The Woman Who Went To the Front of the Mosque

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 5, 2005

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. It was two days after she appeared on "Nightline" talking about her fight to change her mosque that the death threats began. The first call came on her cell phone. The caller left a message, in Urdu: "If you want to stay alive, keep your mouth shut." Otherwise, he said, he would "slaughter" her, halal style, saying a prayer as he slid a knife across her throat. If she didn't shut up, he'd slaughter her mother and her father, too. Think before you speak, he said. I know where you live. I know where your parents live.

Then he called her parents' home 10 minutes later. Just to reinforce the message.

It's not a message that Asra Nomani, Muslim, unwed mother, former Wall Street Journal reporter, author and left-leaning feminist, is planning to heed (although she did contact the FBI and her local police). Yes, she's started locking her doors now, a rarity for her here in her hilly home town. But she won't be shutting up, definitely not, never.

There are those who see Nomani, a self-described "overambitious child of immigrants," as a crusader, an activist lobbying for the right of Muslim women to pray side by side with men. This spring she launched the Muslim Women's Freedom Tour, traveling from city to city (including a stop in April at the Islamic Center of Washington on Massachusetts Avenue NW) to encourage Muslim women to assert themselves in their mosques. As part of the tour, women pray in halls usually reserved for men and participate in mixed-gender prayer services led by women.

"It's about time," says religious scholar and historian Reza Aslan. "This conception of the separation of men and women is something that never occurred during the prophet's lifetime." He adds, "What she has done is perfectly in line with Islamic values, traditions and the prophet's own desire to have men and women working side by side, praying side by side and even fighting side by side."

Then there are those who see her as an opportunist who timed her Freedom Tour to coincide with the March publication of her book, which talks about her struggles to reconcile her faith with her feminism.

"She's like a troublemaker," says Gamal Fahmy, 31, a British-born, Egyptian-raised assistant professor at West Virginia University and a mosque member who once clashed with Nomani and her father in a study session. "I don't think she's that religious, she's that zealous about Islam and being a Muslim," he says. "Bottom line, I believe she's doing this for profit reasons."

Drama follows the Bombay-born and Morgantown-bred Nomani: Thirty-plus members of her 200-member mosque, the Islamic Center of Morgantown, the mosque her father, Zafar, helped found in 1981, are petitioning to have her banished for "disrupting worship and spreading misinformation about Islam."

Then there are the threatening e-mails; the articles, published around the world, accusing her of being a spy in cahoots with the CIA and Israeli intelligence; Jihadist message boards demanding that a fatwa be issued against a woman who led the first mixed-gender prayers and those who participated. An editorial writer for the India-based Web site Greater Kashmir writes that because Nomani had a child out of wedlock, "in Islam, punishment for an act for [which] Asra is proud of, is stoning till death."

Some of Nomani's detractors at the mosque insist they don't necessarily have a problem with her gender politics. Their problem is with her.

"Asra is a loner," says Louay Safi, executive director of the Islamic Society of North America's Leadership Development Center in Plainfield, Ind., an umbrella organization for Islamic groups. Safi came to Morgantown in December at Nomani's request to mediate the dispute. Other women in the mosque he interviewed are also unhappy with the way the mosque is run, Safi says, but Nomani is far from finding a common front with them.

"She does not have the experience of engaging the community, negotiating and trying to change things gradually. . . . She came to the community after a long time of being away and then immediately wants to change things overnight. . . . It's quite a conservative community."

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