Protesters Break Prayer Rules at Leading Mosque

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Feb. 20 protest at a leading U.S. mosque ended peacefully and unresolved. Demonstrators seeking to remove a partition blocking women's view of the prayer leader say they will persist with their decade-long push.

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Fatima Thompson in front of the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C.WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--Police Officer Barry Goodwin squatted next to a woman finishing her prayers inside the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C.

He listened to her explain why she had a right to pray in the main hall of the mosque, while a mosque employee countered that she was violating the rules.

"I don't know the rules," Goodwin, who'd been called to the mosque by the employee, admitted to the woman and the mosque employee.

"What's going on here?" asked Goodwin.

What was going on was a protest last Saturday, Feb. 20, against the center's requirement that women pray behind an 8-feet-tall, wooden partition at the back corner of the mosque, behind the male worshippers. The protest was led by Fatima Thompson, 44, of Owings Mills, Md.

Thompson and about 20 other women, who prayed directly behind the men instead of in the corner on Saturday, argue that nowhere in the Quran or in the tenets of Islam does it require women to be physically separated from men during prayer.

They say women must be able to see and hear the imam--the leader of the prayer--during the service. The partition is demeaning and hinders their prayer, they said.

"We have this generation of American Muslim women who are saying, 'Look you want us to go to Harvard, you want us to rise to the highest of Wall Street firms and you want us to sit where in the mosque? We're not going to take the shadows," said Asra Nomani, author of "Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam."

Similar Demonstrations

Nomani, who was present at the Feb. 20 protest, has staged similar demonstrations around the country.

No one at the mosque would speak to the press about the partition and the center's executive director did not return phone calls seeking comment.

However, many Muslim leaders, such as Imam Qasim Burmi of Western Maryland, who spoke to Women's eNews after attending Saturday's prayer service, have asserted that the use of partitions during prayer allows both men and women to focus on worshipping without being distracted by the opposite sex.

One female worshipper, Yasmin Sayed, told Women's eNews that she respects the wall because it's traditional and complies with the rules of center.

Other Muslim women have also said that praying apart from men is their personal preference.

"Personally, I don't think I would like to pray with men. It would take away my personal safe and comfortable space," Lena Alhusseini, executive director of The Arab-American Family Support Center, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., told Women's eNews in an email interview.

Two out of three mosques in the United States have a physical barrier that separates male and female worshippers, according to a 2000 study by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in Washington, D.C. In Mecca, though, the holiest of places in the Muslim world, there's no segregation of men and women during prayer.

The weekend demonstration here was the latest skirmish in a decade-long battle inside the U.S. Muslim community over this issue.

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Alhamdulillah! These are the Gloria Steinhems of the Muslim world. We may not burn our bras, but we will rise and shine equal in all ways. This is the true Islam. The Islam that segregates and divides is the result of patriarchy and ethnocentricism not the teachings of our faith.