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New generation of Muslim-American women inspire change in mosques

New generation of Muslim-American women inspire change in mosques

by The Stream Team@ajamstream

As stories of gender exclusion in mosques emerge, some young Muslims have begun to call their places of worship into question to encourage reform. According to a 2013 Hartford Institute study, 63 percent of mosques scored “fair” or “poor” on a ‘women-friendly’ scale.

Hind Makki, a Chicago-based blogger, was inspired to take a stand after she began to notice that Muslim women were being pushed out of sanctuaries in her community.

She started a blog called Side Entrance, which serves as an open forum for Muslims to show the perspective and experiences of women and their prayer spaces in mosques. The description for the blog reads: “We show the beautiful, the adequate and the pathetic.”

In an interview with The Stream, Makki recalled a friend’s experience praying in the basement of a mosque during Ramadan. “The space smelled of mold and was not air-conditioned, prompting several women to pray in the main sanctuary behind the men,” she explained. The imam interrupted their prayer and threatened to call the police if they did not leave.

Makki’s story is not an isolated one.

Edina Lekovic, Director of Policy and Programming at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said she began to notice a generational shift towards female inclusivity in mosques a few years ago. “For younger generations of women, their prayer space carries more meaning symbolically than older generations,” she said in a phone interview with The Stream.

She pointed to the new space at University of Southern California as a positive example of gender inclusion. “The Muslim Student Association called for a space where men and women could pray side by side. To see USC make that move, really bodes well for how things are changing.”

But according to Rukshanda Majeed, a 23-year-old mother who resides in Chicago, women praying behind men in the same room is not a symbol of inequality, but rather a way to focus on worship and not face any distractions from prostrating in front of men.

Majeed described her personal experience in an interview with The Stream: “I actually have never had an experience where I felt excluded. In Oklahoma City, for example, which is a small community, it has an amazing women’s facility. They have the doors open so you can see the imam, and the doors are closed whenever you want to have a women’s gathering to talk about Islam and Islamic knowledge.”

Yasmin Mogahed, a prominent Muslim-American speaker and writer, added that many Muslim women do not mind praying separately from men, especially for mothers who want a private space with their children to avoid interruptions during prayer.

Mogahed points to certain cultures where women traditionally pray at home. “As women become more integrated and attend mosques more, the mosques have adjusted. This movement is framed as a reform movement, but it’s more of a revival movement. The example of the Prophet was very inclusive.”

The blog Side Entrance speaks to only a small piece of a much larger issue. Although the vast majority of mosques in America have women serving on their board, there are still mosques that bar women from leadership roles.

The graph below shows the percentage of women serving on the boards of mosques:

Lekovic says women are getting mixed messages. “They’re being groomed to be leaders and to become young professionals at home, but then not getting the same validation in mosques.”

According to the Islamic Society of North America, advocates are pushing to recruit more women for leadership roles in Islamic centers and mosques.

Makki said that when mosques neglect the concerns of their female constituents, women and families are less likely to attend. Mosques with women on the board boast congregations with an average of 20 percent female attendance, while mosques without women on the board have only a 13 percent female attendance rate.

Men, too, offer differing opinions with regards to female inclusivity in mosques. Older generation Muslim men and imams, according to Makki, have been giving her positive feedback. She says that younger men, on the other hand, worry that Makki’s call for change is only giving fodder to “Islamophobes,” and “demonizes young Muslims.”

“I’m incredibly sensitive to Islamophobia and what it has done to our community, but it’s not reason enough to ignore the fact that mosques aren’t doing a good job of welcoming women,” she said.

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