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(RNS) The walls that segregate Muslim men from women inside many American mosques took a long time to go up, and it could be a long time before they come down.
On Saturday (Feb. 20), Fatima Thompson will find out just how firm those walls are.
Thompson, 44, is planning for about 30 like-minded Muslims to help her stage a “stand-in” at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., in a bid to persuade mosque leaders to remove a seven-foot partition behind which women pray — or at least allow women the option of praying in front of it.
Thompson’s protest at the stately mosque along Embassy Row is the latest effort by Muslim activists to reform conditions in American mosques that they say are discriminatory and degrading to women.
Muslim prayers are typically led by male imams. Behind them are rows of men, and behind them rows of women and children. But according to a 2001 report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in nearly two-thirds of American mosques, female worshippers pray behind a partition, or in balconies or rooms that are separate from the main congregation hall.
Some women say the separate spaces — sometimes filthy, often crowded with children — make it impossible to see and hard to hear the imam. The whole experience has led many women to stay home altogether, activists say.
Despite calls by CAIR and other major Muslim-American organizations to allow women access to the main prayer halls, or at least decent prayer spaces for women, few mosques seem to have reformed.
It’s been a contentious issue within American Islam for several years, as disputes erupted inside — and sometimes outside — mosques in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Charlotte, N.C., and Morgantown, W.V.
Ani Zonneveld of Los Angeles said she and about 20 other Muslims have formed their own congregation, using rented space inside a church in West Hollywood. There, space is available for “unsegregated prayer,” where men and women can pray side by side, as well as space for worshippers who prefer gender segregation.
“This is a lot more family-friendly. With us, fathers can pray with their daughters,” said Zonneveld.
Islam’s sacred text, the Quran, mentions nothing about partitions or separate female prayer spaces. But a hadith — one of the collected stories of the Prophet Muhammad that are a source of guidance — describes Muhammad organizing a prayer: “He put the men in the row closest to him, the children in a row behind the men, and the women in a row behind the children.”
Opponents say the lack of a mention within the Quran, and no reference to a barrier in the hadith, suggests that women should be praying in the main hall. In fact, women prayed alongside men for centuries, they say, and physical barriers were developed by South Asian and Arab cultures seeking to distinguish themselves from Western promiscuity.
“They think this somehow proves they’re more pious,” said Pamela Taylor, a board member of Muslims for Progressive Values, a grassroots group.
Some women say their second-class status isn’t confined to the mosque. The same mindset also allows or overlooks domestic violence and limits women’s access to education and jobs.
“As long as we segregate ourselves in the mosques, we will never be free in the world,” said Asra Nomani, a journalist who has tried, with mixed results, to improve conditions for women in her hometown mosque in Morgantown, W.V.
Before deciding to pursue her stand-in, Thompson said she tried to meet with the mosque’s director, Abdullah M. Khouj. She said she called several times and hand-delivered a grievance letter to a mosque employee on Feb. 5, a Friday, when Muslims hold congregational prayers.
She also handed out fliers to congregants, piquing interest from a few younger women and criticism from some older women who frowned on change. At least one man threatened to call the police, Thompson said.
Khouj did not respond to a request for comment, but Fatima Goodwin, a mosque employee who also worships there, said Thompson is acting alone.
Indeed, female activists say some of their strongest resistance comes from women themselves, who say the separation protects them from male ogling or distraction. Pro-inclusion activists say those women should have access to separate space if they want it, but the choice should also be offered to women who want to be in the main prayer hall.
While Zonneveld, from Los Angeles, applauded Thompson’s effort, she wondered if building new walls isn’t easier than tearing down old ones.
“This mosque is not going to budge,” she said. “Maybe it would be better if they concentrated on building their own congregation.”
By Omar Sacirbey
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