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Islam Through the Front Door

Asra Nomani, founder of the Muslim Women's Freedom Tour, explains her effort to find a place for women in Islam.

Interview by Rebecca Phillips

 

Asra Nomani's "Tantrika" caused a stir when it was released in 2003; the Muslim journalist's first book was an account of her experiences while investigating the Tantric sex phenomenon. But it is her latest book, "Standing Alone in Mecca," that might prove to be more controversial. The story of her hajj pilgrimage and an exploration of the historical rights of Muslim women, the book includes what Nomani calls the "Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in Mosques" and the "Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom." Along with the book, Nomani recently launched the Muslim Women's Freedom Tour, a series of women-led Muslim prayer services in cities across the U.S. The tour kicked off on March 18, in New York, where Amina Wadud, professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, led a Friday Jumu'ah service. On a break from the tour, Nomani spoke with Beliefnet about feminism in Islam, her vision for the tour, and the kind of Islam she hopes to impart to her son.

Were you surprised by the reaction to the prayer service on March 18?
I was shocked at the amount of opposition, from Mecca to Indonesia, but I'm thrilled by all the support. I wondered whether this event might help smoke Osama bin Laden out. The idea of women challenging men is so offensive to the extremist ideology that they're really incensed.

When I walked through the front door of my hometown mosque [in Morgantown, West Va.] and into the main hall, I was stunned at how fierce the opposition was to women's rights. I'm still trying to figure it out, to understand what the challenge is all about.

Do you view this struggle as a civil rights issue?
To me it's very much a social justice issue. The Muslim world can't pretend to practice social justice as long as we keep women in the shadows. Making women invisible is a precursor to violent societies.

When you were growing up, what was your formal Islamic training like? I know you think it's important to take back the faith intellectually--does your background allow for that?
At age 39, I'm having serious flashbacks to when I was a 10-year old girl and my mother was my teacher. I was so enthusiastic about learning the Qur'an. I wanted to be a hafiz who could memorize the entire Qur'an. I prayed five times a day, I invoked the divine powers in every step of my life, I fasted during Ramadan. But as I grew older, I felt less valued within my Muslim community. On one hand, my parents were telling me I could be everything I wanted to be. But the Muslim community expected me to be silent and docile and submissive. So I became a leader in a secular way, as a journalist. We all have dreams that we can change the world, yet I never felt that I could do that within my Muslim faith.

What's happened to me since September 11 is that I've come to recognize we can all step forward. At the March 18 prayer service, I stood before the congregation and spoke, which is not allowed in most of the Muslim world.

So in your own mosque, could you be in the same room as the men while praying?
No. In two out of three mosques in America, a woman is not even in the same room, let alone in the front row. In Morgantown, I have my little space in the back. Once I asked to make an announcement at the microphone, and was denied. No woman has ever stood at the microphone there.

This is a struggle of all faiths. But I've stood in the front of churches and synagogues where women have broken the barrier. And now I feel ready to stand as a leader in our mosque's prayer hall. It's like a personal revolution.

What is your sense of how many other women are having that same personal revolution?
So many women are having it. They affirm for me every time they write to me--from Turkey, Malaysia, and Africa--that we're doing the right thing. For so long, women have had their voices denied and have been told that there can't even be a conversation about this. Now these women know they aren't alone.

So this is not just a phenomenon among American Muslim women?
No, this is a global phenomenon. The world can only be better served if women can break free.

I noticed a few protesters outside the prayer hall during the March 18 service. One sign took you to task for your previous book, "Tantrika." Do you question how valid a spokesperson for Muslim women you can really be, if other people condemned your previous book?
If they didn't have a problem with "Tantrika," they would have had a problem with something else about my life. That sign said, "Asra Nomani can speak about Islam when she repents for her Tantric sex fantasies." What it revealed to me was just how afraid people in our community are of discussing sexuality. Sexuality is something we have to process in our communities in a healthy way, rather than repressing it.

I hear so often the criticism that we could have a better spokesperson than I am. But I don't claim to be a spokesperson for anyone but myself.

This one prayer service got a lot of media coverage. How is this going to be sustained in the future?
I am leading another prayer service in Boston to help show the New York event was not a one-time event, that women will continue to reclaim their rights. I plan to go from city to city to talk about the issues I raise in my book, to tap the local scene, and to see what action they want to take to make our Muslim communities more tolerant. That's why I called my book tour the Muslim Women's Freedom Tour.

So will there be prayer events in many more cities?
Yes, I think there will be. We broke an important barrier and we have to continue to reclaim the rights that we asserted there and show that there are countless Muslim men and women who want Islam to be expressed in a different way. Right now it's expressed in such a dark way, yet it was so beautiful that Friday. It was a safe environment for everyone. We made it so all people could be comfortable, so families could pray together. It felt like the same kind of communal spirit that I felt in Mecca, where people naturally float into whatever space they want--if it's all women they want, they go there; if it's all men they want, they go there; if they want to pray beside their husband or brother, they do that. Our mosques and our communities take that natural flow out when they segregate women from men.

How else did your hajj help you clarify these issues?
The hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca] was really the transformative experience that people say it can be. I'm a real visual person. I had heard the name of Hajar [Abraham's concubine, mother of Ishmael], but when I walked in her footsteps, I could feel her strength. When I passed the Kentucky Fried Chicken in the Mecca of today, I thought about Mecca then, and about Khadijah, the prophet's first wife, and her life as a caravan trader. When I went to the mosque in Medinah and was unable to enter, I thought about the prophet Muhammad's wife Aisha, who was really one of Islam's first theologians. I could feel the pulse of all these strong women.

I came to realize that all my years working as a reporter had put me in a place to investigate the truth of women's place in Islam. My training makes me question. When they tell me that I have to take the back door and pray in the balcony, I question it and find out the truth--that I don't. I think what separates my frustration from the frustration of a typical Muslim is that I'm not afraid to pick up the phone and call anyone. I've spent my adulthood [as a Wall Street Journal reporter] challenging the spin doctors in corporate America, so it's natural to challenge the spin doctors in Islam.

Can you give some specific examples from the Qur'an or Islamic law that challenge the typical view of women's place in Islam?
There are a few passages that mean a lot to me. This isn't about what you're asking, but one that inspires me is from "Al-Nisa" (The Women):

Oh ye who believe!
Stand out firmly
For justice, as witnesses
To God, even if it may be against
Yourselves, or your parents
Or your kin.
Al-Nisa, The Women, 4:135

Some others that are used to assert women's equal rights are:

Whoever does an atom's weight of good, whether male or female, and is a believer, all such enter into Paradise.
--Al Ghafir, The Forgiver, 40:40

and:

The true believers, both men and women, are friends to each other. They enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil; they attend to their prayers and pay the alms and obey God and His apostle. On these God will have mercy. He is Mighty and Wise.
--Al-Araf, The Heights, 7:71

It was Amina Wadud [Islamic studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University] who was the one who told me about these passages. She liberated me from so much of the garbage that I had been told in the community. I had literally been told that a woman's voice is not supposed to be heard in a mosque. But really it's not that clear-cut, and there's a great argument against that position.

Was there ever a time in your life when you gave up on Islam, when you decided it wasn't the right religion for you?
I really wondered if I would continue as a Muslim when I came back from Karachi. I was still trying to absorb my friend Danny [Pearl]'s murder. I had a baby in my belly who my baby's father couldn't accept because I was unmarried. I wondered at the time if this was really my faith. I went to a Methodist church and was welcomed there. They gave me kinship and friendship and strength. But then I stayed within the protection of my parents, who are good Muslims, and I started to see incrementally over time expressions of compassion from other Muslims.

I discovered the truth, and the truth has kept me within Islam.

Do you have a particular vision for the Islam that your son grows up with?
I really dream about sitting at my son's wedding one day with his bride beside him, with a woman equal to a man as a witness, a woman presiding over the ceremony, his beloved equal to him in the eyes of our community. I want my son to be the feminist and visionary that I believe the Prophet Muhammad was. He worked to improve the condition of women in the seventh century, and we've only gone backwards since.


http://www.beliefnet.com/story/168/story_16827.html

 

 

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