2016-06-30
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Excerpted from "Standing Alone in Mecca" with permission of HarperSanFrancisco.

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.

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.

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