What Are Muslim Women's Rights?
At a major Muslim convention, Asra Nomani addresses the crowd about gender equality in Islam.
BY: Asra Nomani
Going to the Windy City meant going full circle. I had left in 1992 to pursue a lie. I had walked out of a relationship with a man because he was a Christian. I married another man because he had the right pedigree: Muslim. In the twelve years since, I had tried to resolve the paradoxes within my identity so that I could live truthfully and sincerely.
I was committed to being honest about who I am. Most women, although not all, wore the hijab in Chicago. Even women who didn't ordinarily cover their hair did for the convention so that they wouldn't be the subject of gossip. I cover my hair only in the mosque, and I wasn't going to do it now just for public appearance.
After all of the other panelists had spoken--most with Power Point presentations--I took the podium. I gazed softly at the audience and thanked the Islamic Society of North America. I explained that the presentation was the result of almost two years of work inspired by the transformative experience of praying together with my family in Mecca on the holy pilgrimage of the hajj in February 2003. I had made that journey with the help of the Islamic Society of North America, and I thanked the society for that experience and the opportunity to speak at the convention. My points were simple. "Islam is at a crossroads much like the place where the prophet Muhammad found himself when he was on the cusp of a new dawn with his migration to Medina from Mecca. Medina became 'the City of Illumination' because of the wisdom with which the prophet nurtured his ummah. In much the same way, the Muslim world has the opportunity to rise to a place of deep and sincere enlightenment, inspired by the greatest teachings of Islam. It is our choice which path we take. It is our mandate to take action to ensure that we define our communities as tolerant, inclusive, and compassionate places that value and inspire all within our fold."
The problem was clear. "There are many model mosques that affirm women's rights. Yet women are systematically denied rights that Islam granted them in the seventh century in mosques throughout America. Islam grants all people inalienable rights to respect, dignity, participation, leadership, voice, knowledge, and worship. These rights must be granted to women, as well as men, in the mosques and Islamic centers that are a part of our Muslim communities. Islamic teaching seeks expressions of modesty between men and women. But many mosques in America and beyond have gone well beyond that principle by defining themselves with cultural traditions that perpetuate a system of separate accommodations that provides women with wholly unequal services for prayer and education. And yet, excluding women ignores the rights the prophet Muhammad gave them in the seventh century when he created a Muslim ummah in Medina and represents innovations that emerged after the prophet died."
I gave evidence of the rights denied in mosques throughout America and laid out the Islamic arguments that had empowered me to take action in my mosque in Morgantown. "It is time for our communities to embody the essential principles of equity, tolerance, and inclusion within Islam," I said. "And it is incumbent upon each of us as Muslims to stand up for those principles."
I told them what I had come to realize in the two years since January 2001 when the Dalai Lama had set me on my path toward Mecca. Terrorists transformed our world into a more dangerous place when they attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Before we knew it, a minority of Islamic fundamentalists who preached hatred of the West were defining Islam in the world. Alas, moderates, including myself, have been a "silent majority," remaining largely quiet. A combination of fear, shame, and apathy has contributed to a culture of silence among even those of us who are discontented with the status quo in Muslim society. Moderate Muslims have a great responsibility to define Islam and their communities in the world. For me, this effort started at home when I walked up to the front door of my mosque for the first time on the eve of Ramadan 2003. It is time, I said, for us to reclaim the rights Islam granted to women in the seventh century. Toward that end, I humbly introduced my poster with the Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in Mosques.