Women’s Mosque of America – Women Carving Out Spaces of Prayer: Azza Basarudin and Khanum Shaikh

Guest post by AZZA BASARUDIN and KHANUM SHAIKH

In the past decade, the efforts of women in communities of Muslims to claim leadership roles within their communities of worship have animated heated debates around the role and place that Islam ascribes to women. Questions of whether women are allowed to call congregants to prayer (adhaan), deliver sermons (khutba), lead prayers, and participate in mixed-gender prayer with women and men standing side-by-side are religiously permissible acts have been thrown up into the air, gaining support from some Muslims, and intense resistance from others. Within the United States, these contemporary debates can be traced back to a mixed-gender Friday prayer service led by Dr. Amina Wadud at Synod House of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York in 2005.[1] Numerous women-led prayer sessions have since taken place in cities across the United States, and in various global locations such as Toronto and Barcelona.[2] Widespread condemnation, heresy charges, and death threats swiftly followed some of these acts of defiance by Muslim women who are tired of being excluded from and/or given marginal spaces/roles within mosques for prayer, i.e. usually behind men or in less than ideal spaces where it is difficult to see/hear the sermon (khutba). Nonetheless, voices of support and acceptance are also prevalent—not that the women trailblazing this mode of leadership in ritual practices need anyone’s approval. It is into one such space—a newly created women-only Friday prayer organized by the Women’s Mosque of America—that we made our way on May 22, 2015 in Los Angeles.

Both of us have spent close to a decade learning, teaching, and writing about women and Islam in Pakistan and Malaysia within the discipline of Women/Gender and Sexuality Studies as we earned our doctoral degrees at the University of California, Los Angeles. We were both raised in Muslim households and we now split our time between Los Angeles-Lahore and Los Angeles-Penang. Both in our professional and personal lives, we have been concerned with women’s marginalization in the production, transmission, and enforcement of Islamic knowledge and principles. And the implications of such marginalization are, indeed, great. They manifest in the social and cultural attitudes towards women’s roles and rights, as well as in gender power relations. They manifest in the enforcement of patriarchal laws and policies that are said to derive from authentic Islamic texts, which are overwhelmingly interpreted and transmitted by male exegetes and jurists into religious edicts and legal rulings (e.g, Zina laws in Pakistan and hudud in Malaysia). And, in extreme cases, they manifest in misogynistic political groups that use Islam as a means to enact the most horrific atrocities towards women (e.g. Taliban, ISIL, Boko Haram), to rise against imperialist interventions, and to overthrow corrupt and repressive regimes that leave majorities disenfranchised. This particular issue of women-led prayer is not a novel one; Muslim women and/or feminists are amongst women of many faith traditions who have been fighting the battle against an organized and systemic exclusion of women from centers of religious authority.

Our joint piece is not intended to be a theoretical analysis about Islamic legal thoughts, women imams, and/or leadership positions, because there are many exemplary studies and writings on such topics.[3] Rather, our piece is a collective attempt to meditate on the availability of a prayer space so easily accessible in our city of Los Angeles. It is about the emotions that undergird the act of participating in a familiar, yet unfamiliar, ritual in a space that has normatively privileged men and been led by men, for men, in spite of a lack of evidence from the Qur’an or Sunnah prohibiting women from leading prayer. Part of what made this journey exciting for us was having a comfortable and welcoming space of our own—to be in prayer without having to meet certain normative standards of mosque, e.g., either entering through a separate area or praying in designated and/or cramped spaces.

The setting for the Friday prayer we attended was the Pico Union Project, a multi-faith cultural arts center and house of worship based on Jewish values of “love your neighbor as yourselves.” On the left side of the entrance, there was a table with a sign-in sheet and collection box, along with various prayer-related information for interested volunteers. We signed in, volunteered for a few positions, and proceeded to join our sisters in faith. Our eyes immediately focused on two large banners in front of the congregational space: one banner read “Allah….And when My servants ask you about Me, then truly, I am near” (Qur’an 2: 186) and the other “Muhammad…. I have only been sent to perfect your good manners.” As we look around we noticed that the congregation was made up of girls and women of all ages, racial/ethnic backgrounds, and faith values. There were those who were covered and those with headscarf worn loosely, but almost all present were wearing everyday work/street clothing. As with any mosque setting, chairs were allocated for those who needed them during prayer. Children mingled amongst adults.

More poignantly, for the first time in our lives, we were appearing in submission in front of Allah collectively in a colorful and spirited environment that was meant deliberately to create a sense of connection, community, and belonging. As we entered this prayer space together, we marveled at how different this felt than the time that both of us had travelled to Masjid Al-Aqsa in the walled city of Jerusalem, and were accosted by the male gatekeeper of the mosque for not being in “appropriate Islamic attire”—which he described as an Arabized style of dress and head-covering—despite both of us being fully covered and covering our hair with scarves.

The Women’s Mosque of America was designed to provide girls and women with “access to Islamic scholarship and leadership opportunities.” The first jummah was held in late January and made local and international headlines. Contrary to traditional configuration of mosques, this particular initiative is not anchored in a permanent location. For now, it is housed at the Pico Union Project, which is also home to four other congregations—a Methodist Episcopal ministry, an Evangelical and Pentecostal church, a Korean Christian church, and a newly formed Jewish group—and organizers are planning to expand the reach depending on support and availability of funds. It is particularly noteworthy that girls and women are encouraged to attend the jummah without prescribing any uniform dress code and each khateebah presenter introduces her mazhab (school of jurisprudence) before delivering a sermon. Is it also noteworthy that each khateebah began with asking the congregation permission to take a group selfie with all the women attendees behind them! Imagine such lightheartedness in conventional mosque spaces….

We sat amongst approximately twenty to thirty women to listen to announcements and housekeeping issues, followed by adhaan offered by a young woman. Without a microphone, her voice sounded light, much softer than the beaming (and beautiful) melodic male voices (amplified even further by speakers) that each of us are accustomed to hearing as legitimate issuers of the call for prayers our entire lives. “Allah hu Akbar, Allah hu Akbar. Ashaduallaillaha Illalah.” she continued to invite the women to gather in submission through collective prayer. The adhaan was followed by two women who delivered sermons, Eman Hassaballa Aly, a Digital Strategist and Counselor/Social Worker and Aziza Hasan, the Executive Director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.

In honor of Mother’s Day, Eman gave a lively talk about motherhood and Islam, weaving together a beautiful narrative of her experiences as both a daughter and as a youth counselor with stories from the powerful mothers who are revered as key figures in Islamic history. With much humor and dynamism she shared stories about lived interpretations of Islam from her Egyptian-immigrant-Muslim family background, and how, at times, these interpretations differ from or coincide with stories from Islamic history. In doing so, Eman rocked us back and forth from the present realities of our lives as mothers and/or daughters within our Muslim families in the United States, to the early days of Islam. How do we look to the principles outlined in the Quran while balancing the social pressures that our children face as they grow up in the United States, and at the same time meeting our obligations to our parents, she asked? How can we be true to our desires and to ourselves as individual Muslim women, and meet our responsibilities to our families and communities?

Unlike many khutbas that keep religious texts in the realm of the sacred, floating above the messy contradictions and dilemmas of our daily lived realities, it was inspiring to hear Eman narrate stories that we could all, in one way or another, relate to. As women who grew up in Pakistan and Malaysia respectively, this connection to everyday lived realities is precisely what was missing in our own religious education. For many Muslims with similar religious upbringings, Islam remains a forbidding phenomenon, monopolized by experts who are male or uphold male centered discourses and ideals of womanhood that we cannot live up to and/or refuse to adhere to. In this khutba, we rejoiced and laughed; we nodded our heads, acknowledging similar situations we’ve encountered in our lives as daughters, mothers, professionals, and women navigating the different dimensions of our lives; and in some moments, found ourselves shedding light tears in moments of deep resonance. Indeed, it was a pleasurable experience to be in the space of this newly created Women’s Mosque of America.

After the prayer, we formed a circle to begin a brief small group discussion, which was to be followed by a more extensive discussion during lunch at a nearby restaurant. Many present shared their feelings about the opportunity to attend the prayer session and ways that the khutbah spoke to them. For Khanum, a telling moment during the prayer was just how weak collective women’s voices sounded when we called out “ameen at the completion of certain surahs. She was struck by how squeaky and small her own voice sounded, rather timid and unsure and so different from the ways that these collective ameens sound when she has prayed in mixed settings within other Los Angeles mosques. In the small group we discussed how we are so used to the heavy base of male voices that collectively carry the prayers forward with their loud ameens confidently punctuating the end of surahs when needed, and the women’s voices barely audible. Interesting, we thought, that despite our excitement of being in a women’s only prayer space, many of us do not have precedent for what it looks and feels like to be led by other women’s voices during prayer.

For Azza, this collective and welcoming space contrasted with the traditional/non-inclusive occasional reference to God with masculine gendered pronouns.[4] She brought this up in the small group discussion but given the time constraint, we were unable to have a more fleshed-out and concrete discussion on this topic. In a space that women have created for women to worship, it is her hope that more careful attention is paid to the implications of language and the ways that women have internalized normative patriarchal language of the sacred. As scholar Asma Barlas has discussed, using “He” or “Himself” to refer to God instead of the language offered by the Qur’an such as Rabb and Allah is reducing God to comparable human attributes. Barlas writes that “[e]ven when the Qur’an refers to God as “He,” it does not mean that God is male, or like one.”[5] While we can agree that using “he” does not necessarily mean we perceive God as male, it is important to think about the politics of referring to God in the masculine form, particularly as we work to reclaim our faith tradition and the spiritual spaces from within. After all, as feminist scholar-activist bell hooks writes “The oppressed struggle in a language to recover ourselves—to rewrite, to reconcile, to renew. Our words are not without meaning. They are an action—a resistance. Language is also a place of struggle.”[6] Indeed, our words are our actions. The struggle for women’s visibility and leadership roles in Islam is also a struggle about language.

What possibilities does a women-led prayer space open up for Muslim women who are thrust into leadership roles through engaging in worship in this women-only space? Could the women’s mosque offer opportunities to connect with other women and girls, to share life experiences of being Muslims from diverse backgrounds and balancing faith commitments with other aspects of personal and professional lives? The possibilities, undeniably, are endless. But for now, it may just be nice to have a spiritual space to meditate in, and perhaps articulate alternatives to the alarming levels of violence against women and girls that are being enacted by political groups in the name of Islam today.

As we left the sanctuary of Friday prayer created by the Women’s Mosque of America, we knew this was the first of many spiritual avenues of participation. While we may differ in how we conceive of the ways in which we relate to God and our faith, we also know that such as space and opportunity is a rarity and we value the ability to congregate and worship with other women, 20 minutes away from our homes.

Azza Basarudin, Ph.D, is a Research Scholar at the Center for the Study of Women at the University of California, Los Angeles.

 Khanum Shaikh, Ph.D, is Assistant Professor of Women’s/Gender Studies at California State University, Northridge.

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[1] As early as 1994, Amina Wadud was invited to deliver a khutbah before a congregational prayer at the Claremont Road Mosque in Capetown, South Africa. While Wadud was not the first woman to lead a mix-gender prayer, the event generated intense publicity and coverage.

[2] Raheel Raza, a Toronto-based rights activist, led prayers and delivered a khutbah in Oxford in 2010.

[3] See for example, works by Juliana Hammer (American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism, 2012) and Marion Katz (Prayer in Islamic Thought, 2013 and Women in the Mosque, 2014).

[4] Eman responded by saying that God is referred to as “He” in the Qur’an while Aziza noted that she was careful to take out any reference to God in the masculine.

[5] See Asma Barlas, Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an (Austin: University of Texas Press), pg 105. Scholars working within the context of Christian theology and communities have debated extensively the implications of masculine language in religious texts. For example, see Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation, 1984), Rosemary Radford Reuther (Sexism and God— Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, 1983). For the Jewish tradition, see Judith Plaskow (Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, 1991).

[6] See bell hooks, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (New York: Routledge), pg 28.

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