Fatima Thompson and I were interviewed by Minhaj Hasan, editor of the Muslim Link, by telephone this past Monday about the Pray In movement, which seeks to counter the marginalization of women in the Muslim community as can be blatantly witnessed in the substandard accommodation and exclusion of women from public space, particularly in mosques.
The title of the article conveys the paper’s bias: Breaking the Ranks or Peaceful Protest? It is clear that the writer(s) using the generic pseudonym “Muslim Link Staff” believes that the Pray In movement is the former i.e. breaking the ranks and sowing seeds of fitna and dissension with the Muslim community. Thus, the article while trying hard to give off the appearance of fairness and while admitting that the Pray In cause is correct and “closest to the sunnah” does it best to try to discredit the Pray In movement and its members.
Shortly after this incident, Thompson set-up a Facebook page and founded a small movement now called “Pray In”. The purpose of the group is to “end gender segregation” in the masjid…
Small movement and an “end to gender segregation?” In fact, the movement is spreading and as more people hear about it, they are joining, sharing their own stories of encountering similar issues of lack of space, downright dangerous or shoddy conditions, and or exclusion entirely from the masjid and ask how they can begin their own Pray In movements in their localities.
The lack of explanation in the quote “end gender segregation” leaves open to the reader especially amongst conservative audiences like those targeted by the Muslim Link that Pray In seeks to have men and women pray side-by-side and female imams. This is connotation and implication is very familiar to those within conservative circles. What is meant, by Pray In, in terms of ending gender segregation is a return to the the practice “closest to the sunnah” whereby the rows are arranged as they were in the time of the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) and his closest companions and in many masajid up until today without recourse to degrading barriers, partitions, separate rooms, balconies, and basements.
Their first “Pray In” protest at the Islamic Center of Washington DC took place in late February. About ten women prayed outside the women’s space behind the men’s congregation; men who came in late formed lines behind the protesting women.
There were informal and independent pray in protests before the one at the Islamic Center of Washington in February. An eyewitness observing the protest from the back of the mosque on Mass Ave recalls that there were about 20 women not 10. Furthermore, this eyewitness discounts the claim that any of the men that arrived late formed a line behind the women.
In early May, however, Thompson and members of her group staged a pray-in protest at Dar Al-Hijrah, the region’s largest masjid. Reporters, invited by Thompson, were already on the scene.
There was a second Pray In protest at the Islamic Center of Washington in March, this time the imam declined to lead the asr salah until the police forcibly interrupted the salah of one pray-in member and forced us out of the masjid, outside the gates, and onto the street where the masjid admins continued to harass us even as we repeated the asr salah so that the sister that was unable to finish her salah could gain the benefit of the congregation. The police attempted to serve a few of our members banning notices at the mosque’s request but we declined to give them our identification cards as we discussed how next to proceed.
Although Dar Al-Hijrah has a second floor mezzanine overlooking the main prayer hall designated for women, Imam Shaker Elsayed allowed the protesters to pray in the main prayer area but only in the very back, citing a hadith which states the back most rows are the best for women.
The “back most rows” is an interpretation of the hadith held by the writer, the hadith was of course not quoted directly because it does not say the “back most rows” at all. And in this case, the women were in the only row i.e. both the first and the last row. The Imam clearly stated on videotape at a Pray In panel discussion that he “invites women to pray behind the men” but when women actually showed up, he added the “back most row” qualification despite the masjid being largely empty with only three rows of men in a space that can hold at least 15 rows or more. To pray against the back wall in the dark underneath the mezzanine would thus be unnecessary and it was felt by some within Pray In that it was a move to humiliate and to show that they were not welcome despite the earlier statements to the contrary.
The group refused, demanding to pray with only a few rows of space between them and the men.
Not accurate, one member of Pray In, intimidated by the hostile atmosphere and in disagreement with some other members declined to remain in the main hall and instead left to pray in the sisters’ second floor mezzanine.
Dar Al-Hijrah told Thompson she was no longer welcome at the masjid.
Not accurate, the police officers served two members of Pray In banning notices at the request of masjid officials and one brother who regularly attends Dar al Hijrah informed me that the masjid well-known for its extensive surveillance inside and outside of the property including according to some familiar with the masjid of the sisters’ mezzanine that the masjid had photos of all of us and that should we attempt to pray even in the sisters’ mezzanine or attend any functions like Quran classes at the mosque that the police would be called to have us removed. I asked to have a meeting with Imam Shaker but was directed to write him an email instead explaining my desire to not be on the unofficial banned list as I was neither officially informed nor served a banning notice. I’ve been contemplating how I’d like to word my email most likely to include the hadith of the Bedouin that urinated in the masjid and Abu Bakr’s response to the slander of Aisha.
The incident, covered on the front page of the Washington Post’s Metro section, shocked area Muslims.
Especially the editor of the Muslim Link, who had some choice descriptions for what he thought of the members of Pray In sent out over a local neighborhood email list. Furthermore, some of our brothers displayed a remarkable lack of adab (manners) rushing to try to discredit Pray In by narrating and re-hashing superfluous details and spreading untruths about the movement and those associated with it.
Moreover, Thompson told the Washington Post she already had another local masjid in mind for the next protest, and that the group won’t stop.
And why should we stop, because you want us to? Are women provided with access and treated in a dignified and respected manner in all of our masajid and communities? Certainly not.
Muslim leaders of masajid in Maryland and Northern Virginia were roundly critical, even upset, that Pray-In is making what one board member called a “big drama” out of barriers in the masjid.
A big drama? If it’s not big thing then why do these imams decline to go on record? If it’s no big issue why do people fight so vehemently to maintain the barriers? And try to quash any discussion about it or ban those who raise the issue?
“Our own community sisters who come and pray [throughout the week] at our masjid have never had a problem with the barriers. And now this outside group is coming with their reporters from Fox News and [other media] to make the community a laughing stock in front of everyone. It is irresponsible and … selfish. It is totally against what Islam teaches,” said a board member of a large area masjid. The masjid is exploring legal ways to prevent the group from coming on the property, he said, adding that the policy is still being discussed.
No big drama here, I’m sure, already exploring ways to ban the sisters belies the claims that this is a non-issue. And it also raises another important issue, who is to say what defines “our own community sisters?” I frequently masjid-hop much less now than before but still like to visit a variety of masajid. Or I might be passing by and decide to pray in a masjid does that mean the views of those who do not attend regularly (and what defines regularly for those who love to say women should pray in their homes) are not valid or worthy to be considered? If a community becomes a laughing stock it is through its own injustice and inability to be open and receptive to discussion. If you are afraid from the people seeing the reality of how you treat women don’t you know Allah sees you and will call you to account?
Imam Safi Khan met with Ify Okoye, a Pray-In member who lives close to Dar-us-Salaam and often attends his Friday khutbah.
So much harder it is to try to discredit me, can’t really stick me with the progressive label as I have been within the Dar us Salaam community for years and I work with AlMaghrib and MuslimMatters, which are seen as conservative. I don’t only attend the Friday khutbah, I used to perform my five daily prayers at various masjid for years including walking to Dar us Salaam for fajr and isha and other salawat.
Convenient to point to our hastily arranged last minute meeting as an example of openness to dialogue but I have more than a few stories I could tell about Dar us Salaam’s treatment of women that would paint a different picture of the reality on the ground for us as women there.
Pray-In maintains that prayer barriers between the genders are a “bida,” or a “religious innovation” that did not exist at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Imam Safi agreed.
Not entirely accurate, Fatima Thompson believes barriers are a bida’h yet she does not speak for all Pray In members in every issue, we are not a monolith, and I do not as of yet subscribe to that view.
The closest to the sunnah is to not have a barrier. If most of the sisters request the partition because they feel more comfortable like that, there is nothing haram about that. And if most of the sisters don’t want the partition, then there won’t be one – provided the sisters maintain the proper hijab. If the sisters don’t wear the proper hijab, then we need to make shura [consultation] with the sisters and see what we need to do, whether that is a partition, more education, or rules for the masjid,” said Imam Safi, who said that he can only speak on behalf of Dar-us-Salaam and not other masajid. “The Prophet Salallahu ‘alyhi wa sallam instructed the men to not turn around until the women left. If the brothers don’t follow that, then maybe in that situation a barrier could be put up,” he added.
It’s an interesting concept that because women might not be in “proper hijab” or that brothers will “look at women” that sisters may be punished through the installation of a barrier. I asked Imam Safi and Minhaj Hasan, editor of the Muslim Link and a Dar us Salaam shura member, that when the community regains the use of its musalla, if women that do not wish to pray behind a barrier would be allowed to not do so and both concurred although Hasan added the “back most row” qualification. What defines “back most row” is still to be seen, in a mostly empty masjid as is so often the the case for the majority of the salawat, I don’t think that should necessarily mean to have one’s back against the wall.
Although Fatima Thompson is affiliated with a progressive Muslim group – a homosexual man who calls himself an Imam accompanied the first pray-in protest in Washington DC – she is adamant that the Pray-In movement is independent from any progressive organizations. Many Muslims who identify themselves as progressives are supporters of the Pray-In movement. Asked if she thinks the involvement of people like homosexuals and figures like Asra Nomani – the main organizer of a women-led mixed gender juma prayer in New York in 2005 – affected the credibility of the Pray-In movement, she said no.
It’s most unfortunate that the Muslim Link among others cannot separate (and might I add their disdain for certain) personalities from the issues at hand. Who even uses the term homosexual anymore, I’d expect a bit more from a newspaper, if the bias of the writer(s) wasn’t so apparent.
Many people have asked a similar question that due to their own dislike or aversion to one person within Pray In they are then averse to engaging in any critical thought and discussion about the issues. Issues are not judged solely by the people supporting them. In the coalition against Apartheid in South Africa there was a diversity of voices in opposition to that unjust system, even feminists and gays and lesbians (gasp!) does that mean the issue is no longer of merit, just because you may not like those categories of people? I don’t think so.
When I was thinking about converting to Islam, I had a friend online that was also interested in Islam, we learned together and shared materials but while I converted, he did not. Why? Because, he couldn’t separate his belief in the truth of Islam from the way Muslims claim to manifest their religion through things like the Taliban preventing women from obtaining an education or penalty boxes, etc. It’s the same situation here and maybe that helped me to become Muslim, the ability to think critically and evaluate issues on their own merits despite the red herrings thrown out as distractions.
“We don’t know them. They don’t come here. Our needs are being met [at our masjid] … we have classes and a lot of activities, some with the brothers, and some just for sisters. We have needy, single mothers [in our communities] who don’t have money to feed their kids [properly]. And these sisters are worried about prayer barriers? They need to get over it,” said one sister on her way to a weekend class.
We don’t know you either, didn’t give your name? People love to speak arrogantly and boast while remaining anonymous. Most of the asinine comments I get in the blogosphere are from anonymous cowards er commenters who when I meet them in real life are too timid to engage in any discussion of the issues with me. So my dear sister, if you can’t or simply don’t want to understand the issues at hand, ask and educate yourself before you jump up to comment. Any may I direct you to a lecture germane to the subject given by Dr. Ingrid Mattson, the head of ISNA, entitled Heaven’s Gate: How Muslim Women Open or Close Doors for Their Sisters.
As for the rest of the women in the area masajid, the Pray-In movement doesn’t really know how the majority of them feel about the prayer accommodations. Asked if they ever presented a petition of local women to a masjid board or Imam, they said no. The women, they said, are probably too intimidated by the men to sign any petition.
I’m fairly sure the women in Pray In have a better idea of how women in our communities feel than the editor/writer of the Muslim Link piece does as we are women, interact with various women regularly i.e. we’re on the same side of the partition, and have heard from a plethora of women that support us. If our communities were really open to dialogue and provided access and opportunity to women to participate fully, we wouldn’t need to initiate petitions. It is only when the communities are closed to active participation that you need petitions to present to those running our communities. And again how does a woman confined to a penalty box or banned from the masjid entirely access or even recognize the imam? For the most part, unless she is really brave, she doesn’t and that seems to be just the point.
Asked if they approached the Coordinating Council of Muslim Organizations of the DC area – an umbrella group representing most masajid in the region – with their concerns, they said not yet. Like Thompson, the chairperson of the CCMO is from Baltimore, and is also a woman.
I don’t believe if we surveyed most Muslims in the community that very many could even tell you what the CCMO acronym stands for or even who is on the council. But I’d be happy to approach Asma Hanif the chairperson of organization and raise these concerns with her as well. Even though some Muslims might want to pat themselves on the back that ISNA and CCMO have female leaders, it does not mean all is well within our community in regards to the treatment of women just as with having Barack Obama in office, issues revolving around race have not disappeared from this country.