June 29, 2005

Muslim groups urge mosque rights for women

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Leading Islamic groups in North Americaare telling their followers that it's time to make mosques moreopen to women, to return to an equality that marked the originsof the faith.

"There are confirmed reports that many mosques relegatewomen to small, dingy, secluded, airless and segregatedquarters with their children," states a booklet publishedonline and being distributed to mosques.

"Some mosques in the United States and Canada actuallyprevent women from entering," it adds.

The booklet suggests women should be allowed to pray withmen in the main hall of a mosque in a designated area that isnot partitioned off and be given a safe and appropriateentrance to the buildings. It also suggests that at least twowomen be on every mosque governing board.

"I think it will be debated fairly vigorously," said IngridMattson, a vice president of the Islamic Society of NorthAmerica, one of the groups that has endorsed the booklet. Theothers are the Islamic Circle of North America, MuslimAssociations of Canada, Council on American IslamicRelations-Canada and Muslim Alliance in North America.

Together those groups "represent the mainstream observantMuslims in North America," Mattson said. "That's really goodnews for the kind of ideas we're trying to promote."

A recent survey found that two-thirds of U.S. mosquesconfine women behind a curtain or in another room duringprayers on Friday, the Muslim holy day. It also found thatthree-quarters of all regular worshipers were men and a thirdof mosques do not permit women on governing boards.

And because women must use a separate entrance from men itis often one that is a dingy afterthought, it found.

The debate over women's rights in Islam is complex. Whilesome Muslim women in America are fighting to gain seats onmosque governing boards and for the removal of barriers inprayer halls, not all agree. Many women feel comfortable with abarrier -- whether it be a curtain or wall -- because it offersprivacy during prayer.


Some religious scholars argue that the separation is notbased in the origins of Islam, or its traditions. Muslim menand women pray together in Saudi Arabia each year during theannual pilgrimage in Mecca, one of the five duties Muslims mustfulfill during their lifetime.

As the controversy in Western societies has become moreheated over women's rights, learned Islamic theologians haveissued fatwas on the matter. Many oppose ending the separationbetween men and women that has become common in prayer roomsinside Western mosques.

Many of the world's religions face debate over the positionof women, such as whether Roman Catholicism should allow femalepriests or the role of females in worship in Orthodox Judaism,where women are also separated from men during services.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council onAmerican-Islamic Relations, the Washington-based lobbying groupthat published the booklet and is distributing it, said womenshould be able to use the publication to force changes.

Written by the Islamic Social Services Associations Inc.and Women in Islam Inc., the booklet repeatedly quotes theKoran on women's rights and says that at the time of theProphet Mohammad mosques were a center of community life where"all were welcome."

Mattson, who teaches at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut,said it is rare for women in India and Pakistan to enter amosque but common in much of the Arab world. Because Muslims inNorth Americas come from so many different ethnic backgrounds,she added, "there has been a lot of controversy on how theyshould be divided and the place of women."

Asra Nomani, a U.S. author and journalist who incurred thewrath of many Muslim leaders earlier this year when sheorganized a prayer service led by a woman, said the booklet is"revolutionary" and "an example of how America can be a shininglight to the rest off the Muslim world."

Hesham Hassballa, a spokesman for the Council of IslamicOrganizations of Greater Chicago, said "I welcome the change... you cannot be a healthy community with women excluded."

Hooper's group says there are about 7 million Muslims inthe United States, 2 to 3 percent of the population, thoughother estimates have placed the figure lower.

The booklet may be found on-line in two sections athttp:/www.cair-net.org/pdf/intro.pdf andhttp:/www.cair-net.org/pdf/text.pdf.