Shortly after noon on a recent Saturday, Fatima Thompson, a Muslim convert, and three other women prayed in the men’s section of the lavishly decorated Islamic Center of Washington, in a moment akin to Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat.
A bearded, middle-aged man scolded one of the women. “Sister, go there!” he said, pointing to a back corner, dubbed the “penalty box” by one disgruntled woman. The seven-foot wooden barrier separated the men and women’s sections in a visual metaphor of gender apartheid. She ignored him.
Defiantly, they continued to pray behind a row of men at the front of the mosque, when their numbers unexpectedly quadrupled. A tour group of about 100 Muslims, including about 30 women, from Hagerstown, Maryland, had hurriedly entered after the prayer had already began, unsuspectingly joining the protesters.
But the mood shifted when mosque officials called the cops.
The women’s prayer was a “Stand In,” a civil-rights protest against gender segregation in mosques, inspired by Black History Month. The 21st-century suffragettes are part of an emerging movement that challenges traditional interpretations of Islam—and questions the disturbing fact that women’s rights take a back seat to civil rights in America when freedom of religion is invoked. So, today, a mosque can’t tell a woman of color she has to sit separately because of her race, but it can banish her to a corner, as most do, because of her gender. Some even ban women altogether.
Police officer Barry Goodwin soon arrived and awkwardly walked over to the line of women—in his socks, because he couldn’t enter the mosque in shoes—to search for the organizers. It wasn’t long before it dawned on the visiting women that trouble was brewing.
Goodwin eventually found Thompson and her small troop of protesters. “I’m not a Muslim. I’m just here to do my job” he said politely. “Ladies, this is how it works. You have to obey the rules of the church here… I’m sorry. The church or temple. However you want to call it. You have to obey the rules.” He continued: “If they ask you to leave. You have to leave.” Failure to leave, he pointed out, would be grounds for arrest for unlawful entry. He said: “I don’t want to do that.”
Three mosque officials hovered over the women. What irked them, they later said, was that late-arriving men had to pray behind women. Their position was that the women could stay if they prayed behind the partition. “If you want to come here to pray,” one administrator, a woman, told the group, “you can pray. But you cannot come here and disrespect the mosque.”
What unfolded that day inside the mosque underscores a growing agitation inside the American-Muslim community by women frustrated by separate-and-unequal status. A survey by the Council on American Islamic Relations showed that two of three mosques in 2000 required women to pray in a separate area, up from one of two in 1994. In 2003, I challenged rules at my mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia, that women enter through a back door and pray in a secluded balcony. I argued that, in the 7th century, the prophet Muhammad didn’t put women behind partitions, and the barriers were just emblematic of sexist man-made rules. The men at my mosque put me on trial to be banished.
To me, the women’s space in a mosque is an indicator of whether the interpretation of Islam being practiced is puritanical and dogmatic, or open and inclusive. This one choice is a harbinger for other controversial interpretations of Islam, including domestic violence, honor killings, suicide bombings, violence and interfaith relations. Just this week, a hard-line Saudi cleric issued a fatwa on his Arabic-language Web site calling for the killing of Muslims who don’t enforce strict gender segregation.
While highlighting deep-seated controversy within Islam, the incident at the mosque in Washington speaks to larger issues about the state of civil rights in America itself. While places of worship can no longer get away with racial discrimination and expect the benefits of nonprofit status, those same protections aren’t extended to women. So, as America sends thousands of soldiers overseas with a mission, in part, to improve women’s rights in Afghanistan, two D.C. cops were dispatched to a mosque just a mile from the White House to remove American Muslim women from the main prayer hall. Ironically, the weekend incident raises an important question about whether there truly is suffrage for Muslim women in America. It seems not.
Even conservative Muslim women are chafing. Recently, Ify Okoye, a Nigerian-American convert, wrote an article, “The Penalty Box: Muslim Women’s Prayer Spaces” on a mostly hard-line Web site, complaining about the separate and unequal space women get at most mosques.
The struggle is years in the making, though. In 2005, following public agitation on the issue, Muslim organizations, including CAIR and the Islamic Society of North America, issued a report on making mosques “women-friendly,” asserting women’s rights in mosques, including the right to pray in the main hall without a partition.
Back at the Islamic Center of Washington, I tried to put the women’s action in context for Police Officer Goodwin, an African American. “Think sit-ins, 1960s,” I said. If he appreciated my history lesson, he didn’t acknowledge it. He walked outside for backup. The conflict escalated when Police Officer R.S. Lowery, threatened to arrest the women if they refused to leave.
“The people here who work for the mosque don’t want you here. If they are asking you to leave, we have to ask you to leave. If you refuse, we have to arrest you,” he said.
“You will arrest me on mosque property?” Thompson, the protest organizer, asked.
“We will. Yes we will,” he said.
Thompson begrudgingly picked up her Liz Claiborne purse, and the group rose to leave amid calls of support from onlookers, including an Egyptian-American international human-rights lawyer and a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Muslim Christian Understanding
As the protesters stepped into the marble courtyard, they crossed paths with the Hagerstown group, who were also being shooed out—even though they expressed no solidarity with the protesters.
Indeed, I learned very personally that it isn’t always intuitive to think of women’s rights as part of a wider civil-rights mission. Children in the Hagerstown group talked about the protest at their Sunday school the next day; women at that mosque pray behind a see-through curtain.
On the drive to the mosque, I had explained to my 7-year-old, Shibli, we were going to a protest march like the ones Martin Luther King Jr. had led. He listened thoughtfully and then, alas, responded, “I don’t care about women’s rights. I’m a boy. I care about kids’ rights!” Sigh.
But on the drive home, I asked him what he’d thought about the women being kicked out of the mosque. “It’s not fair,” he said. “They could have just let them stay.”
The world may take longer, but an afternoon later, there was progress in the social conscience of at least one young boy.