Were you surprised by the reaction to the prayer service on March 18?
I was shocked at the amount of opposition, from Mecca to Indonesia, but I'm thrilled by all the support. I wondered whether this event might help smoke Osama bin Laden out. The idea of women challenging men is so offensive to the extremist ideology that they're really incensed.
When I walked through the front door of my hometown mosque [in Morgantown, West Va.] and into the main hall, I was stunned at how fierce the opposition was to women's rights. I'm still trying to figure it out, to understand what the challenge is all about.
Do you view this struggle as a civil rights issue?
To me it's very much a social justice issue. The Muslim world can't pretend to practice social justice as long as we keep women in the shadows. Making women invisible is a precursor to violent societies.
When you were growing up, what was your formal Islamic training like? I know you think it's important to take back the faith intellectually--does your background allow for that?
At age 39, I'm having serious flashbacks to when I was a 10-year old girl and my mother was my teacher. I was so enthusiastic about learning the Qur'an. I wanted to be a hafiz who could memorize the entire Qur'an. I prayed five times a day, I invoked the divine powers in every step of my life, I fasted during Ramadan. But as I grew older, I felt less valued within my Muslim community. On one hand, my parents were telling me I could be everything I wanted to be. But the Muslim community expected me to be silent and docile and submissive. So I became a leader in a secular way, as a journalist. We all have dreams that we can change the world, yet I never felt that I could do that within my Muslim faith.
What's happened to me since September 11 is that I've come to recognize we can all step forward. At the March 18 prayer service, I stood before the congregation and spoke, which is not allowed in most of the Muslim world.
So in your own mosque, could you be in the same room as the men while praying?
No. In two out of three mosques in America, a woman is not even in the same room, let alone in the front row. In Morgantown, I have my little space in the back. Once I asked to make an announcement at the microphone, and was denied. No woman has ever stood at the microphone there.
This is a struggle of all faiths. But I've stood in the front of churches and synagogues where women have broken the barrier. And now I feel ready to stand as a leader in our mosque's prayer hall. It's like a personal revolution.
What is your sense of how many other women are having that same personal revolution?
So many women are having it. They affirm for me every time they write to me--from Turkey, Malaysia, and Africa--that we're doing the right thing. For so long, women have had their voices denied and have been told that there can't even be a conversation about this. Now these women know they aren't alone.
So this is not just a phenomenon among American Muslim women?
No, this is a global phenomenon. The world can only be better served if women can break free.
I noticed a few protesters outside the prayer hall during the March 18 service. One sign took you to task for your previous book, "Tantrika." Do you question how valid a spokesperson for Muslim women you can really be, if other people condemned your previous book?
If they didn't have a problem with "Tantrika," they would have had a problem with something else about my life. That sign said, "Asra Nomani can speak about Islam when she repents for her Tantric sex fantasies." What it revealed to me was just how afraid people in our community are of discussing sexuality. Sexuality is something we have to process in our communities in a healthy way, rather than repressing it.