Toward Women-Friendly Mosques

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Louay Safi



The Islamic Social Services Association and Women in Islam have released
a guide underlining a set of principles rooted in Islamic sources that outlines
the rights of Muslim women to have full access to the mosque, and calling
on Muslim leaders to privilege Islamic principles and values over cultural
habits and traditions. The guide is entitled “Women-Friendly Mosques and
Community Centers: Working Together to Reclaim Our Heritage.”
The guide is a serious attempt to deal with an issue that requires immediate
attention by Muslim communities: the place of women in the mosque
and the community. I personally faced the issue for the first time two
decades ago when a Muslim Student Association board member objected
to the inclusion of women in an executive meeting. He based his position
on Islamic tradition, but his argument was found lacking by everyone else
on the board. The meeting went on without him, but with the two sisters.
The point of view alluded to above has continued to be well-represented
over the years within the Muslim community, particularly among immigrants
who grew up in societies were women did not take an active role in
social life and community development. The point of view that was hostile
to the presence of women in the mosque gained more of a following in
many Islamic centers throughout North America as the community grew
more dependent on imams and scholars educated in universities that provide
a narrow Islamic education.
Hammered by Islamic opinions apparently rooted in Islamic sources,
many mosques started to erect barriers and drop curtains between the men’s
and women’s areas. Eventually, many mosques designated a separate and
secluded area for Muslim women. The strict seclusion often mimicked
arrangements adopted by mosques in Muslim countries and was tolerated
by women who grew up in a condition of seclusion.
American-born Muslim women, including women who grew up in
immigrant families, find it increasingly difficult to accept the regime of
seclusion in the mosque that cuts them off from education and decision
making. Some have chosen to stay away and find alternative ways to
acquire Islamic education and engage in social services. Others went back
to understand Islamic sources and found out that there is no ground for the
regime of seclusion.
The “Women-Friendly Mosques” guide is the outcome of a quest by
Muslim women who made the journey to examine the Islamic sources and
to face head-on the arguments employed to perpetuate a regime that cuts
Muslim women off from Islamic education and community service. The
journey placed them in direct contact with the Islamic texts and put them in
touch with Muslim scholars. The conclusion they came back with is both
refreshing and relieving for every Muslim woman who was troubled with
the sense of alienation that she had developed by visiting the center of
Islamic life, whose Prophet, peace be with him, came to reaffirm the spiritual
and moral equality of both men and women.

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