By Daood Hamdani
The North American mosque is evolving and redefining its purpose and practices. A recently-released report by a group of mainly Muslim organisations, The American Mosque 2011, provides the first factual glimpse into changes in North American mosques. Initially serving primarily as a place to perform religious rituals, mosques are developing into community building institutions.
Mosques have established programs geared towards youth, take part in volunteer and community service activities, and mosque leaders have made strides in interfaith outreach. Despite these developments, mosques still struggle with fully embracing one-half of their own community: women.
There is historical precedent for women’s full inclusion in mosque life, however. Early Muslim settlers in the United States and Canada were quick to establish roots in their adopted homelands. They found opportunity for a new beginning – a privilege and responsibility possible for few generations – and set up accepting and inclusive religious institutions.
Al-Rashid Mosque, built in 1938 in Edmonton, Canada and founded by both men and women, was one of the first North American institutions of its kind. It created an inclusive community where young men and women met their future life partners, social issues were discussed and leaders were nurtured. Women played a key role in establishing this community, which valued their voices equally with men’s.
Women have been increasingly integrated into the religious life of the community, as exemplified by the Noor Cultural Centre in Toronto which has been managed by women since it opened in 2003. A children’s playroom, a private room for breastfeeding and separate washrooms cater to the needs of women and mothers and ensure that women have the opportunity to join congregational prayers. Male and female worshippers stand side by side in columns, following the protocol observed in Islam’s holiest site, the Ka’aba in Mecca.
However, mosques such as these are rare. Beginning in the 1970s, a rise in immigration led to an increase both in the number of Muslims and the variety of cultural and religious practices related to Islam. With the passing of time, gender segregation became a common practice in mosques, with very few imams working against that norm.
An overwhelming majority of imams in North America were born and educated in more conservative societies, some of which impose a rigid separation of sexes. Nearly 85 per cent of the full-time paid imams, who usually lead bigger mosques, only arrived in North America in the last decade, and many of them struggle with how to address the needs of the North American Muslim community.
Since the 1970s, female Muslim worshippers have endured isolation behind partitions and quietly chafed at some mosque leaders’ indifference. And in 2003, the controversy spilled into the national news media when a young woman, Asra Nomani, was stopped from entering her local mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia through the male-only front entrance. Under pressure from Muslim civil rights groups, Morgantown mosque leaders grudgingly agreed to let women use the front door and pray in the main hall behind men.
The case at the Morgantown mosque is not unique. A 2005 study, Women-friendly mosques and community centers: working together to reclaim our heritage, a joint project sponsored by Canadian and American Muslim women, challenged the practice of isolating female worshippers from the rest of the congregation. Some of the other restrictions it exposed were separate entryways that included fire exits, a ban on using the main entrance, and disenfranchisement by denying women mosque membership or the right to vote or hold office.
Concerned about the demeaning conditions and their effect on young mosque-goers – who wondered how this treatment could be in sync with a religion that champions women’s rights – the study urged mosque leaders to act.
Once seen as a women’s cause, the drive for welcoming mosques is drawing in men and male scholars, and Muslim civil rights groups are also speaking up against gender segregation in mosques. Change is slow; however the pressure for it is building.
Daood Hamdani ([email protected]) is the author of The Al-Rashid: Canada’s First Mosque 1938 and In the Footsteps of Canadian Muslim Women 1867-2007.