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Posted in: Islamic Gender & Religious Apartheid, Feminism

Published on Jun 15, 2009 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for Pajamas Media

Asra Nomani: Fighting for the Soul of Islam


Asra Q. Nomani, is best known for many things. A former Wall Street Journal reporter, she is also the author of Standing Alone In Mecca. An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. Nomani is a religious Muslim feminist who organized the first-ever woman-led, mixed-gender Islamic prayer group in New York City in 2005, and who made a good faith effort to bring her hometown mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia into the twenty-first century, both in terms of women and tolerance.

Nomani, born in Bombay but raised in Morgantown, West Virginia, is also the last friend whom Daniel Pearl saw before he was kidnapped, held captive, and be-headed on video. Pearl was staying at Nomani's rented home in Pakistan. Currently, Nomani teaches journalism at Georgetown University where she co-leads the Pearl Project, which will publish their discoveries about what really happened to Daniel Pearl.

Nomani will now also be known as the subject of a documentary about her struggle for the soul of Islam, which is airing tonight, June 15th, on PBS, at 10pm est. "The Mosque in Morgantown" is the latest feature in the America At a Crossroads series.

Nomani was jolted awake by Pearl's be-heading. In the wake of this tragedy, she chose to become a single mother and went on hajj to Mecca where she experienced a tremendous spiritual "high." Nomani saw that men and women were not separated at Mecca's Masjid al-Haram. When she returned to America, she wanted to bring her own mosque into the 21st century, to transform it into a woman-friendly, "family-centered Islam," not into a hard-hearted "boy's club." She also wanted to moderate, if not eliminate, the forces of hatred within Islam that seem to lead to kidnappings, Jew-hatred, suicide terrorism, jihad.

Pearl's be-heading forced Nomani to re-examine Islam. Those who had kidnapped Pearl were militant, religious Muslims who believed that their violent acts were sanctioned by the Qu'ran. Nomani resolved to take a more activist role in the "battle of ideas, the war of ideas." She wanted to create something that may not yet exist: "A more inclusive and tolerant Islam in the world."

Nomani is precisely the kind of ally that both the West–and the East–urgently need. In addition to other important ex-Muslims (Nonie Darwish, Wafa Sultan), and secular Muslims (Ibn Warraq, Ayaan Hirsi Ali), there is now Nomani: a religious Muslim feminist who wants to redeem, reform, and uplift her religion, as a feminist and as a devout Muslim.

Upon her return home, Nomani was horrified by what she found in the Morgantown mosque. A harsh Arab and Saudi Wahabi influence had taken over her childhood mosque–a place that her father had established in the early 1980s. A rude man barked at her to take the back door entrance. This rudeness extended to other women as well.

Finally, Nomani, her mother and a young female relative walked in through the front door and took a place together behind the men's section. But the sermons became more hateful. "To love the Prophet is to hate those who hate him." One man, seen on camera in the film, is very dismissive of Nomani. He says: "She wants to bend the rules her way but the laws are not human laws."

However, as the film documents, extremists, mainly Arabs, led by one rather physically and verbally violent Egyptian, Hany Ammar, took over. At that point, Nomani, on camera says: "I began hearing really scary sermons. An unchaste woman is worthless. The West is on a bad path. We must hate those who hate us. Women should be silent in a mosque. Jews are descendents of apes and pigs. Men should surround (Nomani) and scare her."

Ammar says on camera: "I pray to Allah that you be punished. May Allah get revenge for Ammar. He physically attacks a young Muslim moderate man—one hears, but does not see this attack. Ammar's wife Mona is even more conservative, more aggressive than he is. She minces no words in expressing her contempt, even hatred for Nomani. She, like certain kinds of religious women, is even more zealous in upholding the patriarchal status quo, more aggressively empowered to strike down any other woman who dares challenge male supremacy or Islamic gender apartheid. This is a phenomenon that I discuss in my book Woman's Inhumanity to Woman.

Ammar tries to ban Nomani from the mosque.

Nomani began writing about what was happening in her mosque in the media which did not further endear her to them; of course, they accused her of only wanting media attention.

One soft-spoken young man on camera says: "Had (Nomani) gone about this in the right way, (working with moderates like myself), we could have made ten years progress in ten months." However, Nomani's mother insists that "the extremists will never change."

Together with some other Muslim feminists, Nomani then crafted an Islamic Bill of Rights for Women which they actually posted at her mosque. Included are the following rights: that women have "an Islamic right to enter through the main door;" an "Islamic right to pray…without being separated by a barrier;" "an "Islamic right to hold leadership positions." Nomani is quoted on camera: "We are going to change the world starting here." Also, in her travels, Nomani also began a woman's section on the main mosque floor, a place behind the men where the women could unobtrusively hear and see the prayers and sermons.

The Morgantown mosque finally expelled her. However, the film does not make entirely clear whether Nomani was formally or legally expelled from the mosque or whether she left due to the hard line the mosque had adopted.

Not one for inaction, Nomani also organized the first woman-led prayer service–one that had to take place in a church, (St. John's the Divine), in New York City, not in a mosque; none would have them. Dr. Amina Wadud, a distinguished African-American convert to Islam led the service. The service was denounced but it inspired others like it. Thus, Nomani has created woman-friendly islands of prayer at other mosques throughout the country.

Nomani's attempt to turn her mosque into a more tolerant place of worship ultimately failed. She and her parents left the mosque. But, she did not leave Islam. On the contrary. She may be one of the leaders of a movement that is just beginning to arise.

The film portrays Nomani as a brave but lonely figure, a bit high strung, vigilant, principled, determined. She has only one female Muslim supporter at her mosque, Christine Arja, an American woman who converted to Islam and who initially opposed Nomani. Luckily, Nomani has the full support of her parents and of other religious Muslim women around the country.

I "know" Nomani, not only from this film and from her writing, but also from my conversations with her over the years. Yes, of course: I can oppose the mandatory veiling of Muslim women and other aspects of Islamic gender apartheid–and yet honor the work of a religious Muslim feminist. For me, this is not a contradiction. I can respect the hard, uphill work that feminists are doing within each of the major religions–and yet still view many interfaith gatherings as premature and misguided. Even if women as well as men participated in such interfaith gatherings (which they do not), I remain pessimistic because women and feminists of both genders have not yet achieved the necessary "critical mass" within orthodox Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam to have their views prevail.

Nomani and other brave religious Muslim women, are just starting down the road that many Jewish and Christian women have traveled before them.

As a religious Jewish feminist, and a co-leader of the legendary, Jerusalem-based Women of the Wall struggle, about which I co-wrote a book, together with my colleague, Rivka Haut, titled: Women of the Wall. Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism's Holy Site, I am very familiar with the wrenching realities that a woman and that both male and female feminists might face as they try to remain connected to a revered tradition which they also view as in need of reformation, transformation, and tolerance.

Although religious Judaism has had many reformations, many evolutions, and has "split," or diversified into at least four different denominations, misogyny still reigns in many ways. Even though we now have female rabbis, leaders, and Torah (Old Testament) scholars, most religious and cultural Jewish organizations everywhere in the world are top-heavy with men, not with women. The denomination of Judaism which rules the Western Wall and much else in Israel, is orthodox and ultra-orthodox. The various Jewish religious denominations that are not orthodox, are engaged in battling for their rights in the Jewish state.

Women of the Wall wanted to pray in an all-female group in the women-only section at Jerusalem's Western Wall, or Kotel, and in a way that followed an orthodox interpretation of Jewish religious law. Although we managed to do so a number of times, we were ultimately prohibited from doing so at the Kotel proper both by the rabbinate, the police, the Israeli Supreme Court–and by vicious verbal and physical attacks and near-riots launched against us, both by ultra-orthodox men but especially by ultra-orthodox women.

In its third major decision in our case, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the state to create a separate prayer location for our Torah service: one that was out of sight, at a place that was, indeed, also "holy," but which mainly functions as an archeological tourist site. Women of the Wall continue to pray, in part, at the Kotel and they then gather elsewhere for a reading of the Torah.

Today, modern orthodox Jews gather in all-female groups to pray both in synagogues and homes. Increasingly, younger modern orthodox Jews pray in mixed-gender egalitarian minyanim, (prayer quorums); both women and men read from the Torah. Orthodox girls and women are engaged in tremendous Torah study; some have become leading Torah scholars. Of course, it goes without saying, in the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements, women are rabbis and cantors and both lead and participate in gender-integrated prayer quorums.

Nomani faces a far more difficult situation. Islam has not yet diversified into denominations–or rather, it has, in part: There are Shi'ites and Sunnis but they are at violent, (not just verbal or legal), war with each other. There are Sufis, more peaceful, mystical, but they are not viewed positively as the soulful leaders they are by either warring sect. No great reform, no great grappling with issues of modernity and human rights has, as yet, influenced religious Muslim views. No major re-interpretations or revisions of the Qu'ran and other holy writings have been widely accepted.

I wish Nomani courage, clarity, strength, good health, and support from other Muslims. I congratulate PBS's "America at a Crossroads" for making this film.

By the way: Please understand that we dedicated our book about Women of the Wall to the state of Israel.

And: I would like my anti-Zionist critics to note that I am on record as having sued the state of Israel and the Israeli rabbinate on behalf of Jewish womens' religious rights. What's that you say? What have I done for the Palestinians lately? Over the years, I have also worked with Muslim feminists, including Palestinian Christians and Muslims–but that's a story for another day, another blog.


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