July 18 2018

A (Friday) Prayer of Their Own: American Muslim Women, Religious Space, and Equal Rights

by Juliane Hammer, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

photo of women sitting in a large circle at the Women's Mosque of America

Just two months shy of the tenth anniversary of a woman-led, mixed-gender congregation Friday prayer in New York City (March 18, 2005)1, a group of American Muslim women announced that they were planning to hold women-only Friday prayers once a month in a multi-faith synagogue in downtown Los Angeles. The initiative, called The Women’s Mosque of America, describes its goal as follows:

The Women's Mosque of America seeks to uplift the Muslim community by empowering women and girls through more direct access to Islamic scholarship and leadership opportunities. The Women's Mosque of America will provide a safe space for women to feel welcome, respected, and actively engaged within the Muslim Ummah. It will complement existing mosques, offering opportunities for women to grow, learn, and gain inspiration to spread throughout their respective communities.

The first Friday prayer, including a woman calling the congregants to prayer (adhan), a woman offering the Friday sermon (khutbah), and a woman leading the all-female congregation in Friday prayer, took place on January 30, 2015. Approximately one hundred women and children (including boys under twelve) were in attendance. A second prayer was performed on February 20, 2015. The organizers, Sana Muttalib and Hasna Maznavi, claim that it is the only women-only mosque in the United States. Los Angeles is the geographical home of the new initiative, whose name—the Women’s Mosque of America, creates a spatial as well as institutional claim that indicates a program rather than a physical reality. While most would primarily associate the term mosque with physical structure created for the purpose of accommodating Muslim worship practices, the claim to the title for this organization/institution/movement points to fascinating shifts in the way religious institutions and organizations in the United States are created and function within as well as beyond physical form.

Charting Responses to the Prayer

The performance of the first prayer service on January 30 prompted a somewhat predictable debate among American Muslim leaders, scholars, and community members which took place in a variety of social media. Responses ranged from dismissal to critique to enthusiastic support. Both in the spectrum of opinions shared and in the debate’s division into symbolic and legal responses, the women’s mosque Friday prayer bears striking resemblance to the earlier event in 2005. Those concerned with the Islamic legal requirements for prayer, including Friday prayers, cautioned that women participating should perform their required midday prayers separately, just in case it turned out that their praying behind a woman imam made their prayer legally invalid. This concern with the validity of prayers performed should not be underestimated as Muslim ritual practice is conceptualized as a set of requirements that, only if fulfilled acceptably in form and content, will contribute towards the person’s judgment by God at the end of times. Closely linked is the debate about the permissibility of women leading prayers. A review of “classical” legal positions as refracted through the lens of the 2005 debate on women leading prayers shows that no pre-modern Sunni legal school allowed women to lead Friday prayers, but that all but the Maliki School allowed women to lead other prayers under certain conditions and circumstances. This position may in part be explained by the fact that the same schools also did not require women to attend Friday prayers, while free males are legally required to attend them.

It is thus in the realm of symbolic change and claims to religious ritual participation, leadership, and authority that the women’s mosque demands consideration. Framed by its organizers and supporters as a response to the lack of space and inclusion of women in American mosques, the women’s mosque movement represents an intervention through embodied interpretation. The right of women to be included in mosques and community spaces, as well as their right to lead and offer authoritative interpretations is taken for granted without employing obvious feminist rhetoric. Rather, the persistent concern about unacceptable or inadequate prayer facilities for women in American mosques is framed as a loss to the community as a whole and warns of the consequences of alienating women from ritual practices and community participation.2

Discussions of women’s spaces and participation insist on the significance of women’s spiritual experiences and employ a discourse that assumes women’s relative equality as a Muslim right. This rights discourse is notable in its implicit referencing of gender equality and gender justice, which makes it all the more striking that the woman-led, mixed gender prayer in 2005, led by Dr. Amina Wadud, is not referenced more explicitly in this 2015 debate. In my book on the 2005 prayer event, I argued that the event organizers intended to generate intra-Muslim debate and that they succeeded in this goal, which is evident in the ways in which debate about that Friday prayer mainstreamed into more general conversation on women’s spaces, participation, and authority. Rather than resulting in a mass movement towards women-led prayer, even though leading Muslim scholars conceded its permissibility some years later,3 the debate about women leading prayers prompted broader conversations on gender roles in American Muslim communities.

The organizers and supporters of the Women’s Mosque similarly seem to intend to do more than provide safe spaces for women in that their call for women’s growth, learning, and inspiration through women-only Friday prayers replicates the invitation for continued intracommunal conversation on women’s roles in the larger community. Like in every good debate, there are many supporters, considerable nuance, and different kinds of Muslim detractors. Supporters span the gamut from those who sympathize with the organizers’ goals and their grievances about the status quo, to those who find this initiative heartening and inspiring. There are also critiques of supporters who are called out for patronizing the women organizers and trying to turn the initiative into an affirmation of a patriarchy-friendly status quo. Among the detractors, there are those that dismiss both the necessity and the utility of this project by insisting that there is indeed nothing wrong with the status quo—these voices seem to show up primarily in online comment sections, and I have not been able to find more authoritative rejections except on legal grounds. It is thus possible to wager that such a position on behalf or existing status quo is perceived as no longer tenable by Muslim scholars and leaders because of the shift in discourse since at least 2005. The other kind of detractor is perhaps better described as critical of the implications of an initiative that seems more like a step back than forward.

Celebrating Women-Only Spaces

The news coverage of the first prayer confirms that American Muslims are having their communal conversation in public spaces and thus under the gaze of those around them. This does not imply surveillance, but the public gaze, on a spectrum from sympathetic to hostile, is something that Muslims are aware of in all their debates. The news accounts I saw were mostly sympathetic, and if the NPR piece on the Women’s Mosque in January is an indication (and I think it is), we find here a curious celebration of women-only spaces as safe and empowering that I thought we had left, at least intellectually, in the 1990s. Then, and apparently now again, commitments to valuing Muslim women’s agency and the consideration of women-only spaces as enabling such agency by providing safety from male gaze and patriarchal domination were given priority over questions of equal access and equal representation in shared spaces. This does not imply a critique of the initiative itself, but rather a concern with standards that would not be applied to other communities and spaces. This different standard by which Muslims are measured may confirm and even cement their otherness in American public perception while the assumption of a universal standard may impose liberal norms on people who do not embrace such norms. It is here, yet again, that the possibility of multiple critique as well as the rejection of rigid boundaries between inside and outside need to be rejected in favor of multiple, intersecting, and constantly negotiated subject positions. In many ways then, the 2015 women’s mosque initiative, like its rather different 2005 predecessor, both constitute opening for conversation, reflection, and debate, on matters from women’s religious authority, ritual practice, and textual interpretation, to feminist activism, grassroots alliances, and multifaceted representations and self-representations. 

 

Notes

1 See Juliane Hammer, American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012).

2 For instance, see Hind Makki’s Tumblr site, Side Entrance, invites people to post pictures of women’s spaces in mosques from “the beautiful” to “the pathetic."

3 See Hazma Yusuf's YouTube video embedded above and also Jonathan Brown, Misquoting Muhammad (Oxford: Oneworld, 2014), 130-140.


Juliane Hammer is an associate professor and Kenan Rifai Scholar in Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She specializes in the study of American Muslims, contemporary Muslim thought, women and gender in Islam, and Sufism. She is the author of Palestinians Born in Exile: Diaspora and the Search for a Homeland (University of Texas Press, 2005) and American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer (University of Texas Press, 2012), as well as the coeditor with Kecia Ali and Laury Silvers of A Jihad for Justice: Honoring the Work and Life of Amina Wadud (2012) and the Cambridge Companion to American Islam (2013) with Omid Safi. She is currently working on a book project focusing on American Muslim efforts against domestic violence, and on a larger project exploring American Muslim discourses on marriage, family, and sexuality.


Image: @WomensMosque via Twitter