June 16, 2009 / Sexism, Spirituality

Breathing in Men’s Spaces

Nomani outside of her hometown mosque

Nomani outside of her hometown mosque

Former Wall Street Journal and Salon reporter Asra Nomani experienced a transformation when she made the pilgrimage to Mecca called the Hajj.  Born in India, Nomani moved with her family to Morgantown, West Virginia as a four-year old and grew up attending the mosque her father helped to found.  In that mosque, women entered through a separate door and sat in a balcony, facing the wall.  However, Nomani found radically different practices in the mosque in Mecca.  As she told New America Now Radio,

It’s amazing. I mean, men and women are shoulder-to-shoulder. There’s no back door for women, even though two out of three mosques in America require that women sit in a segregated area. Women do not sit in the basement or a back corner. I prayed right beside my father, and this was equality. This was immersion for me in the possibility of Islam in this world… And so, I realized that we’re living with real contradictions….

[Muslims who are] enlightened acknowledge these contradictions and say that these contradictions are a reflection of how the real lessons and teachings of Islam have been betrayed by man-made traditions. The puritanical, who hold onto these traditions, try to argue that our society has changed, that men are weak, and that men are susceptible to the seductive powers of women and that in the rest of the world, outside of Mecca, the men must be protected. …This is ridiculous…

It’s all symbolic of the second-class status that women have in so much of our public space and our communities. All of these physical manifestations are a reflection of the place that women have in the society, so that at the end of the day, we end up being told that our voices aren’t relevant, that our voices should not be expressed, that our rights are irrelevant and politically incrorrect for the times…

Nomani tells the story of her fight for equality in her childhood mosque in the documentary, “A Mosque in Morgantown,” airing now on PBS.  The fact that she is taking her fight public angers some who feel that such protests should be private.  Asked on New America Now how she responds to those who say calls for change should happen within the community, Noami says:

Well do it, then. I say do it.  Act, you know, stand up within the community. I couldn’t find people willing to stand up within my community, so I had to do what I could do, which was to break the silence.   And so I wrote about it because that’s what I do…  Stand up in your mosques and refuse to pray in that segregated area if you think that women really do have the space as equals in our communities.


Mosque president Sediqe

There are victories to celebrate, including the election of Salmenna Sediqeas as president of a mosque in Toledo.  But Nomani observes that sometimes the tiniest victories are the ones that can add up to sweeping change.  Here’s  a question from New America Now host Sandip Roy, followed by Nomani’s response:

So when you go to a mosque, and you cross that line beyond which women are supposed to pray, and you’re the only woman to do so, what gives you the courage to keep standing there?

…I literally did this here in San Francisco, and while I sat there, you know, I remembered this train that I got off of in India, where I was the only woman standing on the platform, and often times in my life as a journalist, this is the ratio. And so it’s not daunting in that way. I don’t feel at all intimidated by the physical presence of  so many men. But I also know that just by breathing in that space, I’m physically changing the collective consciousness and that is critical and vital for us to redefine the way Islam is expressed in the world. …I just feel like individually, we can make Historic changes.

 Breathe, baby, breathe.