekly service – are reserved for women only, making them far less controversial than if women imams were to also preach to men.

Khankan says she originally wanted to open it up to both but in hindsight says she’s happy she lost that fight. “When you want to create change you have to do it very slowly,” she says. “Now I can see that there is greater wisdom, because we are on totally safe ground.”

Celebrating nearly one year since it opened for Friday prayers last August, today the mosque counts 100 members. They recently opened up a Sunday school for children and have performed more than a dozen Islamic marriages – with Islamic contracts that enshrine a bride’s right to divorce and to the children on equal terms as the father in case of a divorce. The contract also says that in the cases of polygamy or violence, the marriage is annulled.

On this day Khankan is in a lilac hijab and white jalabiyah, or robe covering. It was a gift from her father from Damascus, Syria, 15 years ago that she now wears as her “imama dress.” It’s symbolic because the inspiration to open this mosque came while she was doing her fieldwork for her thesis in Damascus, listening to the grand mufti and wondering what the words would be if he were a woman. “The inspiration came not from the West, but the East,” she says.

Last year when she was getting dressed in the jalabiyah the day the mosque opened, her youngest daughter – then age 5 – had a friend over who was looking at her and whispered “What is an imama?”

Khankan’s daughter, she says, looked at her mother and replied: “An imama is a woman who is doing great things.”

A year later, she says, she does have faith that a small group of people can change mindsets. “I do believe that Islamophobes see progressive Muslims as a greater threat than Islamists,” she says, “because we are able to change the narrative of Islam in Europe.”

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