Identity

The Muslim Women Creating and Leading Their Own Places of Worship

Despite increased Islamophobia and fear of the Islamic State, groups of Muslim women are striding towards equality by creating their own mosques and becoming imams, or leaders of prayer.

by Leila Ettachfini
Sep 2 2016, 7:05pm

One week ago today, history was made as the Friday call to prayer, or the adhan, rang out in a woman's voice from Denmark's first women's-only mosque, Mariam Mosque. Though it's a first in the region, the new place of worship continues the legacy of numerous Islamic spiritual spaces dedicated to women.

Still, there remain mosques where women are not allowed inside, mosques where women are technically allowed in but not encouraged to attend, and those where women's sections are diminutive in comparison to those of men. "In some places, women have no access [to mosques] at all granted to them," explains Islamic scholar and professor emerita Dr. Amina Wadud. Conversely, however, "there are places in the world where a significant effort is made to make sure there is comparable space and conditions for women's attendance," she notes.

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In the Arab world, women by and large are allowed to pray in mosques, and many do so regularly. In South Asian countries, such as Pakistan and India, far fewer mosques are built with separate prayer sections, meaning they can't accommodate female worshippers—in most mosques, like in Orthodox synagogues, women are forbidden from praying alongside men. Women are challenging their exclusion, though: In India, Muslim women's rights groups are fighting for more gender inclusive places of worship, while elsewhere, such spaces have existed for years. There is a long history of female-only mosques in the Far East. According to Marion Katz, professor of Islamic studies and author of Women in the Mosque, China has a "well-known tradition of women's mosques in the sense of having a full set of personnel and religious teaching as well as congregational prayer for women." The country has been home to women's mosques for over a century. In addition, the Women's Mosque of America became the first of its kind in the United States when it opened its doors last year, and has since been hailed as a welcoming space for women from all walks of life, be they Muslim or not.

While female-only mosques exist throughout the world, there's a lack of consensus regarding religious leadership. Opinions vary amongst Muslims when it comes to one crucial question to which women's mosques give rise: Can women permissibly be imams? An imam is the person who leads prayers in a mosque, gives religious guidance, and is considered extremely well-versed in the Qur'an and other religious texts. There is no verse in the Qur'an that specifically addresses this question nor the general attendance of women in mosques; similarly, the Qur'an contains no section which explicitly requires men to lead prayer.

I don't see change as only happening in one way. I see all efforts that are being made in order for women to experience equality and dignity as equally impressive and beneficial.

Still, many famous scholars put limitations on female imams, if they entertain the idea at all. Egyptian theologist and host of his own talk show Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi believes that a woman can only lead members of her own household in prayer, while Imam al- Nawawi, whose books are still studied today despite his death in the 13th century, said, "If a woman leads a man or men in [a congregational] prayer, the prayer of the men is invalid. As for her prayer, and the prayer of the women praying with her, it is sound."Opponents of female imams argue that there's a longstanding, traditional justification for their interpretation of the Qur'an. "The Prophet is supposed to have emphasized that piety and knowledge of the Qur'an are the key qualifications for an imam, and at least a couple of pre-modern Muslim authorities took this to be a gender-neutral principle," explains Marion Katz, "but the majority of classical (male) scholars... argue that having male leaders for public prayer is a community practice that has been continuous since the time of the Prophet."

According to Dr. Wadud, these scholars and their supporters have founded this belief on the basis of a societal patriarchy. "There is a rationale that has been constructed in Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh, that gives men a priority in a number of ways, including in the family, in society, and in leadership," she says, "It is based on passages in the Qur'an that ostensibly give men authority over women."

Muslims and scholars who believe in keeping with classical interpretations of fiqh have criticized female imams and female-only mosques. In 2005, when Dr. Wadud led a non-gender segregated prayer service in New York City, the location was changed twice until it was decided that the service would be held at a cathedral due to safety threats. In 2008, when she led a prayer in the UK, a small group of protesters gathered outside. A Danish lawmaker, Naser Khader, recently called his country's new women's mosque not "good enough," in reference to the mosque's exclusivity to women, according to The Local DK.

Read more: How Islamophobia Hurts Muslim Women the Most

When asked if she feels that women-only mosques, rather than non-segregated, gender-inclusive mosques, were a step in the right direction, Dr. Wadud responds, "I don't see change as only happening in one way. I see all efforts that are being made in order for women to experience equality and dignity as equally impressive and beneficial."

It is a tumultuous time to be a Muslim woman. Western politicians dictate what we can wear under the guise of protecting individual liberty and threaten us with mandated religious identification cards while terrorist groups attempt to justify their obscene acts of violence in the name of our faith. Despite this, Muslim women have stood in the face of both Islamophobia and the Islamic State and moved forward with pride.

"Any time a person's dignity and identity is being thwarted in any way, shape, or form—be it Islamophobia or the Islamic state—there is a natural response to stand up for one's self, honor, and dignity," says Dr. Wadud. It seems the rise in both female imams and women's mosques amidst these turbulent times is a testament to that.