Everybody Move to the Back of the Mosque

3 03 2010

Saturday afternoon, Fatima Thompson and three other Muslim women decided to pray in the men’s section of a Washington, DC, mosque, according to an article in the Daily Beast.

The article says:

“A bearded, middle-aged man scolded one of the women. “Sister, go there!” he said, pointing to a back corner, dubbed the “penalty box” by one disgruntled woman. The seven-foot wooden barrier separated the men and women’s sections in a visual metaphor of gender apartheid. She ignored him.”

What ensued was a scene akin to the Rosa Parks bus incident in 1955.  Mosque officials called the cops, who then awkwardly tiptoed into the men’s prayer area and asked the women to please follow mosque rules by moving over to their designated area.  But the women continued to pray in the men’s section defiantly as more women joined them, and their numbers quadrupled.  Here is a video of the scene:

What’s especially interesting about this incident is that these mosques are not legally allowed to segregate their members based on race– white women, black women, and middle eastern women can all pray right next to each other.  But this rule does not apply to gender segregation, which continues to be strictly enforced in mosques across America, and Muslim women are becoming increasingly disgruntled about their “separate-and-unequal” status.

Asra Nomani, the author of the Daily Beast article, articulates the irony of the situation quite poignantly:

“As America sends thousands of soldiers overseas with a mission, in part, to improve women’s rights in Afghanistan, two D.C. cops were dispatched to a mosque just a mile from the White House to remove American Muslim women from the main prayer hall. Ironically, the weekend incident raises an important question about whether there truly is suffrage for Muslim women in America. It seems not.”

The irony of the situation is interesting, indeed, although I’m not sure what this situation has to do with women’s suffrage.  Has the government failed to protect women’s rights in the same way that it protects racial rights with regard to private organizations?  Is dictating anything about the seating rules in a mosque even within the bounds of the law?

While I respect these women for challenging the status quo, I think that it’s generally not a good idea to impose American belief systems onto primarily non-American religious groups, as France has tried to do with the Islamic scarf controversy. And further, while men and women are politically equal in the U.S., a man can be arrested for purposefully entering a woman’s bathroom, and vice versa.  Is that so different from enforcing gender separation within the walls of a mosque, a private organization whose rules state that it must be so?

I fully support these women in their attempt to peacefully protest and reform the ways their church deals with gender, but I disagree with Ms. Nomani that it is the U.S. government’s responsibility to back them in that plight, or that the government’s failure to do so somehow implies a lack of suffrage for Muslim women in America.

What do you think?

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9 responses

3 03 2010
bros

if it gets changed or challenged, it should be from an organic movement within muslim communities and may boil down to each separate mosque depending on the conservatism of the worshipers who usually frequent it. many mosques dont have this problem of women challenging the accepted system. this isnt a universal problem for people to pronounce generalizations about.

It can stay or it can go, but I don’t need tina brown’s commentary on suffrage (?not sure what this has to do with suffrage) and women’s right as it pertains to the location of women worshiping in american mosques. drawing a parallel with our troops fighting in afghanistan to improve women’s rights and women deciding to agitate for praying location in a US mosque is absurd.

3 03 2010
bros

meant asra, not tina brown. she probably had something to do with the whole thing in the first place.

3 03 2010
districtramblings

“if it gets changed or challenged, it should be from an organic movement within muslim communities and may boil down to each separate mosque depending on the conservatism of the worshipers who usually frequent it.”

i totally agree. i’m not sure how i feel about two non-muslim police officers going in there and telling the women to move– i guess that’s what i have the most problem with.

3 03 2010
bros

what are they supposed to do? find some muslim police to make them move? they were called to a dispute. I imagine it would have been the same if they were called to a catholic church because someone was trespassing in the sacristy.

3 03 2010
BS

– I think the police behaved the same as they would have if someone tried to go forcefully get gay married at a catholic church (or ordain a female priest) for that matter.

-I don’t know much about Asra, but the idea that the US is in part in Afghanistan to improve Women’s rights is only really prevalent in the West. If she walked down the street of any of these Arab countries ( or south american and african for that matter) and said such a thing they would laugh in her face.

-The French thing is more than just trying to impose a French belief system (implying that it is vastly better) on a specific group. It is a symptom of Islamaphobia that is sweeping across Europe. I love their angle tho, “We want to protect women’s rights by denying their right to wear a scarf” .

(in an interesting side note, the French left has just made the news by having a muslim women run for office as part of the NPA. The left was outraged that a muslim women could even be considered a socialist!

http://www.muslimnews.co.uk/paper/index.php?article=4555 )

This little publicity stunt by Asra aside (probably helps her books sales), progressives and liberals need to learn that if you hammer on cultural and religious values, the nail just goes further in.

3 03 2010
G

I don’t know.
It’s one thing for women in France to not be allowed a head scarf – that’s just democratic fascism – but women in DC wanting to break the rules of a house of worship does not really deserve the same sympathy. If women want to pray in the same section as men then they should find/start a mosque that allows it.
The fact that the police were on the scene is absurd, but not because they did what they did – they were just doing their jobs; what’s crazy is that the people at the mosque couldn’t use words to discuss the situation and find some other kind of resolution.

A lot of religions separate devotees based on sex. It makes sense.

::(Bros’ comment about Nomani’s remarks is right on.)::

3 03 2010
graber

I completely understand their frustration at wanting to pray at the front of the bus but what does this stunt accomplish? Chances are their husbands will leave extra dishes for them to wash and soil their clothes on purpose.

I’ve always had a problem with Orthodox Judaism for the same reason. It’s the whole, “be quiet women, the men are busy praying up here – go get me a sandwich” kinda vibe that I’ve witnessed via my grandparents. But women who don’t like it – they have the ability to join a conservative synagogue where men and women can be treated as equals. I don’t know that these Muslim women have that sort of choice.

Either way – I’m going to get myself a sandwich.

3 03 2010
bros

not to be a prickly pear, but the idea that these women all have husbands who mistreat them and punish them by creating extra work for them is kind of assuming a lot. not all muslim women, nor orthodox jews for that matter, are in marriages where they are expected to be submissive downtrodden and miserable. for all you know, their husbands could have been in full support of the stunt. the problem is that was a stunt, likely to garner attention for Nomani, and accomplishes nothing but more neoliberal misreadings of cultural norms and religious values. this whole thing just plays into western islamophobia, when like G stated, so many religions have some form of gender segregation that makes perfect logical sense.

3 03 2010
portia

My personal stance, as an American-Canadian, Washintonian (really), born and bred, is that I dig my Western-style gender equality and cherish my right to sit where ever I dern well please. However, gender equality appears to be “relative.” Interesting Economist article a couple years ago about a grassroots WOMEN’S suffrage movement in the gulf to improve the separate part of the separate but equal laws. I have read other similar stories.

Go figure.

Obviously, I don’t think this flies in the US.We have a totally different culture and history than the Gulf. What the heck is going on here?

Good story Laura. x

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