Islam Through the Front Door
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
prayer service got a lot of media coverage. How is this going to be sustained in
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
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.
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.
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
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
that are used to assert women's equal rights are:
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
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
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.
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
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.