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.

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.