Gender-based Exclusionism at a Muslim Student Association
by Shabana Mir
“The Believers, men and women, are protectors one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey Allah and His apostle. On them will Allah pour His mercy: for Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.”(9:71)
In this paper, I study the exclusion of women by a Muslim Student Association (MSA), and the process whereby change was achieved at this MSA.
All over North America, MSAs play an important role in the development of Islamic identities at the college and university level. They provide Muslim university students in America with informal religious education through such formats as halaqat (study circles) as well as Islamic socialization.
Though born in North America, MSAs have been and continue to be influenced by Islamic thought and praxis originating in Muslim countries. Established by foreign students, many of whom remained in the US, the MSA also made available Islamic literature in English written by Muslims. Characteristically, the literature was written from a normative perspective by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaati IslamӔ and emphasized traditional valuesӔ and different roles and positions for men and women (Haddad and Lummis 1987 124).
MSAs are in many ways microcosms of the North American Muslim population. MSAs have been criticized for not facilitating full participation by women, and this pattern exists in many forms in Muslim communities.
At present, there is a need to investigate relationships, changes, and conflict within Muslim communities in far more depth than has be attempted before, and with more attention given to the upcoming generation so that we may have a handle on the future of North American Muslims and not merely their past history and present situation. To that end, this study focuses on one MSAs experience of change; it does not attempt to provide a superficial survey or birds eye view of MSAs all over North America. Having spoken to many Muslim women, however, this series of events is considered by many to similar to a common pattern in many communities all over North America. Many MSAs fail to provide egalitarian environments for women.
This study uses one real-life MSA as a model to speak of other MSAs and communities. This is not to presume that the experience of all or most MSAs is identical to that of the MSA at Centerton. In certain respects the Centerton community is quite unlike many long-standing communities comprised of middle-class resident immigrants. There is a high turnover rate among the members, because the majority of them are students. There are many foreign students, and some of these are always graduate students who have been resident for several years (up to even a decade) in Centerton. The many Centerton residents, including Afghans, Arabs and Pakistanis, are not dominant or prominent members of the community.
Most writers on American Muslims urge that it is important to make for general awareness of the diversity within this community, and to beware of generalizing about ғAmerican Islam (Haddad and Lummis 1987, 157) and to this aim this paper brings out certain different perspectives represented among Muslims in America. I describe the strategies of the ԓdefenders of the status quoԗthose who seek to exclude women from the public mosque sphereand the דreformers, who wish to change the MSA so that it is equally welcoming to men and to women.
As an educationist, I believe it is critical to study what is happening with Muslims engaged in higher education (HE). At present, very little research has been done on Muslims in public education, whether related to K-12 or higher education. As they attend secular (or private religious) campuses, what is the cultural background American Muslims bring with them? As American public policy attempts to address long-standing gender inequalities in education, it is important for it to be sensitive to ethnic, religious and cultural differences in womens experiences. It is important for higher education administrators to be aware of the background Muslims bring with them.
It is particularly important to know what is happening with Muslim women pursuing higher education. Many Muslim women in MSAs are working toward the justice and the equality that Islam ordains for humankind. A survey of sistersҒ participation in MSAs conducted in 1994 shows that womens activism in MSAs is at an abysmally low level due in large part to “Brother domination.” A related problem is ғthere is a common attitude that strict segregation should exist between the genders and that Sisters should not appear in public”! On an MSA mailing list, a popular article gives a long list of conditions that women must fulfil to gain access to the mosque. These include obtaining permission from her male guardian, wearing hijab, not wearing ԓfancy clothes or perfume, not mixing with men, leaving immediately after the prayer, and so on!
This account shows how Muslim womenԗfew in numbers and lacking in social powerwith the help of male allies, broke down the barriers that restricted them from full participation.
In this account I explain how women challenge one MSA for its exclusion of women from holding executive positions and participating fully in its activities. I approach this issue in the tradition of Islamic feminism, which unlike Western feminism, is not דsolidly secular (Fernea 1998, 416) and is based on a return to neglected Islamic values. To Muslim feminists, unlike many secular feminists, the Islamic religion (and not just Islamic spirituality but its institutionalized aspects as well) is equally theirs and they fight on that turf for equal ownership. This feature of Islamic feminism shapes my account.
Some idealists may berate me for washing the communityԒs dirty laundry in public. It is true that sometimes outsiders may use such criticism to perpetuate stereotypes about the Muslim community. This is a risk that must be taken since I do not believe that the Muslim community is heading for improvement unless clear and honest criticism is forthcoming. I would also like to caution readers against misunderstanding my attack on gender inequalities as an attack on Muslims in general or Muslim men in particular. My critique is in the spirit of nasihah and I invite readers to approach it as such.
The following is a true account of events that occurred in the 1990s in a small town, henceforth Centerton, the seat of a large public university, which I will call Central University. All names of persons and places have been changed.
Neo-fundamentalism: the Central University MSA Gate-keepers
It is difficult, for fear of being misunderstood, to select a term for the defenders of the status quo in the MSA at Central University. They oppose equality of men and women, and full public participation of women. Bobby Sayyid refuses to use the term fundamentalist for the phenomenon, choosing IslamistӔ instead. However, he defines an Islamist as someone who puts Islamic identity as the center of his/her political practice. Most of those who in this account oppose the neo-fundamentalists identify themselves as Islamists as well.
Fazlur Rahmans (1979, 230) use of ғfundamentalist or ԓrevivalist, in many respects fits the group that features in my account. The fundamentalist is a type of conservative who does not accept ԓthe whole gamut of orthodox beliefs and practices that have developed throughout the Islamic past but wishes to go back to the practice of the early Elders. But he differs from the modernist (who matches this last characteristic as well) in that the modernist speaks of reinterpretation while the fundamentalist wishes to ԓre-enact the past.
The literal meaning of fundamentalism as an emphasis on the fundamentals of religion is an inadequate term for my study. I do not believe that those who upheld gender hierarchy at the MSA at Central had an adequate appreciation for the fundamentals of religion.
This is why I choose to use the term ԓneo-fundamentalist. It is anti-West and anti-modernist (in the style of Maudoodi and Syed Qutb who identify modernism as jahiliyya, and who are identified by Rahman as fundamentalist or revivalist.
I also use it to mean religious practice characterized by authoritarian behavior, and a habitual imposition of what neo-fundamentalists consider their religion on others. According to Tibi, fundamentalism is by definition exclusive and absolutist, and attacks opposing options (20). He argues that ԓHakimiyyat Allah is a vision of totalitarian rule exercised in the name of God (Tibi, 18), and that this vision is of recent origin, rather than a revival of pre-modern religious world views, and is not found in the QurӒan and Hadith (19-20). This is why it is difficult to describe them as traditionalists, since the term is relative, and may refer to the egalitarian Prophetic Tradition. Abrahamian agrees, describing fundamentalist readingsӔ of Islamic texts as novel and innovative rather than traditional (1992). This is why the discourse of neo-fundamentalists often does not fit the Quranic tradition and the ProphetҒs injunctions regarding equality.
In certain senses the definition ascribed to fundamentalismӔ by many Muslim and non-Muslim writers rings true. Sahgal and Yuval-Davis claim that fundamentalism is a project to control womens bodies; it rejects pluralism and conflates religion and politics to further its aims . The behavior of the proponents of gender hierarchy at Centerton seems to me to fit this description. However, often what non-Muslim Western writers appear to mean by ғfundamentalist is dogmatic, or Islamist (Sayyid, 1992, 13). I have therefore chosen the word ԓneo-fundamentalist. This is not meant to imply religious MuslimӔ or Islamist.Ӕ Obviously the term and my use of it imply a certain judgment on the value of certain perspectives and approaches in Islam. For this, I do not apologize. There is always perspective.
CENTERTON: A TRUE STORY
The MSA: an exclusive club
Our MSA is run by graduate students: salafis and Ikhwanis. And anyway, graduate students shouldnŒt be allowed to run on MSAs. -Sana, University of Maryland, Personal communication, 7/4/01
Women are not allowed to be members of the executive committee at our local masjid (which is run by the MSA). This is included in the MSA constitution. Women are encouraged to set up their own “executive” committee, mainly for organizing social events for other females, but this rarely happens.Radiya, דCentral University, Email communication, 8/13/01
I first arrived at Central University in 1996 as a doctoral student, fired up with the desire to work with Muslim students, to find creative new ways to develop the Islamic identity of these students and to establish a public and positive presence for Muslims on an American campus.
The only Muslim organization in the area was the MSA at Central University. I was excited about the MSA because I had heard a great deal about North American MSAs prior to my arrival in the US. But at Centerton, the ԓMSAsҔ title was a misnomer. The Muslim Students AssociationӒs ԓmembers and activists included non-student residents of Centertonԗhousewives, high school students, middle-aged businessmen residents of the townas well as university students. In fact, most undergraduate studentsחthe majority of Muslims at CU were undergraduatewere distant from involvement in the MSA. Hardly anyone knew if the organization was currently registered with the Union Board and if so, as a cultural or educational or religious organization. In discussions of constitutional procedure, members rarely seemed informed of actual details of constitutional regulations.
It might be thought that the openness of the MSA to non-students was a positive feature, and that the diversity of its membership might bring freshness of thought and dynamism to the organization. Unfortunately this was not the case. And in terms of gender the MSA Executive Committee (EC) was exclusive: it was composed exclusively of menחmostly graduate students, and mostly (as in the case of the Maryland MSA, salafis and Ikhwan-sympathizers.
It is undergraduates and not graduate students who represent the majority of university students. Graduate students dont live on campus, they tend to be more isolated from campus life, events and trends; they are older, often have families, and are often more likely than undergraduates to be foreign born. It was these men, and various other men who were not on the EC who did not hold formal offices yet exercised considerable de facto authority by virtue of their influence in the community. It was these men, too, who tended to have patriarchal attitudes toward women.
In such often democratically-challenged organizations widespread patterns of cultural and political hegemony would seem likely, and the sections of the community most vulnerable to neglect and exclusion are, not surprisingly, women, youth, local ethnic groups in a minority in the community, and less conservative members.
The women had a separate ғWomens CommitteeҔ whose status was uncertain. Was it within the MSA? If so, why didnt its members have input into the MSAҒs decisions? Was it outside it? If so, why didnt it have independent status to function without relying on the MSA for finances and permission for activities? In fact, it functioned as a subsidiary group under the MSA but without full rights within it. Anyway, the majority of women active in this committee were not students. The wives of leading community members tended to become WomenҒs Committee leaders as well.
Though undergraduate males and most non-Arabs tended to be low in power and status at the mosque, women were unmatched in their invisibility and poor status in the mosque. Hardly any female studentsand almost no young, single female studentsחwere involved in planning or decision-making at the mosque. Women being involved in overall decision making was almost unheard of. Men decided for men, women and children. Women decided in a limited fashion for women and children. Even in this limited sphere, they always had to check with the men, gain their approval, obtain finances (since these were always in male hands, and even among men, few were familiar with the true financial position of the mosque), get equipment from the kitchen, and obtain permission to use the kitchen and library (which were downstairs but generally partially closed to women and always open to men). I observed numerous occasions when the women organizers of sisters events were frustrated by the lack of response, or the negative response, from the brothers when the need to collaborate arose.
While it is often not expressed, women cannot attend many activities in the masjid. For example, there are speakers who visit and present only in the men’s prayer area (the men and women pray in different rooms). The microphone system has been known to fail from time to time and when sisters attempt to listen to speakers by entering the men’s prayer area, they are often made to feel uncomfortable. This sometimes takes the form of completely ignoring the sisters, or even asking them to leave.-Radiya, ғCentral University, 8/13/01
1st Option: The Executive Committee shall consist of seven elected male members.
2nd Option: The Executive Committee shall consist of seven elected male member and two representative from WomenԒs [sic] Division. MSA Draft Constitution, 4/16/98
The mosque was central to the structure of the MSA at Centerton. The Mosque Open House event was the main event during the year when the mosque was opened to non-Muslim visitors so that a friendly face could be put to Muslims.
This was the one occasion that women roamed the mosque with impunity and almost no one objected to their presence for the period of the Open House (generally a weekend). Apart from the fact that their assistance was much needed, their presence was symbolic: the fear of being stereotyped on gender issues is foremost for most neo-fundamentalists. From brittle multicultural arguments to pamphlets entitled Who Practices Polygamy? neo-fundamentalists are always trying to establish healthy gender credentials for the benefit of Western liberals. However, these efforts are rarely full-fledged or full-blooded, since they are generally stopped or curtailed as soon as the last non-Muslim visitor leaves the mosque.
In terms of architecture, size, and quality of facilities and furnishings, the men֒s musalla (prayer hall) comprised the true mosque. The womens prayer hall was simply a lesser appendage, similar to a basement. This is a common feature of mosques in North America.
The unwelcome participant makes plans
ItҒs awkward if you do attend an MSA meeting. Theres a circle of brothers far away from us. ItҒs just hard to speak. Also, you know that if you do talk, the brothers very aware of what the sister is saying. Its uncomfortable. -Sana, University of Maryland
...[At] first I was very uncomfortable with the meeting set up…brothers on one side of the table sisters on the other facing one another. It was really hard for me at first but then I got used to it. Җ Asiya, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Not fully aware that women did not attend even open MSA Executive Committee (EC) meetings (except as passive listeners to the proceedings over the speaker system) , I went upstairs to the mens musalla to attend a meeting in fall 1996. I discovered from the shocked gazes I encountered that the menҒs musalla was a veritable forbidden city. I was one of only two women who attended, sitting far apart from a closed circle of about thirty brothers, a format similar to that described by Sana at the University of Maryland MSA. I took the opportunity to critique the MSA for not fully including women in all its activities (such as its meetings) and for not having any women on the EC.
My critique met with mixed support from one male member, and was attacked by a few others. A Saudi graduate student, Abu Salah, attacked my suggestion of including women on the EC as against the MSA Constitution. There did not appear to be much awareness among the men of the exact clause in the Constitution that prohibited women holding power on the EC, so I was assured that someoneӔ would look into it.
Since the nature of opposition was vague and scattered, I decided that a more direct, democratic approach would be an effective stratagem. I started to form a group of alliesMuslim male and female students who had more or less progressive gender ideas and who did not see the mosque patterns as normal. We came together on grounds of inclusiveness, in favor of all the groups who felt excluded by the MSA (women, undergraduates, Americans and other non-Gulf Arabs, non-salafis). Over several coffee socials, our little group started to gel as friends.
The Great Debate
On no occasion did arguments in favor of gender equality and full participation for women seem to have any effect on the powers-that-were. Instead of further confrontations, I believed, the change-oriented group needed to take power through the election. Having established a small group of supporters, activists and, more importantly, friends, I set about finding candidates for the Executive Committee.
From my experience of neo-fundamentalist behavior, I thought that it would be important to find enough like-minded individuals to fill the EC, since a hung parliament would result in no change at all. It would merely result in raw progressive young EC members being bullied into defensiveness by fundamentalists (see page 18). This was no easy task, especially since the mosque-MSA presented a forbidding and exclusive visage to most relatively young, non-Arabic speaking progressive/modernist Muslims. I persuaded four persons, one of them female, through email and phone conversations to contest the elections along with me. After a brief discussion, I declined to be nominated as president, aware that womenגs first step to power must be strategic. I tried in vain to rally one of the many Malaysian students, but they tended to restrict their ac
Nomination and seconding to the EC would be followed by elections. I still do not know why I was so confident that the long established hold of the neo-fundamentalist Gulf males could be broken. A few individuals had spoken out against the oppressive and exclusionary practices of the mosque power holders to me, but only in private. I hoped that in an anonymous vote, the silent majority would come to light.
In an unexpected move, the MSA EC announced that the elections would be postponed. Instead, there would be an open community debate on whether women should contest the elections or not. This whole postponement was due to the fact that Selda and I had been nominated to the EC. Someoneprobably someone outside the ECחhad challenged womens ability or legality (Islamic and constitutional) to contest the elections. This was one of many occasions when the EC almost surrendered power and took steps to appease the vocal Gulf neo-fundamentalist group. While I would have considered it wisest for the EC to proceed with the elections, on the basis of pure justice and gender equality, the social pressure of the neo-fundamentalists caused them to change their course.
Just a day or two before the great debate, a meeting for the sisters was organized. About twenty women turned up for this meeting. I was eager to explain the two things that seemed self-evident to me, and I had also become a little irritable because I had to repeatedly explain these self-evident statements. These two things were: How my proposal to seek equal power for women in a separate campus organization would be received by the majority of the women, I was not sure. There were two vaguely defined groups among us. One was comprised of the Arab (mostly Saudi) women none of whom were CU students, spoke English, or were active on campus. Two white converts, Jane and Sandy, and Shazia, the wife of a Pakistani graduate studentҒs wife, were also in this group.
The Gulf wives were prepared with a religious and emotional appeal. as well as a guilt trip. We have been part of the MSA for ten years,Ӕ said Um Salah. We have done so much work in it. It was us who worked for it in its early years and donated money and built the mosque. The MSA is part of our lives. Why are you separating us from it?Ӕ
The second groupwhom I considered potential supporters חwas composed mostly of students, who were more or less concerned about womens participation in the MSA or who were vaguely disturbed by the poor organization of the MSA and the unwelcoming nature of the mosque.
Among my potential ғsupporters, I was a little uneasy, because I perceived a political naivety buttressed by a religious naivety. There was a disinclination to suspect anyone of dishonesty or of double-dealing, which led to a certain apathy and laid-back attitude to the struggle. Having been a (later disgruntled) member in a neo-fundamentalist religio-political group, I was aware that in many cases for people like these, the aims justified the means. If you got people to uphold external practices drawn from literalistic interpretations of the texts, this was a victory, no matter how peopleԒs inner lives and private practices were. And you could always find justifications for underhand dealing and occasional lying if the purpose was for the sake of AllahӒs deen.
ԓThe MSA is a student organization, I argued. ԓThe community has different needs. What does the MSA do for women or for non-students or for children? You need a separate community organization that can serve your own needs. Right now, many people are being neglected because the two groups are merged into one MSA. The students have different goals; they need the MSA to be a campus group.
As before, there was no response to my reasoning. No one refuted my arguments or acknowledged them. On this occasion as on others, it seemed clear to me that the issue was not the welfare of the community or of students, but of ideology and control. The Saudi and other Gulf students knew that once the MSA became a campus group, the majority of studentsԗwho were relatively progressive and involved in campus lifewould convert it into a more progressive group where men and women would work together, women would be voted into power, issues would be decided by votes rather than hierarchy and social pressure, and transparency of political process would break down the power of the vocal minority of neo-fundamentalists.
In spite of the opposition of the Gulf women, to my surprise, the majority of the women were in favor of separating the campus and community organizations, and of giving women more decision-making power. This included some housewives in the community. At the end of our meeting, a majority of us passed the motion that the new form of organization should obtain these goals.
The agreement reached by the womenחlike many womens decisionsҗwas futile. When we met at the mosque for the debate on womens participation, one of the men (the husband of one of the Saudi women) objected to the womenҒs decision, saying that he knew (presumably because his wife had told him) that a few votes in absentia had also been taken into account by the women, so their agreement was not to be given any weight.
The discussion went on interminably and stressfully for about eight hours. The pattern at first was for one man and then one woman to speak into the mike. The men were visible on closed-circuit television and the womens voices alone were heard.
Those who opposed womenҒs presence on the EC argued as follows:
1. Women should not be on the EC because this will lead to ikhtilaat (social mixing of male and females) and ikhtilaat leads to corruption. The neo-fundamentalists contended that the rule for Muslims was to not interact with members of the opposite sex. With a mixed-gender EC, this interaction would take place. The result would be corruption. The claim was that Islam called for a gender segregated society and we must by our behavior implement such a society.
2. It is forbidden, because it is forbidden for women to be in positions of leadership. A young Arab man raised the second and third claims later in the discussion in an aggressive tone of voice, demanding that we all submit to Allahs authority. He cited as support for his argument the following hadith: ғThe nation who chooses to make a woman in charge of its leadership will never prosper. He argued, as if it were blindingly obvious, that this hadith referred to positions of overall national authority as well as to positions of leadership in a student club.
3. It is an inversion of male authority, established by the Quran as a general rule. To support his claim (that male authority in all matters was established by the Quran), he cited a portion of the ayah 4:34. This verse can be translated literally as ԓMen are responsible for women using that which [bima] God favored the ones [men] over the others [women] and that which they spend from their own means .
The responses of my allies were:
1. It behooves us to be careful when defining these practices (womenԒs leadership and interaction between the genders) or indeed any practices as haram without adequate scriptural support. Moreover, according to the principles of Islamic Law, whatever was not clearly defined by Divine Law as haram was halal . Therefore, unless we could identify a clear prohibition, they must remain halal. And,
2. Interaction between men and women is not forbidden in Islam. This interaction is regulated by Divine Law, e.g. by requiring that males and females protect their gaze, that they dress according to Islamic norms, that believers work co-operatively on goodly projects. It was possible for persons to deny themselves a halal practice if they felt that for purposes of taqwa they must refrain from interacting with members of the opposite sex; however, this did not give them the right to ordain such practice as forbidden to the whole community.
3. A view of human nature which identifies all exposure to potential sources of temptation must lead to sin and was therefore sinful is less Islamic than Christian, since it assumed that all contact with the opposite sex must lead to evil. After all, we already interacted with non-Muslims on campus all the time. As Muslims with a Divine code of conduct we should be even better equipped to conduct ourselves in a pious fashion.
4. Responding to 2 and 3, I said that I was glad someone had cited these words at last since they were at the back of everyones minds during the discussion. As for the hadith, I contended, it was a very specific comment made by the prophet about an unbelieving and hostile nation that had selected a woman as its ruler. The remark did not define womenҒs leadership as forbidden for all time. It merely identified that particular nation as one which would fail to prosper, as it in fact did. Of course, it was irrelevant to a student club either way.
5. As for the third claim, the Quranic statement referred to responsibility rather than authorityҗthe fact that men were responsible materially for the maintenance of the women related to them, rather than that they were in charge ofӔ them.
As I spoke, I did not hear the loud dramatic cry of protest from several men that went up in the mens musalla (I believe one of the males switched off the sound system so the men and women could not hear each other). My friend Ashraf later told me that many of my initial comments had been partly inaudible because Abu Salah had started to say loudly, ғI wont listen to herҔ and described me in unflattering terms. This must have been a difficult situation for many of these Gulf men since in the presence of their wives their Divine authority and excellenceӔ were being challenged.
As different people offered their points of view, the Gulf women sat quietly, speaking among themselves in Arabic, looking rather downcast, and refused to speak publicly. ItӒs okay, we dont need to speak. Everyone knows what we think.Ҕ Their silence however became rather suspicious, when one of the Gulf men came to the mike and demanded to know why the other womenӔ were not speaking. He accused us of preventing them from using the mike. The same women keep talking, youӒre not letting the other women talk.
Eventually, we had a vote but then tumult ensued. The result was a majority in favor of womenԒs participation on the EC, and predictably, this did not go down well with the outspoken vocal minority. We in the basement heard loud arguing in Arabic and English. The argument swept away the procedure that had been established.
A short discussion among the men ensued. Ashraf, a doctoral student spoke on the microphone about the need to seek Islamic scholarly opinion on the subject of debate (womens holding positions of leadership and authority). Ashraf was an ally, and I knew that though he might not speak out openly in favor of gender equality, he was trying subtly to bring about reform. At that time, I did not appreciate the form his effort took. Why were we detracting the promise that a majority vote would change things? Was all the effort our allies put into mobilizing public opinion out of its usual apathy all gone to waste? Would my active allies and I continue to have the energy and drive to pursue an endless path? Would our passive allies attend a similarly exhausting debate and a possibly meaningless vote again?
This compromise invalidated the vote of the majority of Muslims and affirmed the control of the vocal minority who held real power and authority in the mosque, though they had no legitimacy whatsoever. By their aggressive protest, they were able to contradict the majority of the Centerton community, and to negate a collective decision. Their protest alone, in my opinion, held no power: in my belief, the problem was the fact that the moderates who held legitimate authority (EC members) were too ready to surrender to the vocal minority. The real problem was their readiness to be intimidated and their unending quest to be validated by the neo-fundamentalists that led to the difficulties. (See the argument from Rahman regarding modernistsҒ defensiveness vis—vis fundamentalists).
Secondly, how could Ashraf by this suggestion accept that gender equality in Islam was a questionable thing? And did we need scholarly opinion to confirm that God was just and all human beings were equal?
So the vote was overturned. This was but one example of how procedures were created and when the results were not satisfactory, they were overthrown. Promises were made, and then broken. They decided to seek fatawa from three scholars in North America but even that procedure was not taken to its conclusion.
I concluded the evening in tears before I left the mosque. The sense of complete degradation as a person and a woman, the encompassing sense of hostility, the unending debate that was never to be resolved, all made me feel like I did not belong in this mosque. I felt burnout stealing upon me. I had not managed to get a job as a graduate student at CU and I had indications that my visibility as a Muslim with hijab had something to do with this. Academic support at CU during my first few years was low. My financial situation was deteriorating to where I had started relying on personal support from a professor. The mosque and community, instead of being a source of support, were becoming a source of nervous strain. Soon afterwards, I started suffering from severe and debilitating headaches. About a year after this debate, I gave up wearing the headscarf. I confess that a voice in my heart was saying, I refuse to throw in my lot with neo-fundamentalists and their oppressive expectations of women.Ӕ
The New MSA EC
Whether as a result of their own decisiveness or because I had challenged their justice and integrity, the EC proceeded with the elections. Interestingly, all the candidates I had asked to contest the election won by a landslide. Selda and I, the two women contesting the election, who had been the cause for the fracas, obtained the largest number of votes. A Gulf student who also won the election, stepped down, either because he did not want to work with us or because he had been nominated against his wishes.
We had two main goals: creating a space for young Muslims who were not currently being served by the MSA to develop their Islamic identity and to include all Muslimsincluding women, youth, moderates, non-Arabs, etc.; to create camaraderie among young Muslims on campus; and to develop a campus presence for Islam and Muslims that was viable, visible, and confident. Ostensibly there ought not to have been any conflict with the neo-fundamentalistsחexcept if they did not trust anyone to do the task but themselves or those who had similar ideological leanings; or if they did not wish to establish a vibrant campus presence, and instead thought it most pious to maintain an insular mosque community.
Compromise with the Clergy
Well, on our campus its kinda different b/c the community leadersa lot of themחwere on the MSA shura in the past and therefore still have a lot to do with what goes on in the MSA. They were the ones who built the MSA and i guess they fill they have a right to say what goes and what doesnt. I mean we could ignore it but that would really cause a lot of problems. All of them are male and yes they have more strict gender norms b/c they are foreign brothers.Asiya, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Email communication, 8/14/01
It did not take long for the Saudi fundamentalists to become very uncomfortable with the idea of a relatively youthful, non-Arab, mixed gender EC running the mosque. They soon contacted Kamran with suggestions to reach some sort of compromise.֗Compromise, it seems, was only possible when progressives held power.
They suggested that since we wished to be a campus student group, we should do exactly that. They asked us to remove ourselves from control of the mosque and hand it overӔ to them. They promised to let us be and promised not to interfere with our work, nor to retain any campus presence. This meant a significant reduction of power we had merited through winning the election, and a surrender of the mosque to the neo-fundamentalists. For various reasons, we were not eager to retain control of the mosque.
In hindsight, I believe that the major reason for our surrenderӔ of the mosque to the defenders of the status-quo was because we as progressive, young Muslims active in a pluralist society did not identify the mosque as a space we could have ownership of, even if we had won an election to take charge of it.
Other reasons were: we wanted the campus and community organizations to be separate in the first place. Administration of the mosque meant a whole other world of responsibilities, including maintenance of the facilities, the childrens Sunday school, overseeing endless squabbles, and becoming involved in a culturally foreign and insular world. As students, we already had enough by way of academic responsibilities, and merely wanted to build a student group that was nurturing for young Muslim students like us. The need for such a comfort zone at CU was great, and the accompanying tasks numerous.
While we were still discussing among ourselves the manner of such a hand-over, another fracas ensued. Some of the Saudi gentleman and a Canadian-Pakistani student got together and accused the new EC of being a fraudulent authority. They distributed a statement saying that the elections were fraudulent and that a second election should take place. We decided to ignore this little stratagem. Apparently, this was the best approach.
At this point, an Arbitration Committee was constituted to mediate within the community. It was decided that their decision would be binding. Individuals on both sides signed their agreement to this process. We entered this project with great enthusiasm. Professor Helal (chairperson), a Law student Asra, and an Egyptian medical doctor, Dr. Zayd comprised this committee.
On the conclusion of its deliberations, Prof. Helal announced the CommitteeҒs decision: the MSU would work on campus and would not work in the mosque; the MSAӔ would change its name to something that befitted a community organization and Islamic Center; a Constitution would be formulated for the MSA.Ӕ
We found ourselves negotiating with a newly constituted Mosque Committee. In order to avoid even temporary confusion, we changed our name to the Muslim Student Union, instead of the Muslim Students Association. The new committee was temporarily and interchangeably called the MSA, the Mosque Committee, and the MSA-Mosque Committee.
We became the MSU, a campus group. The mosque was handed over.ђ The new committee had promised to be a purely community group, a mosque-based organization. It would have nothing to do with campus.
This promise too was broken. The president of the MSA-Mosque Committee, Ahmed (who was seriously ill) insisted that the name of the MSAӔ be changed according to the agreement with the MSU. After salat one day he was surrounded by a mob of hostile men, who warned him not to insist on the change of name. Ahmed soon removed himself from the whole affair.
I did not hear a word of dissent related to the Arbitration Committees judgment immediately after it was announced after the Friday prayer one afternoon in the presence of the other Committee members. However, on the following Friday, the prayer service was followed by a fracas that involved name-calling and accusations of dishonesty. The target was Prof. Helal, Dr. Zayd was being used as the main accuser, and Prof. Al-Shara was doing much of the accusing and name-calling. Dr. Zayd had accused Prof. Helal of falsifying the CommitteeҒs recommendations. Zayd claimed that the Committee had not agreed on the recommendations that Helal had announced. Asra was shocked. Having been on the Arbitration Committee, she knew that Zayd was lying, after having peacefully agreed to the terms announced by the Arbitration Committee. She believed that some other invisible participants had sabotaged the process through Zayd.
Helal was also accused by Al-Shara of trying to reduce his influence in the mosque (Al-Shara had been the MSA faculty advisor but the MSU had chosen Helal to be its advisor). A publisher, Abu Tamim accused him also of trying to facilitate a Shia takeover of the mosque. (Helal is not Shia).
As a result of this fight at jumҒa, the Arbitration Committees statement evaporated. Another procedure had been invalidated by a loud show of anger. Soon, too, the MSA started holding occasional events on campus. Abdurrahman, a white convert and a strict Salafi, had allied himself with the ғMSA and against the MSU, and made militant-sounding announcements that the name of the MSA would not be changed.
It may seem strange for there to be so strong an insistence on retaining a name that was not representative of most of the functions of the Muslim organization that co-existed with the MSU, the student group on campus. It becomes clear, however, to anyone who lived through the tug-of-war that the neo-fundamentalists did not wish to leave any arena, any context and any sphere that was not dominated by them. This group, which was mostly salafi, mostly but not solely of Gulf origin (an extremist white convert and a few South Asians allied themselves with the group as well), highly conservative and anti-West, was hostile to the MSU.
MSU members were resentful that the ԓMSA retained ԓStudent in its title. By doing so, the ԓMSA shed doubt on the raison dԒetre of the MSU, and even rendered it invisible to many observers who were unaware of the MSUs existence. CU is a large and rather impersonal campus and the Muslim Student Union is but one young group, and, of the many well-funded active groups active on campus, a financially poor contender for the attention of undergraduates.
Inevitably, the reform resulted in some casualties. Some of these were the burnouts. The stress of conflict allowed the reformers to bond under pressure, but it also traumatized them. Some conflict amongst these allies ensued, as they associated each other with the almost palpable stress they had experienced together.
This happened both in the early stages and later, especially as women (like myself) found themselves frustrated with what they saw as male alliesҒ lukewarm commitment to the cause of gender equality. Male allies, on the other hand, faced the disapproval of the reactionary male mob, and at times showed an inclination to compromise that the women perceived as betrayal.
As the two main female protagonists in the trial, Selda and I bonded closely under conflict, but after a couple of years we blew up and had a falling out. I feel that sustaining aggressive behaviors was psychologically exhausting, but I felt that in a male-dominated sphere, I as a representative womanat times the only oneחneeded constant vigilance, a show of force, a stiff upper lip, and an ostensibly no-compromises policy.
To date the MSU has elected more female presidents than males. In the past, it was only a limited number of Muslims who would join the exclusive, patriarchal club of the MSA. The MSU has attracted a large number of young undergraduates to Islamic activities and to a Muslim social circle. This was one of the main aims of the MSU founders.
I have had many rewarding experiences since investing effort into founding the MSU. I have heard comments from young male and female undergraduates about how grateful they were that they encountered the MSU at CU. They had enjoyed, benefited and learned from their circle of Muslim friends at CU whom they met through the MSU. Having been at CU before the MSU, I know that there were few opportunities for young progressive undergraduates who wore neither headscarf nor beard to develop strong friendships with each other. There were fewer opportunities still for them to develop such bonds on the basis of work on campus that they found inspiring and spiritually uplifting. The MSUs work enabled them to establish a proud and visible Islamic identity on campus alongside young Muslims they could identify with.
The ғMSA retained its gender discriminatory stance. The community women continued to tacitly accept it and made no waves of reform. At various points the ԓMSA seemed to die, and at various points it seemed to be resurrected, depending on the presence of individuals willing to undertake the task of running it. Abdurrahman left, and the ԓMSA seemed to die. His last appearance was on invitation to deliver the khutab at Eid that year: his emphasis was on the evil of Sufis and women who do not observe hijab.
The MSA retained some campus presence, holding events on campus occasionally. Against my instinct, the MSU did not take this presence seriously, and even co-operated with the MSA at times. According to an MSU officer, Jawaid, the MSA tried to disrupt the MSUԒs work during his time in the MSU, and tried to hold parallel events and activities (such as a parallel Dawah Table in the Union building staffed by brothers who spoke little English), but:
The simple formulation that was used during my term was not to give them any attention, because it was exactly what they thrived on.
Jawaid claimed that simply ignoring the MSA and allowing it to expend its energy on ad-hoc projects ensured that their work fizzled out and ended with a whimper though it may have started with a bang.
Hegemony, ideology and legitimacy
The other group strongly upholds the constitutional mandate to exclude women. I believe the cause is purely cultural. This group consists of mainly international students who have been taught or believe that 1-women are not capable of handling leadership roles, or that they should not or 2- men and women should not interact with each other in what they see as a non-fit manner. ҖMuna, Central University
As Azizah al-Hibri states, Islamic society is based on shura and the individual rights to ijtihad (1999, 41). A religious dictatorship in a mosque is in direct opposition to these principles.
Some friends and I observed that while certain individuals possessed legitimacy by virtue of having been elected by majority vote to the EC, they did not always possess authority. Someone else, such as Abu Salah, Muhammad Zubairi, or al-Shara, were always in the position to demand certain steps of the EC and the MSA as a whole. The actions of the MSA and the community were for this reason highly unpredictable. I would speak to the MSA EC and we would establish certain ground rules; within a few days, those rules would be overturned because Abu Salah or Abu Abdullah called for a meeting. I frequently commented on the apparent inability of most persons who had legitimacy to stand up to these persons who seemed to hold authority without legitimacy.
Community leaders and observers have observed this pattern in a number of communities: certain individuals exercise authority even though they lack legitimacy (derived from, say, election), and others may possess legitimacy by virtue of being elected by the community members yet may lack authority equal to that of the former group. Fellow analysts of Islamic campus activity have confirmed my suspicions that often such exclusivity and hierarchy does not prevail in university student clubs without some degree of manipulation behind the scenes.
Initially, I thought that our MSA was an anomaly that could be modified with reference to a norm developed by MSAs or the MSA of the United States and Canada (MSA National). I learned that many MSAҒs function in the same wayand in many other unproductive ways. Dissenting, underserved, excluded and dissatisfied student membersחeven when they form the majority of the communityhave no recourse to an external body or to a set of norms developed by their peers (students). MSA National has not functioned as a body that provides such norms. [ask: do they provide org norms; gender equality. What do they do if they find out ] it does not coordinate efforts in any effective way, it aims to provide certain services to MSA branches.
Why would particular individuals or groups wish to establish hegemony over an MSA? One of the reasons is ideology. Haddad and Lummis mention a recent (1987) influx of Muslims from abroad with financial support from Saudi Arabia representing what they consider דofficial Islam. ԓThese people are generally unwilling to compromise what they see as the incontrovertible principles of Islam in its pure form (Haddad and Lummis, 1987, 157). Part of this is due to the fact that few indigenous institutions for religious training and education of Muslims have been established and those too tend to be influenced by overseas sources; prior to this, American Muslim religious leadership tended to be affected by interpretations from overseas (ibid 158). It is for this reason among others that Tariq Ramadan, as a European Muslim, fervently advocates the development of a European Islam and to abjure complete dependence on Muslim countries of immigrant origin.
In Centerton, the influential group tended to be Gulf men (mostly Saudi Arabian)ԗand small numbers of South Asian and American maleswith דstrict beliefs on issues of gender. Gender segregation was therefore the norm within the mosque and the community in general. The mosque had been constructed fairly recently, andԗthough concrete details were characteristically evasivefunds were said to have come from the pockets or efforts of prominent Arab Muslims in the community. Funding is rarely without strings. Tariq Ramadan, for instance, urges that European mosques be made דindependent of foreign funding and influence (ibid).
It seems to me that males recently arrived from conservative Muslim countries tend to disapprove of women playing active roles in the MSA. This is supported by the research of Haddad and Lummis (1987), who say that ԓthe longer Muslim men and women live in the United States, the more likely they are to feel that it is appropriate for women to play active roles in the functioning of the mosque and ... to believe that women should be eligible for top lay leadership positions such as the presidency of the mosque governing board (130). Therefore, the hegemony of such persons in the MSA at Central University meant that women were excluded from full participation and from full power and status. It must, however, be emphasized that the exclusion of women is not only related to foreign males. An online article from an MSA mailing list run by an (American) ex-officer of MSA National describes the conditions under which women may attend the mosque. Failing these conditions, according to the article, women should be prevented from attending mosques!
How was exclusion achieved?
ԓThis house of God is oursŔ
I did not find many fellow Pakistanis in the MSA. Most Pakistanis seemed to limit their extracurricular and social lives to the Pakistani Students Association. Most Malaysians, Turks, and Indians also stuck to the national-ethnic student club. By and large, average Muslims were intimidated by the chilly climate in the mosque. Some occasionally participated in events such as festival meals and Open House events, but very few were involved in overall decision making or planning, unless they belonged to the small group of older Gulf Arab male students.
Most undergraduate Muslim students socialized quite freely with males and females. The mosque set up what was for them an artificial and uncomfortable situation, dividing them from the opposite sex, and putting them together with members of their own sex, many of whom they had little in common with. A female law student had more in common with a male graduate student in political science or journalism than with housewife and mother from the Emirates.
It seemed that the mosque was being run like a clan or a joint family household, where the older men held more power than the young, the men held more power than the women, but also where the Arabs held more power and status than the non-Arabs, the Gulf wives who had been there for some years had more power than younger students, and the neo-fundamentalists held on fiercely to power to protect the mosque from Sufis, Shiahs, liberals, and Muslims with progressive cultural practices.
The Ikhtilat Neurosis
The terror of ikhtilat (social mixing of men and women) resulted in much of the resistance to womenҒs participation in the public space and in shared power arrangements involving both men and women. Neo-fundamentalist texts such as Abul-Alaa MaudoodiҒs Purdah and the Status of Women in Islam emphasize the importance of segregation. Basing his opposition to womens public life on examples from brothels in the West, he contends that we cannot give women freedom for there is no knowing where we will stop (Rahman, 233-234). 3.
Sandy, a white Muslim convert married to an Arab, called me one evening, and without extended courtesies, immediately launched an attack on me for two main offenses: uniting wanting to ғbring the men and women in the same space together, which we all know will only lead to corruption,Ӕ and dividing the community into students and non-students. She declared that when men and women were brought togethermixed socially in the mosque, rampant flirtation (and worse) would follow. In fact, tTo support her argument, she even cited the case (without providing specific details) of a man and a woman who were caught fornicating in a mosque. While she saw the division of men and women as natural and right, s he could not see why I wished to organizationally separatedivideӔ the students and the non-students since weӒre all supposed to be Muslims. She described how I was spoken of by peopleԗas a divisive influence and as someone who was just creating problems.Ӕ
After becoming elected, Selda and I were open to slander for working closely with men on a regular basis. During one of our meetingswhich were fairly relaxed and friendlyחHafsa, a fully veiled Saudi woman walked in, made a visible show of looking at us closely, and left. She later contacted Selda and me to castigate us for our un-Islamic behavior in interacting freely with men.
It was not only married Gulf women who misunderstood our behavior. Judging from some mens behavior, it seemed to me that they saw our engagement in activities alongside men as indication that we could be morally loose women. Our own allies were at times liabilities for us. A Pakistani graduate student who vacillated between conservatism and support for the reformers, sent inappropriate messages to Selda and me. Interestingly, individual men and women reported that more than one of the ғtraditional men had engaged in less than traditionally Islamic male behaviors.
Religiously ԓprotecting women from power
One of the worst features of the Centerton mosque is the poor and very difficult communication between the men and women. Communicating with a man in the mosque demands a woman who is sufficiently naԯve or brazen to abandon the safety of the womens musalla, cross the ambiguous, part-male zone of the library and knock at the indoor staircase, hoping that someone will hear her and pay attention, and that most brothers listening will not wonder why a sister is calling a brother. This feature of the mosque adds to effectively removing women from a shared space with men: at the same time, it is that male space which is designated as the true public spaceҗdue to the architecture, the manner in which deliberation and decision-making are conducted, and the fact that women are barred or discouraged from most of that deliberation and decision making.
I realized, when I attended the MSA EC meeting, that various factors caused womens participation in the MSA to be a daunting task. The shocked gaze that I encountered spoke volumes. Men who outside the mosque socialized with me and with other women behaved as if they did not know me, or never looked at a woman in their lives. Nor did anyone greet me with a salam.
We two female attendees sat to the right of the musalla, and about thirty men arranged themselves in the center of the hall in a circle. The power of this circle was both inclusive and exclusive. The brothers were all part of it, and these two women stragglers were not. The men in the nearer half of the circle sat with their backs to us.
When I called upon the MSA to be aware of how their actions might appear to a target of their daҒwah (an omnipresent entity), they showed little sensitivity to this. What if the student paper published a photo of this EC meeting? Here you have thirty men sitting in a circle with their backs to two women who are sitting in a corner. How can you then claim that Islam gives men and women equality?Ӕ One interesting response that built on cultural relativism was: So what if they saw us? We work in our own way. Why should we care what they think of us?Ӕ Another response acknowledged the problem, but SheӒs right; we do neglect the sisters. We dont include them in everything. ItҒs wrong. But this is the sisters fault as well; why do they take it? Why donҒt they ask the brothers to include them in everything?
I also wondered aloud why there were no women on the six or seven-member EC. Their absence prevented womenԒs concerns from being known by the MSA. It reduced womens participation in the MSA. It was neglect of an important and vulnerable section of the Muslim community. We students were there, far away from the supportive structure of our families; the mosque and the MSA were all we had, and they did not include us in full.
There was an immediate reaction to my critique and implicit suggestion, but there was no response to my reasoning. Abu Salah, the leading Saudi supporter of the status quo (gender segregation, wahhabi-style khutab, etc.) and a PhD student for over a decade, was stung. ғYou cant have women in the Executive Committee, itҒs against the Constitution.
Throughout the whole of this discussion only one man, Sulayman, spoke out openly in favor of including women in all activities and on all levels. There were silent individuals in the group whom I knew to be supportive of inclusion of women, but it seemed that the social pressure was too great for them to voice their opinions.
Religious paternalism was reflected in the imposition of certain ideological perspectives upon the community. The loudest voice was always heard favoring the strictest opinion, or the opinion closest to a more Salafi interpretation of Islamic issues. On two occasions when the women decorated the mosque for Eid, not only were the decorations torn down during the night, but a harsh reprimand was issued by the Saudi brothers to the women that such innovative practices led one to hellfire, and such ԓChristian practices caused Eid to resemble Christmas. On this occasion, no one openly disagreed with the irrational and clearly erroneous interpretation of bidԒah . Since neo-fundamentalists tend to claim exclusive legitimacy, the big brothers never tolerated an alternative perspective. Everyone, from EC to women, surrendered to the dictatorial attitude of the authorities without legitimacy. In addition, such incidents attacked womens confidence as individuals authorized to make public religious choices.
Isolationism and gender segregation
In my observation, the disadvantage of the communityҒs isolation from larger society was that it buttressed the demand for gender segregation. Living in a make-believe Muslim country rather than a provincial, overwhelmingly White, mid-western town permitted people to impose upon women unrealistic demands inappropriate for our circumstances.
Any attempt to bridge Muslims with larger society was criticized by the neo-fundamentalists. When I organized the first Campus Religious Leaders meeting at the mosque, the khateeb derided those who were bringing Jews to the mosque and engaging them in dialogue. On one occasion, when some students threw a bottle through the mosque window, the neo-fundamentalists set up a press conference and invited representatives of the media and other faith groups. While they generally spoke in Huntington-like terms of Muslims and unbelievers and tried to keep the community in an anti-West insularity, they jumped to the occasion when the moment came to mint publicity out of victimhood.
Relax: Trust Our Brothers
As long as the members of the MSU remain *focused* on their original goals, the hyenas will remain minor problems. The only danger is to remain among the hyenas without understanding the hyena mentality. It also becomes necessary to educate the newer Muslims so that they don’t mistake hyenas for creatures with something to contribute to the world. Ashraf, Central University, Email communication, 4/12/98
During the struggle that resulted in the birth of the MSU, I was a little uneasy about my allies, because I often perceived a political naivety buttressed by a religious naivety. There was a disinclination to suspect anyone of dishonesty or gender-based discrimination.
Unfortunately, even after the birth of the MSU it seemed impossible to operate on simplistic clich֩s regarding unity and co-operation. The MSAӔ would work against the MSU, but when it held an event on campus, it called upon all Muslims of all groups to attend and make it a success, in the name of Islamic unity. MSA-typesӔ would continue to work toward fundamentalizingӔ the whole community with the resources they had (mosque, khutab, etc.), as we saw on numerous occasions.
Some individual MSU EC members who had never seen the actual struggle between the old and the new tried to serve IslamӔ by serving the cause of unity. They tried to work with both groups but depending on how strict they were in following neo-fundamentalist practices, they were either taken on by the MSAӔ or gotten rid of. An undergraduate, Junaid, was elected EC member of both MSU and MSA.Ӕ He was obviously not approved by the MSAӔ for he was removed from the MSAӔ EC, with the charge that one could not be member of both groups. A far less liberal undergraduate was similarly elected but was retained by both groups. Ryan, who was again elected to the MSAӔ EC, resigned when he observed these contradictory events.
When the struggle began, I realized that its success depended heavily upon participation by progressive Muslims. At the same time, On most occasions similar to this great debateӔ I was afraid that the decision making process would be hijacked by those who held power. This has happened in the past, for instance, when a discussion or election is poorly advertised, and the attendees gleefully pass the motion in the absence of reform-minded individuals, or individuals who do not wish to visibly rock the boat. I was afraid that the long-standing marginalization of reform-minded persons would cause them to regard mosque events as no longer their concerns. Therefore, on most occasions that demanded public votes and discussion,
I sent out a barrage of emails, calling upon male and female students I considered like-minded people to attend. I believe that this strategy made many people aware of the struggle. I used email because the structure of the community, and the way it was divided instead of being united, did not allow like-minded Muslims to get to know each other personally. Men and women did not see each other in the mosque except in the parking lot (guiltily), and female students did not tend to attend the mosque regularly enough (due to, I believe, alienation from the structure and culture) to get to know each other in the basement. Consequently, Llarge numbers of Muslims at CU socialized primarily with non-Muslims, and often did not even know any Muslims on campus.