What Are Muslim Women's Rights?
At a major Muslim convention, Asra Nomani addresses the crowd about gender equality in Islam.
BY: Asra Nomani
The rights are simple: the right to enter a mosque; the right to use the main door; the right to have visual and auditory access to the musalla (the main sanctuary); the right to pray in the main sanctuary without being separated by a barrier; the right to address any and all members of the congregation; the right to hold leadership positions, including positions on the board of directors; the right to be greeted and addressed cordially; and the right to receive respectful treatment and to be exempt from gossip and slander.
After reading the rights, I told the audience, "Ultimately, it is incumbent upon Islamic organizations, community leaders, academics, and mosques to respond to this call for improved rights for women in mosques by endorsing and promoting a campaign, modeling it after their very successful educational and legal campaigns to protect the civil liberties of Muslim men and women in other areas. To do so would honor not only Muslim women but also Islam. The journey is never complete, and a long road remains in front of us, but we have as inspiration a time in the seventh century when a new day lay ahead of a caravan trader who had as much to fear as we do today but nonetheless transcended his doubts and fears to create an ummah to which we all belong today. Allow us all to rise to our highest potential."
With a deep breath, I sat down, not knowing what to expect next.
Although there were four other speakers, a torrent of questions came at me when members of the audience stood at the microphone.
There were three hecklers. One admonished me for not saying the code phrase "Peace be upon him" after the name of the prophet. Another part of our inside language is "Sall-Allahu aleyhi wa sallam" (May the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, abbreviated as SAW), said after any mention of the prophet or an angel. "The Clans" in the Qur'an (33:56) says, "The Prophet is blessed by God and His angels. Bless him then, you that are true believers, and greet him with a worthy salutation."
At the dais, the director of the Long Island mosque, Faroque Khan, a physician originally from India, had just spoken about the powerful interfaith work his mosque had done after 9/11 by opening its doors, and he defended me from his seat. "She is a brave daughter of Islam. Do not criticize her for such little things." The critics were undeterred. A young man stood up and identified himself as a member of the Muslim Students' Association. "Where is your proof?" he demanded angrily, shaking his head, his beard a blur in front of me. I pointed to the seventy-four footnotes in the reprint of the article my father and I wrote for the Journal of Islamic Law and Society. "The Sunnah of the prophet will never change," he said, shaking his head fiercely again. I stared at his eyes, so wide and menacing. I will never forget those eyes, I told myself, not realizing how useful that observation would become when I confronted the young man's rage again, days later.
At that moment, though, I didn't know I'd ever cross paths with him again, and I actually felt sorry for him that he felt so threatened by the simple bill of rights. I wanted to scream: these rights are the Sunnah of the prophet. I knew what lay beneath his anger. Some men don't want to relinquish the power and control it has taken them centuries to accumulate. Some men think it is their God-given right to express this power and control over women. But the prophet gave women rights that men deny them today, and it is our Islamic duty to reclaim those rights so that we can be stronger citizens of the world.
A twenty-four-year-old African American woman from Boston, Nakia Jackson, stood up. The women in her mosque prayed in a urine-stained, rat-infested room that doubled as a storage closet. And they accepted the status quo. "I feel so alone. What advice do you have for someone like me?" she asked, her voice trembling.
"You are not alone," I told her. "So often I have stood physically alone in my mosque in Morgantown. But I have felt the spiritual press of so many kindred spirits who stand with me. I am with you. You are not alone."
Afterward, I was mobbed. I hugged so many women, young and old, that I lost count. And I received the encouragement of so many men, young and old, that my faith was renewed. "We did it!" I told my parents when I called home later.