“Women-Friendly Mosques” Document Leaves Unanswered Questions
The “women-friendly mosques” document allows male-run mosques to obey the letter of the law without significantly improving the situation of women in US mosques today.
By Shahed Amanullah, June 24, 2005
On the face of it, the recent brochure (.pdf) about women’s rights in the mosque has caused much excitement, particularly among those who have been pushing for years for increased equity in mosque operations and facilities. The call for women to be in the main prayer hall along with men, backed by major Muslim organizations, seems to be a difficult pill for many conservative mosques to swallow. However, a closer read of the document shows that there is a great deal of wiggle room that allows male-run mosques to obey the letter of the law without ceding much control or significantly improving the situation of women in North American mosques today.
Women’s speech at the mosque?
The document addresses the near-total absence of women’s voices in the mosque by calling for the inviting of women scholars to hold seminars, which on the face of it seems to be a good thing. But the intention of this document becomes clearer with the subsequent call for women to “introduce speakers, offer opening and closing dua or prayer during educational programs, moderate panels, and direct question and answer sessions” - in short, do everything but address the combined body of the mosque in an authoritative manner. But what about the call for women scholars to hold seminars in the mosque? Seminars, by definition, are optional affairs that are attended only by those who wish to participate. In a more conservative mosque, this means that women scholars will come and give a seminar to the women of the mosque - hardly a dramatic change from the situation today. And in a collective, “non-seminar” setting, the best that Muslim women can hope for is to introduce the main (male) speaker.
Appointed or elected?
A discussion of mosque governance that does not use the word “elect” and “women” in the same sentence cannot be taken seriously. Sure, the document calls for women to be “represented on governing boards” with “at least two seats… designated to be held for women.” But which women? Is it for people to be elected fairly by the mosque population, even if it makes the men of the Board uncomfortable? Or - as this document suggests - it is for the men to appoint those women who agree with their style of leadership and will preserve the status quo? The situation at conservative mosques suggests that this is the path that will be taken, absolving the board of any accusation of bias because they are following the letter of the “women-friendly mosques” declaration. Where does this leave women? Free to use “suggestion boxes” and “bulletin boards” to appeal to the mosque leadership, with no guarantee of change.
Separate and unequal?
The issue of women’s space in the mosque is probably the most sensitive point for pro-women activists, and has most visibly illustrated the problem of gender inequity. This document, while allowing for women to co-exist in the main hall with men, leaves many unanswered questions. Can women enter through the main entrance? It appears not, as the document calls for a safe (presumably separate, not necessarily equal) entrance exclusively for women. It allows for women to be in the same musalla as men, yet says nothing about barriers that can be erected between the genders. Of course, conservative mosques will erect a floor-to-wall barrier within the main room, and declare with great satisfaction that they have complied with the “women-friendly mosques” document, when in fact they have created yet another separate space, only this one isn’t in the basement anymore.
This document is worded in such a careful way as to allow current ultraconservative mosques to operate as-is, with only minor changes. Unless our institutions are willing to come clean, with clear, unambigious language that leaves no room for opponents of change to wiggle free, documents such as this will only serve to clear the conscience of those troubled by accusations of inequity, without changing anything on the ground.
Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of alt.muslim. Originally published on the alt.muslim website at http://www.altmuslim.com/perm.php?id=1480_0_25_0_C and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.