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WASHINGTON — Not long after 9/11, Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Nomani was working in Pakistan when her friend and housemate, Daniel Pearl, was abducted and killed by Islamic extremists.
His death — and the version of Islam that seemed to sanction it — has haunted her ever since.
When she returned to her native Morgantown, W.V., she encountered traditions that prohibited her from entering the front doors of her mosque. Not content to sit in a corner, Nomani led a public campaign for gender equality that angered the mosque’s conservative leadership.
A new PBS documentary, “The Mosque in Morgantown,” chronicles her fight. The film airs June 15 at 10 p.m. EDT. Nomani, 43, now teaches journalism at Georgetown University and runs an investigative project into finding Pearl’s killers. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Was your fight about the role of women or about fighting for a moderate Islam?
A: It’s really about moderate Islam. Women are the canaries in the coalmine as an indicator of the type of Islam people practice; it’s an indicator of how you interpret the rest of your faith — are you going to have a literal read on the rest of these verses that justify domestic violence and suicide bombings? My fight is for an Islam that is not literal and not puritanical.
Q: The film ends in 2005, and you left Morgantown in 2007. What’s happened since then to women at the Morgantown mosque?
A: I’m told they’ve tried to include women and they’ve got a perfunctory role for women in leadership. I don’t think we’ve had a tidal wave of change, but we’ve had some incremental changes. It’s not as far as I would go, but at least it’s progress.
Q: Your opponents at the mosque seem most dissatisfied with the public nature of your protest. Do you ever think maybe you went about it the wrong way?
A: I had to go public. I grew up in a journalism that said you never signed a petition, you never had a position, you always had to be detached. But after 9/11, I realized I had to take a position. I put myself out there, including all of my own dirty laundry, because I believe our society is better served with transparency. I believe in truth telling, and that’s what I tried to do.
Q: Can you explain for non-Muslims why your campaign for gender equality inside the mosque was so important?
A: A society can’t move forward as long as half the population is oppressed and subjugated. We have some of the most talented and inspiring women in our community, yet when they go to the mosque they’re told to sit in the corner and shut up. We’re always going to be backward unless we tap that other half of our own population.
Q: To what degree were you, as a native-born American Muslim, fighting the more conservative immigrant Muslim culture?
A: This was very much about fighting traditions that were imported from other cultures. We’ve confused all these traditions with religion, and if you dare to say that this isn’t the way it has to be, you get tarnished as challenging the faith itself. But I’m proud to be intolerant of intolerance.
Q: You mentioned dirty laundry. You gave birth to a son when you weren’t married. Do you think that factored in the opposition against you?
A: Muslims are at the same place where American society was in the
1950s: you put up a front, and you’re not honest about your humanity. We have this idea that you can’t talk openly about your quote-unquote sins, because to talk about them is to somehow sanction them. If we expect to pretend it away, it’s not going to happen. I’m not the first woman to have a child without being married, and I won’t be the last.
Q: How much do you think you were speaking for, or not speaking for, the average Muslim woman inside the average American mosque?
A: A good anecdote is only useful to the extent that it opens a window onto something larger. I used myself as an anecdote into the frustrations of modern Muslim women who are marginalized, fed up with being treated as second-class citizens and no longer willing be treated like dirt.
Q: You’ve since moved to Washington to teach at Georgetown University. Have you found a new mosque?
A: I can’t go into a mosque and sit in the corner. It would be like us, in the 21st century, accepting a situation where African-Americans have to drink from separate water fountains. I can’t compromise on that point. They’re not spiritual places for me b/c they say I’m such a sexual distraction that I have to be in a separate place. That’s ridiculous. So I pray at home.
Q: Do you feel adrift out there on your own?
A: I have a great community of women; we’re sort of the bad girls of faith. We’ve been disenfranchised, but we’re fierce and clear about what we believe. We don’t win popularity contests, but I feel like we’re living with authenticity. And that’s a powerful thing.
2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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