Read Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam Online

Authors: Amina Wadud

Tags: #Religion, #Islam, #General, #Social Science, #Feminism & Feminist Theory, #Women's Studies, #Sexuality & Gender Studies, #Islamic Studies

Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam (35 page)

BOOK: Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam
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Coincidentally, since the time of this analysis, I have tried to create greater uniformity in my embrace, regardless of age, gender, or circum- stance, except when it seems too much for the other, when I exercise greater restrictions. In addition, despite years of acculturation in my life as a Muslim woman, but especially in general Malaysian public eti- quette, I offer my hand for a shake for all Muslim men that I meet, even if rejected.


In both South Africa and North America, the mosque reflects aspects of gender relations and conflict. As a symbol of Islamic heritage and tradition, a mosque is usually established and maintained by local members. It may include a community center where Islamic family activities, educational programs, lectures, meetings, and festivities take place, in addition to the space for ritual worship. Some mosques emphasize traditional Islamic architectural design and other esthetic features. Other mosques in Muslim minority communities are formed within existing building structures with some internal alternation. In both instances it becomes a space marked for Islamic activities and confirmation of Muslim identity.
The dominant attitude of the mosque is reflected in both its public demeanor and within the hegemony and authority maintained within it. It is not uncommon for stricter gender separation to exist within the mosque, especially here in the

U.S.A. and other minority Muslim communities, than is ever sustained at any other place outside the mosque.

Within the sacred space of the mosque, gender disparity is almost always reflected, and sometimes a mosque seems to prove itself genuine by increas- ing these rituals of separation, as the example of the young woman who joined Shamima and me at the mosque in Johannesburg shows. This was the first time in all her twenty years that she had even entered a mosque. Some South African mosques do not permit women to enter, to accentuate that exclusive male privilege in this specially demarcated space and to leave exclusivity unchallenged. Meanwhile, other mosques in the U.S.A. and South Africa, like the small mosque in KwaNobuhle, are designed to encourage inclusiveness for every race, age, gender, class, or physical handicap served in the community. The issue of inclusiveness for the dis- abled is still grossly under-corresponded to in the vast majority of mosques the world over.

Flexibility in mosque design and usage reflects time and place while

174 inside the gender jihad

ensuring the longevity and advancement of Islam. This makes the mosque an important site to initiate change and mark transitions in the context of the Muslim community. In this respect, the Claremont Main Road mosque as the site for contestation and change is another marked feature of this event. Indeed, after this first
by a woman, when the women who had previously prayed upstairs, away from the men, came down to the main floor, they have not gone back up again.

Despite many cultural, ideological, and logistical variants in the degree of separation between women and men in the mosque, there is nothing essentially Islamic about it. Gender separation is neither a matter of faith nor a principle of Islamic dogma and creed. It was never emphasized in the Qur’an, which instead recommends ways for women and men to observe modest limits while
in each other’s presence
. The extent to which it has become important today is often more clearly demonstrated in the mosque than is ever observed by Muslim minorities in other pluralist circumstances in societies like the U.S.A. and South Africa. It is a wonder that those who demonstrate such strict gender separation in the mosque manage public streets, buildings, board meetings, informal gatherings, and the like throughout the rest of their daily business in North America and South Africa. Honestly speaking, I think it is a charade, a fa
ade to feign “I am gender pious.” Many of the same people who stress such separation will be profusely collegial around members of the opposite sex in non-Muslim public places, especially where wages are earned.

Gender separation in the mosque also reflects gender disparity through space and the opportunities that limit women’s access to or participation in mosque activities and especially in decision-making. Likewise, if not complete exclusion, separation in congregational prayer usually relegates women to an inferior place, either
the male prayer lines or invisible to them in the congregational setting. Yet during the
, pilgrimage, another primary ritual observation in Islam, women and men do not observe gender separation in prayer lines. While some gender discretion in prayer may have been the intention, hierarchy is what is exemplified when women pray in the rear or in a place invisible to the leader of the prayer. Some mosques overcome the hierarchy while maintaining the discretionary decorum of separation by forming equal prayer lines of women and men side by side. For example, at the mosque in Toledo, Ohio, women and men pray in separate sections but they are side by side. Furthermore, there are increasingly more settings where small numbers of Muslims disregard the archaic gender separations, and pray in the Makkan style of prayer lines,

Public Ritual Leadership and Gender Inclusiveness

with women and men forming single lines side by side. Some follow a female
should she be selected.

For the vast majority of Muslims who do not consider such gender in- clusiveness permissible, their arguments are selectively grounded on firm religious rationale using only those
opinions that support gender separation in ritual worship primarily as reflections of social and historical customs as they developed after the advent of Islam in seventh-century Arabia. There is no single Qur’anic passage to support these arguments, and nothing but extensive misinterpretation of the
by generalizing exclusive principles or minimizing explicit examples to the contrary. The evidence constructed to support gender separation, especially in ritual worship, is always and only a reflection of social customs and in many cases of social customs as they developed after the advent of Islam in seventh- century Arabia. Since such practices of gender disparity reflect social praxis, not theological rationale, then all legal codification of such rationales were built upon the status quo and can be reformed by the collective and consci- entious alterations in the status quo.


Along with the other matters not discussed with the organizers of the Claremont event, I had no indication of their specific concerns at that time over Muslim women’s dress and their decision for me to participate in this event. I am not altogether convinced, however, that my conservative style was inconsequential. In my general observations over the matter of dress and Muslim leadership, I note that a certain modest formality symbolizes the seriousness of the ritual setting. In addition to this, Muslim women’s dress, particularly the head covering, remains significant to the politics of gender

At the time of the Claremont Main Road event, I always observed

the more traditional
in the public roles I played in the struggle for gender justice. I am certain this preference was of some facility to the organizers as well. However, while I recognize that some consider the
as a public declaration of identity and ideology, I do not consider it a religious obligation, nor ascribe to it any religious value per se. The para- dox – that I had consistently worn
for over thirty years while not considering it obligatory – does not remove its appearance of conformity with the perspective of neo-traditionalists and conservative Muslims: it makes me
safe. It has been a double-edged aspect of my public role and representation that figures strategically in the debates over Islam and

176 inside the gender jihad

gender. My dress choice has radical, self-inscribed meaning – not apparent to an outside observer.
While it appears to conform to the fixed and uniform position of a Muslim women’s persona, it also defies that pos- ition. Reinvesting new meaning into old symbols is a necessary part of Islamic progression. The articulation of the distinction between these two meanings of fixed uniformity and radical personal reinscription cannot be obvious by form alone. It can
be heard by the voice of the woman

who wears it.

, PRE-

Muslims are obligated to pray five times every day. In addition, according to law and tradition, Muslim males are required to cease their worldly affairs and gather for the midday prayer in congregation once a week, on Friday,
yawm al-jum‘ah
. This gathering, referred to as the
prayer, has been attended by women throughout Muslim history, and they continue to attend, but their attendance is inconsistent, reflecting other aspects of community and mosque politics.

Irrespective of women’s attendance in the mosque or the degrees of gender separation, the public prayer leader (
) and the one who delivers the obligatory
(the sermon that precedes the prayer when both women and men congregate) has always been a Muslim male. A notable exception to this practice historically was when the Prophet Muhammad

appointed Umm Waraqah as
, in her
(community or household)

One other issue about congregational prayer had been a matter of debate in South Africa for some time. Could the
be delivered in a local vernacular or must be it be delivered in Arabic? Some mosques had resolved this matter by dividing the two parts of the
between the local vernacular and Arabic. Some of the male leaders made a decision to rename the two parts, using “pre-
” for the first part when delivered in a local vernacular. Then the second part, when delivered in Arabic, was designated
. In Claremont, depending on the Arabic capability of the particu- lar
, either both parts are in the vernacular or the second part is in Arabic. However, this community never distinguished between the
and a pre
How then could they advertise that I would give the pre-
It was another subversive strategy employed in pro- gressing Islam and contributing to the gender
. Like the
, certain semblances reflecting the patriarchal conservative norm are maintained to

Public Ritual Leadership and Gender Inclusiveness

allay traditional sensitivities, while attempting to challenge other aspects of the status quo.

While such a subversive strategy has efficacy in the evolutionary process of advocating and presenting change, it can also have negative results. First, this subversion resulted in the mosque reneging on its position that there should not be a pre-
presentation followed by the
itself. Second, the woman who delivered the address was not given the status of a
. Instead, her
was relegated to the status of lecture.

Despite this tactic, many, including myself, would acknowledge my address as the

I had intended to give the
before the Friday congregational prayer – technicalities aside. I expected that this invitation was intentional, to break the gridlock of gender disparity in Islamic public ritual. It was part of my overall interest in breaking the gender disparity in mosque attendance, governance, and other public spaces, as well as in ritual, including congre- gational prayer itself with its history of nearly exclusive male leadership.


The content of the presentation at the Claremont Main Road mosque is the only place to retrieve my full identity as a Muslim woman invited to sym- bolize the need for gender transformation in ritual leadership. Yet on my way to the
’s office when the service was over, I asked Farid Esack what he thought of my presentation. He said, “Honestly, I didn’t listen!” Some would later say this reflected his enthusiasm for this overt outward form of gender inclusion – even as it neglected the particularities of actual substance in the presentation. I felt displaced by this, but then worried that my desire was self-serving. On the one hand, I want to see leadership as service to the col- lective; on the other hand, I was troubled by this reduction. Does the leader have no individual qualities other than a formality of ritual, such that all it takes to deconstruct male hegemony is simply to input a female form, whether or not she makes any substantive contribution?
For a genuine female- inclusive reconstruction over the male hegemony in leadership, a woman must be present in both her particulars as a woman and her shared aspects with men men as a Muslim person. Moreover, for a woman to contribute as a leader in the role of
, she is required to present a substantive

In contradistinction to this response, two women affirmed the partic- ulars of the
over the form. Sa‘diyya Shaikh said, “It made me feel

178 inside the gender jihad

good to
a woman!” The other, my hostess Najma, who was, incidentally, seven or eight months pregnant with her fourth child, commented, “I can be who I am. I don’t have to be anyone else: I am a Muslim woman.” Here, womanhood as uttered in the words of the
and in the role of leader was stressed, not the coincidental form of her female body in the place heretofore exclusive to men as leaders.

BOOK: Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam
12.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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