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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New Prominence

What was different about Saturday's protest, however, was that about 25 Muslim women broke the rules of one of the nation's most prominent mosques.

Walls separating men from women have come down in less well-known mosques across the country, including in San Francisco and Chicago, but both these changes occurred while the mosques were undergoing renovations and women took the opportunity to address their concerns about partitions with Muslim leadership.

The Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., built in 1957 for the area's Muslim diplomats, has hosted Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and George W. Bush as visiting speakers.

The center's Web site promotes education to non-Muslims and offers its services to U.S. diplomats heading off to serve in Muslim countries.

But a Women's eNews reporter visiting the mosque and inquiring about its history this weekend did not feel welcome. "Who are you to ask these questions?" said a man at the mosque who refused to identify himself.

The topic of where Muslim women are allowed to pray has sparked documentaries and the publication of a guide about women-friendly mosques.

In the wake of 9/11, many Muslims, particularly women, have spoken out against stereotypes imposed on the faith by outsiders and by ideologues within the faith. Women have also sought to reclaim rights they say are a fundamental part of Islam.

Diverse Approaches

Protestors outside the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C.American Muslims encompass a diverse population, from African American converts to immigrants from Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

This cross-cultural patchwork of followers brings diverse approaches to how men and women should worship together in a mosque.

Hazami Barmada is president of the American Muslim Interactive Network, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that promotes goodwill among people of different faiths, ideologies and backgrounds.

She told Women's eNews that the partition is a manifestation of the dominant role that immigrant Muslims play in overseeing mosques in the United States. Those immigrants often come from more conservative societies, such as Saudi Arabia, and impose their culture on American mosques.

Barmada said that the U.S. Muslim community needs to be religiously and ethnically tolerant to accommodate the diversity of its adherents. She said that women who have concerns about how they're treated at a mosque should enlist more moderate imams to join in a dialogue about the issue with more conservative Muslim leaders.

Goodwin, the police officer, escorted the women out of the mosque and the standoff ended peacefully.

Thompson and the other protestors did not get what they came for: an invitation from the mosque's leadership to discuss the partition.

Nor has Thompson received an answer to the letter and phone calls she's made to the center's director, Dr. Abdullah Khouj.

But Nomani thinks the demonstration served a purpose.

"Women did not get to stay in the mosque today, but for at least that hour that they were inside, the space changed," she said, referring to the fact that both men and women prayed together in the main hall. "And that's the kind of transformation we need inside of our communities."

Julia Marsh is a Washington, D.C.-based correspondent covering domestic and foreign affairs for a Japanese newspaper.

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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.