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A Prayer Toward Equality

By Mona Eltahawy
Friday, March 18, 2005; Page A23

NEW YORK -- Today, somewhere in New York, a Muslim woman will give the sermon that precedes the congregational noon prayers, called Jum'ah, that mark the highlight of the Muslim week. She will then lead men and women in prayer, becoming the first woman on record to lead a public, mixed-gender Friday prayer.

I can't tell you where the prayer will be held because I don't know yet. The location is being kept secret because the original venue backed out after it received threats for opening its doors to such a service.

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But I can tell you that the courage of Amina Wadud, a professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University who will lead us all, is impossible to describe. And I can tell you what a thrill it will be to stand before God as the spiritual equal of the male congregants -- praying together, not behind the men and not in another room -- with a woman leading us.

There is nothing in Islam that bars a woman from giving the Friday sermon or from leading a mixed-gender prayer. The fact that only men have done both for centuries is one of many things that Muslims have rarely questioned. We have wasted time and energy circling the same old subjects: Just how much of woman's body should be covered; can men and women shake hands, etc.

By standing behind Amina Wadud today, we will be clearing the deck of distractions and acknowledging the egalitarianism that permeates Islam. My faith resides deep in my heart, but it has been hard at times to reconcile my heart with my mind, which too often recoils at the blatant misogyny that centuries of male-dominated interpretation of my religion have wrought.

We are taught that Islam gave women rights more than 1,400 years ago that made them the envy of women in Europe's Dark Ages. When European women were mere chattel, Muslim women gained the right to inherit and own property.

But now the descendants of those women who envied Muslim women in the seventh century have moved far ahead. Where is that spirit of the early days of Islam?

One of my favorite stories from Islamic history -- apocryphal or not -- goes like this: Women at the time of the prophet Muhammad complained that the revelations he had received so far addressed "believing men." What about us, they asked? Soon after, the prophet began receiving revelations that addressed both "believing men" and "believing women."

If God included us in the narrative, who has kept us out?

Not surprisingly, conservative scholar Yusuf Qaradawi has condemned the mixed-gender prayer on his weekly show on al-Jazeera. But we were not waiting for his blessing or anyone else's. Many male scholars and clerics have let the Muslim world down. Their apathy and disinclination to speak out -- be it against misogyny or against violence in the name of Islam -- long ago turned many of us off.

Several Muslim organizations in the United States have either condemned Amina Wadud's decision to lead the Friday prayer or have remained silent, choosing to stay on the sidelines of an event that embodies the aspirations of Muslim women to be recognized as men's spiritual equals.

Many of us have moved beyond these scholars, clerics and organizations and are setting our own agenda. The Muslim world is large and diverse. Issues that concern women in Saudi Arabia -- where they cannot be admitted to a hospital without a male guardian's signature -- are very different from those in Malaysia, where women recite the Koran on national television.

Here in the United States, where we can debate and argue without fear of losing our lives, there will, God willing, be no violence at today's prayer. But we have had an exciting few months leading up to it.

Late last year three men and a woman co-founded the Progressive Muslim Union of North America to provide a forum for Muslims who feel alienated by the conservatism of many of the existing organizations. The woman, Sarah Eltantawi, was once the spokeswoman of a mainstream American Muslim organization but left in frustration at the same silence and ambivalence over women's issues that we have seen with regard to Amina Wadud's brave move.

Thousands of us take refuge in the Web site MuslimWakeUp.com, edited by Ahmed Nassef, who co-founded it in 2003. The site, which receives 3 million hits a month, has allowed writers and commentators to argue and take to task the stifling mind-set that has held us back for so long.

Amina Wadud's decision to lead the Jum'ah is the most public example of setting our own agenda. It will be women who will change Islam and bring it into the 21st century, because we have nothing to lose. But many men support us in these efforts, because our fight is their fight.

The writer, a New York-based columnist for the pan-Arab publication Asharq al-Awsat, is a member of the board of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America. Her Web site is at www.monaeltahawy.com.

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