This past Monday, Fatima Thompson and I were interviewed for an article in the Muslim Link about the Pray In movement, which seeks to follow the example of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) in his arrangement of prayer space and community participation.
Over the course of the last few months, I've had the opportunity and pleasure to meet and work with a diverse group of very intelligent, talented, committed, and passionate individuals as well as to participate in and or witness several pray-ins at local mosques. In writing about and discussing the issues surrounding Pray In and women's access, space, and treatment within our Muslim communities, I've been met with varying responses. So I'd like to offer some of my own insight along with excerpts from a lecture delivered by Dr. Ingrid Mattson with whom I find myself agreeing on many issues to clarify and answer some of the common misconceptions and/or at times weak arguments used by those who often sit on the sidelines spewing invectives opposing the Pray In movement, complaining while doing nothing for worthy causes, which seems to be a bit of sport that Muslims excel in i.e. look at the reaction to Gaza.
What is Pray In? Pray In is a group founded by Fatima Thompson, an American convert to Islam to address the inequity and injustice we see in our Muslim communities, which so often relegate women to second-class or third-class believer status while happily repeating the mantra that “Islam elevated the status of women 1400 years ago.” And while that may be true, ever since the time of the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) and his early companions we have seen the inroads of cultural practices none too friendly to women erode those rights and that freedom, dignity, and respect once afforded to us in our religion and in our communities. This erosion is manifested in many ways from a lack of educational opportunities, disproportionately being blamed and bearing the burden of society's ills, and exclusion from the masjid and the life of the community.
How does Pray In seek to address these issues? Pray In attempts to engage our Muslim community in discussions relating to the access and treatment of women particularly in masājid and communal spaces as this is one of the most visible and potent manifestations of our community's attitude towards women. Through engagement with community members and leaders, panel discussions, articles in a range of media outlets, and pray-in protests we seek to initiate discussion and positive action within our various communities. The issue is not simply getting safer, better-lit or more comfy accommodation (although that is important) but more importantly the concerns range from how women are treated, included or excluded, and valued or devalued in community life and participation within the Muslim community.
But there are so many other bigger issues in the community that we should worry about? Are there? Then put your money where your mouth is, get off the sidelines, and utilize your passion, talents and energy into taking leadership on an issue so that you can work to improve that situation. I may even support you. But don't make your own weaknesses, insecurities, and inaction a cause to try to tear down and weaken the initiatives of others. That's like saying to a person who recycles, why are you recycling when there is oil gushing into the waters off the Gulf Coast or the pollution from vehicles has more of an impact on the environment. That's not a successful can-do attitude worthy of emulation but rather the can and will do nothing attitude of a loser. A quote from the anthropologist Margaret Mead comes to mind, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Will you step up or are you all talk and no action?
But we haven't heard the women in our community complaining, in fact most of them like the setup and have asked for barriers and partitions? How does a woman excluded from coming to the masjid or relegated to the basement, balconies, separate rooms or behind partitions access the imām and leadership or participate in community discussions, which invariably take place on the men's side amongst men? How would she even recognize the imām if she can't see him? For the most part, she doesn't participate, she doesn't speak up, her views are neither heard nor considered. She is rendered invisible and unimportant, certainly not deserving of respect, dignity, or even consultation and perhaps that is just the point. A woman given dignified space, access to the imām and leadership, and allowed to participate presents a challenge to a certain power structure and way of doing things. And it takes a real man and real leadership to be able to welcome the participation of women and to create meaningful access and opportunities to facilitate that communication and participation. Let's take for example, Umar, the second caliph of the Muslims:
Ibn Jawzi narrates (Sh. Albani has classified this narration as weak): Umar forbade the people from paying excessive dowries and addressed them saying: “Don't fix the dowries for women over forty ounces. If ever that is exceeded I shall deposit the excess amount in the public treasury.” As he descended from the pulpit, a flat-nosed lady stood up from among the women audience, and said: “It is not within your right.” Umar asked: “Why should this not be of my right?” she replied: “Because Allāh has proclaimed: 'even if you had given one of them (wives) a whole treasure for dowry take not the least bit back. Would you take it by false claim and a manifest sin.'” (Al Nisa, 20)
When he heard this, Umar said: “The woman is right and the man (Umar) is wrong. It seems that all people have deeper insight and wisdom than Umar.” Then he returned to the pulpit and declared: “O people, I had restricted the giving of more than four hundred dirhams in dowry. Whosoever of you wishes to give in dowry as much as he likes and finds satisfaction in so doing may do so.”
It's so interesting that clearly there was no partition and the men and women were close enough to recognize each other and to hear each other. The women were allowed to speak and those in attendance listened to her, no one shouted her down that the voice is awrah or that she should remain in her home and not be seen. From what is apparent, the men and women were able to comport themselves appropriately.
Do some women ask for barriers? Yes, they do and others do not ask for barriers. Dr. Ingrid Mattson has an excellent lecture on the subject called Heaven's Gate: How Muslim Women Open or Close Doors for Their Sisters, in which she addresses many controversial issues from women's roles in society, the myth of the idealized Muslim woman, prayer space, true women's solidarity and feminism, advocating for change, and the need for liberalism in order to move our communities forward today amongst other issues.
But the women might not be in proper hijab and the men might look at them? I responded to this argument here:
Lower your gaze brother, lower your gaze. If you weren't so busy eyeballing the sisters and nitpicking their clothing choices you might have a better understanding of the obligation to not prevent women from coming to the masjid. If you just can't help yourself, then maybe you should stay home or better yet maybe the brothers should assault you, slam the door of the masjid in your face when you try to enter, call the police to have you removed or serve you a banning notice.
Do you think that would be an appropriate response? Because, these are among the methods employed against women in our masājid.
In addition, why is it that the onus is always placed upon the sisters, did Allāh not call men and women (and in this instance the men before the women) to control their behavior in order to protect their modesty, not to make weak excuses about being unable to control oneself from being distracted or aroused even though we do it every day. One sister said to me, “the brothers only use that they'll be distracted line, when they can oppress us.”
So according to the logic of some, if men cannot restrain themselves from looking at women, women must be excluded or forced to stay at home, be placed behind partitions or in separate rooms, or in the back of a classroom. But why not demand of our brothers that they act like dignified human beings and not animals or demand that those who cannot control themselves remain at home themselves for the good of society or in a separate room or behind a partition? It's easy to tell others to accept conditions, which we would never accept for ourselves. It's similar to much of the discussion surrounding racial profiling and immigration, many of those who support these measures would themselves be exempt from scrutiny.
But the women are not obligated to come to the masjid, there's are hadith stating their prayer is better at home or the best rows for them are the last ones. None of this negates that the command of the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) to not prevent the women from coming to the masjid or the examples we saw in his own time or the time of his closest companions. Many who like to make mention of the latter hadith to force women into the furthest row at the back of the room do not similarly use it against the men that come later and pray in the last row. Nor does the hadith imply a prohibition of praying in the first women's row, which in some cases is also the only row therefore also the last and best row. Dr Mattson reminds us:
The Prophet Muḥammad said, “Do not prevent the maidservants of God from the mosques of God.” What we have to understand is that women are not prevented from praying in the mosque only by words. They also are prevented when they are not afforded reasonable access to the prayer space and the opportunity to join the congregation. The female companions of the Prophet Muḥammad enjoyed this access during his lifetime; it cannot be anything other than disobedience to his teachings to deny such access. In order to open doors of spiritual opportunity for our sisters, it is, therefore, sometimes necessary to put aside our preferences.
The blogger Umm Zaid poignantly reminds us here and here of the pain and hostility women encounter when they venture out to some of our masājid in addition to the poor image of Islam conveyed not only to our non-Muslim friends and family that may accompany us to these houses of worship but also for us, the believers as well. And for many of us converts, we have chosen to enter and remain in Islam (although far too many turn their back on their communities and Islam in the process) not as imām Johari AbdulMalik says because of the Muslims but despite our interactions with our fellow Muslims.
I do think there is an underlying misogyny imported from wherever that goes into this. Is it Islamic? I don't think so, given the clear hadith about women being allowed to go to the masjid. But I will tell you here, all you who read this, I have never felt so hated as a woman in Islam the day that I was locked IN to the masjid and the only way I could get out was to walk through this sort of maintenance hallway to the men's area where I was stared at and screamed at. (Why? Because the man had locked me in — without checking to see if I was there — and then left, he could not hear me pounding on the door and calling for him to open it).
This is beyond “we will have dignity with separate yet equal prayer spaces,” and this is something that (a) will never be solved by those types of spaces and (b) largely prevents them from existing in the first place — even here… in America. I cannot make excuses for Muslim men anymore.
While the sisters may have some valid points, I don't like their methodology, protesting, not following the rules in place for their own marginalization, talking to the media, they are creating fitna (discord). Sounds like more sitting on the fence complaining without any action but Dr. Mattson responds to this argument as well:
…Secondly, 'A'isha was public in her corrections. Of course she corrected some people privately but she also corrected people in a public fashion when necessary. When she heard that someone was attributing to the Prophet Muḥammad something she found reprehensible, she did not hold back. In doing so, she taught that it is perfectly acceptable and sometimes necessary to challenge power publicly.
It is because of the example that she set that we see her students demonstrating the same kind of strength and courage. For example, 'A'isha bint Talha, who was one of 'A'isha bint Abi Bakr's students, is well known for very publicly refusing the demands of others that she cover her face in public. 'A'isha bint Talha was the most beautiful woman of her age, but she was also a great scholar of hadith who learned religious knowledge from her aunt and had the same kind of confidence to articulate her convictions.
Certainly there is much value in respecting common norms of behavior and not acting counter-culturally simply to provoke a reaction. However, sometimes it is only outrageous behavior that will elicit a necessary reaction in the face of mindless complicity. Who is to judge when it is appropriate to sacrifice individuality for the sake of the common good and when it is necessary to fight for one's rights, despite protests that one is creating discord (fitna)?
In the end, this is a judgment call that we can all make, but must not assume that any of our judgments are infallible. When it comes to women's rights, we should not be so terrified of a backlash that we disown our sisters who take a more radical path. We might think that their behavior is outrageous, ridiculous, or over-the-line, and we can make that judgment. Still, we should support their right to be wrong.
Some say, if we don't like or want to accept our own marginalization in a community, then we should build our own mosque. I haven't heard this argument made with any evidence from the Qurʾān or Sunnah and in contrast, we have explicit hadith mentioning not to break away from the congregation. Also, in the example quoted above with Umar and the woman who corrected him, her response to what she perceived as injustice was not to build her own masjid and start her own community, rather she stayed and tried to rectify her community by whatever means were at her disposal.
While building a mosque of one's own may have certain appeal and immediate benefits, I also think the community may suffer in the long run. Growing up in a small town in upstate New York, the tiny downtown main street has a church on just about every corner, which I always found strange wondering what exactly separated all these different Christian denomination such that they did not feel they could work or worship together. I now live in Maryland, and within my community we have at least three Islamic schools within about a 10 mile radius and in one area 2 or 3 (depending on your theological beliefs) masājid within about 1 mile radius, none working together or cooperatively and in effect competing and dividing the resources of the community. This argument seems similar to those who tell others to “go back home” when they advocate for the rights and dignity supposedly guaranteed to us as citizens and residents in a certain land. But in this situation, I am home within the Muslim community, am not going anywhere, and intend to stay, speak up, write, engage, and protest to help my fellow Muslims whether we are oppressed or the oppressors.
Some say we should not invite non-Muslim media to cover these events because we “shouldn't air our dirty laundry in front of non-Muslims.” Yet, the clothes are just as dirty, stink just as much, and are just as unfit for wearing regardless of who sees it or knows about it. It is still poor da‘wah to both Muslims and non-Muslims, when the public face we present to those inside and outside of the faith, is of penalty boxes and women's exclusion and marginalization. Is it any wonder that no one believes us when we say our favored da‘wah slogan that “Islam elevated the status of women?”
Spend one day masjid-hopping as I have done many days across the U.S. and Canada, visiting women's sections in various masājid or listening to the stories of hurt and pain, of disillusionment and discontent from Muslim women and from those who have left Islam unable to find any solace or a safe place in communities which rejected them, and which also reject and marginalize half of their congregation. A sister, a convert, once wrote to me from New Zealand, where upon encountering hostility and exclusion from the men at her local masjid, she and some others took to praying fajr outside on a mountaintop. According to a documentary by Channel Four, more than half of the masājid in Britain have no accommodation for women at all. Is that the Islam we are inviting others to?
I hear Pray In is a progressive group, full of media savvy progressive-type activists that want men and women to pray side by side and women imams? Pray In is a completely volunteer-based group, there is not litmus test for our volunteers that comprise a diverse group of women and men with varying viewpoints, which is not at all surprising considering how these issues of women's access and participation in our communities are not limited to a single place, group, interpretation, or masjid. Despite the protestations of those with their heads in the sand, these are global ummah-wide issues.
Pray In has not yet articulated a mission statement but we are open and welcome to genuine participation from committed individuals of all stripes and colors and backgrounds. If you'd like to get in on shaping the organization, then join hands with us, and help forge the mission of the group. Our group is not weakened nor are the issues less true or important because you may disagree with the politics or views of one individual within the group. Many Muslims love when a non-Muslim writes something they perceive as positive about us, whether it's about hijab or Palestine or unjust detentions and infringements of civil liberties. Is the cause any less just or or any less right because a non-Muslim is also standing for it? On issues that matter, we can work together to find common ground amongst liberals, conservatives, and moderates. I turn once again to the words of Dr. Mattson:
You might say that now I have adopted a typical liberal stance on rights, despite beginning my talk with a recommendation that a more conservative path of transformation should be considered. Certainly, I believe that when it comes to gender relations in Muslim religious communities, that an ethical transformation based on spirituality, and drawing upon diverse resources of classical Islam will yield positive results.
However, I also believe that this kind of transformation cannot occur today except in a social and political context in which the liberal notion of individual rights is upheld. Authoritarian and patriarchal tendencies run too deep in Muslim communities for any real transformation to occur without grounding our religious choices in a liberal political (in the small and large sense) framework.
Has there been violence or an assault? Yes, threats, intimidation, interrupting and breaking the ṣalāh of at least one of our supporters, and a physical altercation and assault. Some of our supporters have been banned officially or unofficially from a local masjid. I'm reminded of the hadith of the Bedouin who urinated in the masjid. The companions wanted to jump on him but the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) restrained them and spoke gently with the man. Or in the story of the slander of Aisha, her father Abu Bakr exemplified forgiveness, gentleness, and mercy to those who had slandered his daughter but in our day, we ban those who are assaulted rather than engaging in conversation or attempting any reconciliation. And the fact that many men and women who are opposed to any discussion of women's access and participation, let alone the Pray In movement, are so hostile, ready to spew forth their vitriol and violence belies the claims that these issues from prayer space to the participation of women are not a real problem in our community. On the contrary, it demonstrates just how important these issues really are as people don't usually get so worked up over non-issues.
Did you call the police? No, each time the police were called, it was by the masjid authorities.
Did you press charges? Yes, after some hesitation. Why? Because it's not okay to assault anyone at anytime, we can disagree but just as we as a community have taken stands against domestic violence, we must also take a stand against the violence committed in public in our masājid. We're open to dialogue and reconciliation but the case is still pending…
What does Pray In envision for the future? I can only speak for myself as Pray In is still in its formative stages but for me it is heartening to see other organic grassroots Pray In movements spring up across the country, people have contacted us asking how they can start their own Pray Ins in their local communities. Despite, the rumors, fear, insults, innuendo, intimidation, and red herrings utilized to discredit or marginalize us as a movement, we have been successful in initiating discussions and positive action on local level and have heard from concerned and interested parties internationally as well.
We've had a diverse group of women and men express their support that finally someone is taking up the cause and standing up to the forces of marginalization, which seek to silence, exclude, and render women and women's voices invisible in our Muslim community. There have been success stories, some masājid fearing a Pray In at their doorstep have taken steps to participate in the dialogue or make changes to empower and support women in their communities from improved prayer space accommodation to creating real avenues to foster discussion where these issues can be raised and resolved and all that is a step in the right direction.
My take on the Muslim Link article: The Muslim Link: Biased Against Pray In