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The Woman Who Went To the Front of the Mosque
Feminist Faces Ostracism -- or Worse -- for Praying Among Men

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."

Members and observers in Morgantown say she's invited TV cameras into the mosque at the slightest provocation.

"People come here to worship," says Sohail Chaodhry, the mosque's religious coordinator, a tall Pakistani who wears the white cap and long beard of the devout Muslim. "Not to face cameras. . . . We are just regular people trying to follow our religion."

There are some women at the mosque who support what Nomani is trying to do. Says Christine Ajra, an American who converted to Islam before marrying her Lebanese husband, "There are a lot of people who don't want to give her credit, but she has opened doors and opened minds."

At the book reading in April in the District, one reader said he really didn't like her "Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom," in which she asserts, among other things, that Muslim women have an "Islamic right to respectful and pleasurable sexual experience" and a right "to make independent decisions about their choice of a partner." Even more egregious to her detractors is the fact that she had a child out of wedlock, in direct defiance, they say, of Islam's dictates.

"The main issue is people believe she made a very negative impact on the community," says Abdullah Ibraheem, a member of the five-person committee that will decide if she should be banned from the mosque. "People believe she made a very negative propaganda that doesn't reflect the reality 100 percent."

'My Heart's Work'

Nomani's mantra: It's time to take the slam out of

Islam.

Indeed, she says, she has often felt slammed by the religion that nurtured her when she was a child. The practice of gender separation at mosques pains her. She says it has no basis in the Koran. At the Morgantown mosque, the overwhelming majority of women enter through the rear, heads covered. They walk up steps that lead to a room overlooking the main hall, but with a wall so high the women cannot see. So they watch the service on closed-circuit TV. Women are not allowed to lead the prayer service.

The mosque is not unique, according to Islamic scholars. American mosques, with rare exceptions, separate the sexes, whether by dividing the main prayer hall into male and female sides or segregating them further as they do at the ICM.

"I refuse to sit in the back, that's so demeaning," says the small-boned Nomani, 39, whose soft voice contains both Valley Girl-esque inflections and a faint lilt of India. "The mosques are set up like a men's club. . . . I just want them to consider women as human beings. Not to throw us into corners. I want the Muslim world to fast-forward into the 21st century and not segregate us into women's ghettos."

Last year, when Nomani attended an all-men's prayer meeting with her father, Zafar, she was asked to sit at least 50 feet from the men. She refused. What happened after that is in dispute, but both sides agree that there was a lot of shouting, that things got out of hand, and that, later, Nomani filed an incident report with the police.

Then, in March, on a cold and snowy day, in a move echoing Martin Luther, she used electrical tape to post her views on the door of the Morgantown mosque, her "99 Precepts for Opening Hearts, Minds and Doors in the Muslim World," in which she asserts that women have a right to pray side by side with men.

In less than an hour, a mosque official tore it down.

She's got videotape of all of this. She understands the usefulness of bringing in a camera crew.

As to the claims that she's a publicity hound who timed her Freedom Tour to coincide with her book tour, Nomani says it made sense to combine the two since her publisher was picking up the bill to send her around the country.

"I feel like I'm doing my heart's work," Nomani says. "I think it's incumbent on Muslims with intellect, hope and love in our hearts . . . to go into the houses of worship and really try to transform the Muslim house from within. We have to take on this machine of extremism that's trying to take over the world."

She says there is a "Muslim Mafia" in town, a group aligned with Saudi Wahhabism, a fundamentalist branch of Islam. They bring sacks filled with cash to the mosque, she says. You have to challenge the power and control of those who run the society, she says.

"I intend to follow the money," she says, "We have to see what is propping up these societal traditions that keep our community closed. I'm trying to figure out what people are trying to protect, whether it's just ideology or a more intricate web.

"I know the stakes are high," she says.

"I really admire Asra for fighting the good fight," says Asma Gull Hasan, a Pakistani American lawyer and the author of "Why I Am a Muslim: An American Odyssey." "A lot of women our age, first-generation Americans, young Muslims who don't like the conservative attitudes of the mosque, either keep attending blindly and ignore the rhetoric or just stop attending altogether," she says. "I don't go to a mosque because I get so irritated with how women are treated. . . . I've given up, the situation in mosques is so abysmal."

The idea of separating men and women during prayer is not a matter of Koran teachings but tradition, pragmatism -- and modesty, says Safi, the mediator, since Islamic prayers require a good deal of bending over and prostrating.

"The rationale has been that this is more conducive to focusing on the prayer itself and to spirituality, rather than creating a situation where there is a lot of gazing, men looking at women, that would distract both," he says.

Nomani's mother isn't buying it. "If you can see a professor's butt as she's writing on the blackboard," says Sajida Nomani, what's the big deal with women praying with men or leading prayers?

In March, as part of the Muslim Women's Freedom Tour, Nomani helped organize a mixed-gender prayer service, led by Amina Wadud, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor and Arabic scholar. It was the first time in centuries that a woman publicly gave the khutba , or sermon, before a mixed-gender congregation, according to Aslan, the religious scholar and author. About 130 people showed up at the Synod House at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, an Episcopal church, men and women praying side by side, shoulder to shoulder. (Three mosques had refused to host the prayer service and an art gallery pulled out after receiving a bomb threat.) A camera crew from al-Jazeera showed up, as well as a gaggle of protesters. People attending the service were searched before they were admitted into the chapel.

Nomani led mixed-gender prayers a week later at Brandeis University outside Boston. Two weeks later, in Tuscany, a woman applied to be the first female imam of her mosque. Another led a prayer session in Toronto before a group of men and women April 22. Meanwhile, Jihadist Internet message boards lit up with calls for Wadud's murder and the deaths of all who participated in New York.

Danny Pearl

Morgantown is a small university town, and in small towns conflicts often take on Wagnerian proportions. Many of the mosque members are immigrants who are affiliated with West Virginia University, a long way from home and looking for a little bit of the familiar in an unfamiliar place.

Nomani moved to this country in 1969, when she was 4. Her family moved to Morgantown when she was 10, settling into an apartment near the mosque. Back then, she recalls, the Muslim community was tolerant and respectful, with men and women mixing freely at dinner parties. Gradually, that changed. Students from more conservative countries came to the university, importing their values with them, Nomani says. Dinner parties became segregated affairs, with the men hanging out in comfortable lounges and the women confined to cramped studio apartments.

Recalls Nomani: "The men would put food in containers, put it down, knock on the door and run away as if seeing us was blasphemy."

She wasn't allowed to date or go to high school dances. But she ran cross-country, and in school she was encouraged by her teachers to think and to speak out. She tried to meld her Eastern side with her Western sensibilities, staying at home, at her parents' request, to study at West Virginia University and then leaving home to pursue a graduate degree at American University. When she was 27, she left her longtime love, an American who offered to convert to Islam, to marry a Pakistani who lived in Washington. They wed in a traditional Muslim ceremony that took place over days in Pakistan. The marriage lasted three months.

It was shortly after her divorce, in 1993, that she met Danny Pearl.

Indeed, she says, she started her crusade because of Pearl.

They became friends, platonic buddies who bonded while working for the Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau and they kept in touch after each moved on. She traveled the world, exploring Buddhism and Hinduism and Tantric yoga. (She is also the author of "Tantrika: Traveling the Road of Divine Love," published in 2003.)

In January 2002, Pearl was investigating links to al Qaeda in Pakistan, where Nomani was covering the war on terror for Salon. There, she'd fallen in love with a young Pakistani man.

Pearl came to visit Nomani at her rented house in Karachi, bringing along his pregnant wife, Mariane. They hung out, listening to music and talking into the wee hours. The next day, Pearl left for an interview. He never came back.

His story dominated the news as Nomani and Mariane Pearl frantically searched for him.

Three weeks after his disappearance, Nomani discovered she was pregnant. Her beau had already abandoned her.

So there she was, single and pregnant in a country where being so was a crime. Shame from having broken sh aria, or traditional Islamic law, crippled her, she says. She tried to reunite with her boyfriend, but to no avail. She says he encouraged her to have an abortion.

Shortly afterward, she found out that Pearl had been murdered by terrorists, forced to declare "I am a Jew" on videotape before he was beheaded.

"Danny was killed in the name of Islam," she says. "I really know that religion can be used as a source of destruction, but I believe religion can inspire us. But it's been so twisted."

She returned home to her parents' embrace. On Oct. 16, 2002, nine months after Pearl's disappearance, she gave birth to her son. She named him Shibli Daneel Nomani. Shibli, which means "lion cub," for her ancestor, Shibli Nomani, a famous Indian scholar who'd fought for Muslim reform. And Daneel, to honor her slain friend.

But Islam drew her back. She and her family made a pilgrimage to Mecca. There, with 3-month-old Shibli strapped to her chest, she saw men and women praying together, side by side, in the Masjid al-Haram, the Sacred Mosque.

And that's where her problems with her mosque back home began.

If men and women could pray as one in Saudi Arabia, one of the most restrictive countries for women, why couldn't it happen in Morgantown?

The Back Door

Father and daughter are heading to the mosque, running a little late for Friday afternoon prayers.

They're rolling up and down the hills of West Virginia, country and western twanging on the radio, dad riding shotgun, both pointing out the sights and providing a running commentary. On the right, that's the hospital where she gave birth. Over there is the mosque, where she taped her "99 Precepts." And there , says Zafar Nomani, pointing, "is the infamous back door" -- the door his daughter refuses to enter.

Like on most days, Nomani is not wearing a head scarf today, something she says irritates the powers that be here. (It should be noted that she is wearing a delicate white head scarf on the cover of her latest book, "Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam.") She does, however, cover her head by yanking her fuchsia hoodie over her hair, as she does whenever she enters the mosque.

"I call it my ghetto hijab ," she says, just before she walks through the main door, pausing to take off her shoes before heading to the cavernous main hall, where, save for a reporter, she will be the lone woman among 100 or so men saying prayers. Only one will acknowledge her, at the end of services, pausing to wave hello as he takes off, engrossed in a cell phone call.

She is used to this. Still, it rankles.

"I used to come every day," she says, "but it feels so unfriendly, so inhospitable. So now I just come on Fridays."

Prayers on Front Lawn

Nomani's fight continues. She'll get kicked out of a mosque in Seattle. An older woman will grab her by the arm and try to drag her out of a Los Angeles mosque. She'll be escorted out of a mosque in New York. She'll kneel outside, on the sidewalk, saying her prayers.

But for now, after Friday prayers at the mosque, she sits on the front lawn with her family, a blanket spread out under them, the Koran at her side.

Earlier her father had said, "Muhammad was one of the greatest feminists. Islam first gave rights to women 1,400 years ago. . . . When I see Islam today and the way people behave towards women, I am very sad. I am for women's rights, respect, women's equality. Islam teaches that."

Now he sits and smiles as he watches his daughter lead the family in prayer. They stand up, little Shibli joining them, bending and bowing in the sun.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company