Mosque pray-ins against segregation of sexes are springing up

By William Wan and Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010

Last Saturday, five women took off their shoes and walked across the padded carpet at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque, one of the Washington region's largest Islamic centers.

For weeks, they had planned for this moment, to stand behind the men in the main prayer hall of the Falls Church mosque as an act of protest. Usually, women at the mosque pray in segregated spaces away from the men, but these women, who came from outside the Dar al-Hijrah community, wanted to make a point.

It was the third time this year that the women had staged a protest at a Washington area mosque, and, as before, the conflict began almost immediately. By the end, angry words would be exchanged, the police called.

Such "pray-in" protests have sprung up in Muslim communities across the country in the past decade as women's rights advocates and feminist Muslims have agitated for more shared spaces in mosques. One of the women at the Dar Al-Hijrah event, author Asra Nomani, was even featured in a 2009 film documenting her protest at a mosque in Morgantown, W.Va.

The activists have compared their efforts to the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, but those who oppose them say the issue is not that simple. At mosques where such protests have taken place, for example, the longtime female attendees often are happy with the arrangement because praying in a segregated space allows them privacy and modesty. It is only protesters barging in from outside their communities who clamor for change, they say. The goal of protesters has also changed from city to city, with some trying to pray behind the men in the prayer hall, others wanting to pray side-by-side.

Such nuances were lost at Dar al-Hijrah as the clash between the protesters and the mosque's leaders eventually devolved into a heated argument.

When the women entered for the 5:10 p.m. prayer, scores of men were already lined up in long rows beneath a domed skylight facing Imam Shaker Elsayed, the leader of the Fairfax County mosque. The mosque's regular attendees told the women that they belonged upstairs on the balcony, behind a glass barrier, where women usually pray.

But Elsayed, recognizing the women from a community debate weeks earlier, instructed the men to stand down. "We have a group of sisters who want to make a point," he said. Elsayed welcomed the women to remain but asked them to stand at the very back of the room. He believes it is immodest for women to prostrate themselves before Allah in full view of men standing or walking behind them.

But protester Fatima Thompson challenged Elsayed. "Your interpretation of that Sunnah is incorrect," she called out, referring to a guide to Islamic practice. The two continued sparring over sacred texts until Elsayed pulled back. "This is no time for argumentation. Let us go for the prayer," he told the room, but added this declaration: "This is your last visit to this place, Fatima. This is your last visit to this place." He later worked with police on paperwork to ban their return.

Protests in D.C., too

Thompson, of Owings Mills, said the idea for the protests came after she was directed behind a tall barrier this year at the Islamic Center of Washington and felt cut off from the life of the congregation. In February and March, the group staged protests at the District mosque and was told the protests were not welcome.

"I don't understand why they cannot just talk," said Fatima Goodwin, an administrator at the Islamic Center of Washington. "They don't even pray here regularly, and they come in here to tell us what to do. Anybody is welcome to pray with us, but they have to respect our rules and tradition."

"The sisters are not helping us," said a regular female attendee at Dar al-Hijrah who declined to give her name because she did not want to be publicly involved in the debate. "It's better we have our own room upstairs, our own freedom, you know what I mean?"

The protesters normally worship at other local mosques -- the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, Dar us-Salaam in College Park and Dar al-Taqwa in Ellicott City -- which also segregate women from men for prayer.

Thompson said she went on a mission in February to "probe" Dar al-Hijrah as a protest target. She had a hidden digital recorder and asked women there about their views on being segregated to a balcony. She said she did not tell them that she was recording their comments.

"They pretty much were like: 'This is the way it is. We'll keep going with it,' " Thompson said. She talked to about a dozen women. Some were "actively" pro-segregation, Thompson said. "None of them said it should change," she said. But the group thinks such women have been brainwashed to some degree to accept a subservient or inferior position.

These conflicting views, Muslim leaders say, result from the interplay between Muslim tradition and American values.

"As the Muslim community in America has developed over the years, it's organized itself on the democratic basis of this country," said Sayyid Syeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America.

Mosques now pick a governing board through elections, he said, and mosque leadership increasingly includes women from the community. The president of ISNA is a woman, Syeed said. "The democratization of our community is one of our biggest achievements in America, but because of that, you now see communities heading in different directions with different trends."

And there are conflicting values and allegiances even among the protest organizers. Many belong to a larger group called Muslims for Progressive Values but recently decided to keep the women in the mosque movement separate from the progressive Muslim group, which includes gay Muslims, lest they alienate people who may not support one cause or the other.

Questionable results

At the protest last Saturday, there was a tense scuffle when three men approached a protester videotaping the scene. After the prayers, a member of the mosque called Fairfax police, who asked the women to leave.

How much such protests accomplish is hard to measure. Female activists in other cities say it has led to more women-friendly mosques. In some cities like-minded women and Muslims have established services of their own in which they can worship however they want. Critics, however, say that the Muslim community has been moving to address such issues and that the women are picking fights for theater and are more interested in conflict than dialogue.

"People keep saying, why can't you do it in a civil way?" Thompson said. "But as long as they're comfortable, they're not going to do anything. Because of what we're doing, you can be sure it's being discussed in the community. We want them to wonder if we'll go to their mosque next, if what they're doing is right or wrong. I already have a mosque in mind for our next pray-in. We're not going to stop."

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