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Women’s Mosque? Women’s Empowerment?

By Khalid Baig

The Women’s Mosque of America has started operations in Los Angeles. It is not a mosque per se, but the name of a non-profit organization. It began with holding female only Jumuah prayers, in an old synagogue with Stars of David etched on the stained glass windows. The decision to use this venue was made to "promote peace." 

Creating a separate space for Muslim women is a noble idea. Unfortunately the organizers chose the one event for this project for which it has no basis in the Shariah. Muslim women are not required to offer Jumuah. They are allowed but not required. (They can offer the Dhuhr prayer instead.) Further by consensus of scholars of all schools, Muslim women are not allowed to lead Jumuah prayers or deliver Jumuah Khutbahs. Not surprisingly the project met with disapproval from the great majority of local Muslim scholars who objected exactly on this ground. The women who prayed there were advised to still offer their Dhuhr prayer as the prayer obligation remained undischarged.[1]

But there is a larger issue that has not been discussed. One wonders what the officers of this corporation would think of establishing a women only school or women only college. Obviously if women need access to Islamic education in an exclusive space, then would not a daily regular school be far superior to a twenty minute sermon delivered once a month? Alas their future programs make no mention of such a plan. On the contrary other programs will be coed.

It is also interesting to see the media reaction. This was a media event and all the big names were there. And they were excited. From the Los Angeles Times to the Wall Street Journal, from ABC news to Fox News, everyone praised this as a historic event. It was considered a key development in empowerment of Muslim women. “Maybe we could get a female Luther out of this,” Los Angeles Times reported an excited congregant as saying.

The question that we must ask is what the media reaction would be if the organizers had opened a women’s only college instead. Would that be considered a historic event that would open the doors to scholarship for Muslim women? Would that be praised by the same media as a space “where Muslim women can 'bring their whole self,' learn more about their faith and foster bonds of sisterhood?”

It is more likely that this would be ridiculed as a step backwards, as another sign of oppression of Muslim women.

Why? Why the same act is praiseworthy in one case and blameworthy in the other?  The answer may be that it is flouting the traditions and well established Islamic teachings in one case and complying with them in the other. The first act is therefore considered empowering and the other enslaving. The hypocrisy has a rationale!

It may be therefore empowering to deconstruct the notion of "women's empowerment" itself.

The sad fact is that we are caught up in the discourse of empowerment. Everyone these days is for "women's empowerment." And it is taboo to question this dogma. But let us ask, where does this word come from? Does it come from the Islamic discourse or its textual sources? The Qur'an does not talk about "women's empowerment." Neither does Hadith. Neither does the Islamic literature produced by authorities and scholars of varied persuasions over the centuries. If in doubt please tell me what is the Arabic term for "empowerment" and where do you find it in the Islamic textual sources?

Women's empowerment is a term foreign to Islamic discourse. And like other foreign terms it has to be examined carefully before we start using it and submit to its dictates.

Let us face it: It is a foreign term. And like other foreign terms it has to be examined carefully before we start using it and submit to its dictates.

The term as used today comes from the feminist discourse. And it brings with it the entire feminist agenda. Simply stated, the ideology of women's empowerment means establishing an absolute-no-holds-barred-equality between men and women. Dozens of international organizations are devoted to promoting “women's empowerment” and use the term interchangeably with “gender equality” and “gender mainstreaming.” At a more basic level it means fighting for your rights. As American feminist Gloria Steinem said, “Power can be taken, but not given. The process of the taking is empowerment in itself.”

Let us contrast this with Islamic history.

The pre-Islamic Meccan society, like all Jahiliyya societies then and now, had its share of the weak and the downtrodden. Women were oppressed. So were slaves. Anyone belonging to another tribe was discriminated against. Did the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, go to them and say I have come to empower you? Did he invite them to start an empowerment movement? If he did, the seerah and Hadith books do not record it. Rather his message to everyone was, "Become a believer and you will be successful." The promise was falah, the eternal and ultimate success, to be achieved through iman (faith) and taqwa (righteous action performed with the fear of displeasing Allah). To men and women, to slaves and masters, the rich and poor, Arabs and non-Arabs, the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, said one thing:

يَأَيُّهَا النَّاسُ ، قُولُوا : لا إِلَهَ إِلا اللَّهُ تُفْلِحُوا

"O people, say there is no god but Allah and you will be successful." Belief in Allah and submission to His commands were the road to falah.

The society that was so built did eliminate the injustices to the slaves and women and the poor and all the downtrodden people. But the path to that uplifting was not through the talk of empowerment. Rather it was through an exactly opposite strategy. Islam did not urge women to fight for their rights; it urged the men to discharge their responsibilities toward the women, fearing Allah. It did not urge the poor to fight for their rights; it urged the wealthy to discharge their responsibilities toward the poor, fearing Allah. It also urged the women to discharge their responsibilities toward their husbands. In fact it changed the focus of everyone from their rights to their responsibilities. For in the Hereafter we'll be held accountable for our responsibilities, not our rights. If we were shortchanged on our rights here, we will be fully compensated there. But if we were negligent in discharging other’s rights on us, we will have to pay heavily for it there. Needless to say, with everyone concerned with their responsibilities, the rights of the others are automatically secured. Further, with justice being a supreme goal of Islam, redressing injustices becomes everyone’s job not just those of the victims. With this approach Islam obtained justice in the society but without the incessant friction and disharmony that is an essential result of an ongoing fight. It uplifted women without instituting a perpetual gender war. As Imam Zaid Shakir notes: “Islam has never advocated a liberationist philosophy.”

Islam uplifted women without instituting a perpetual gender war. It never advocated a liberationist philosophy.

The language of empowerment is diametrically opposed to it. It makes everyone focus on their rights, not their responsibilities. The battle cry is, watch out for yourself for no one else will. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. With no one being primarily concerned with discharging their responsibilities, securing your rights becomes a lifelong struggle. You will only get those rights for which you fight. Hence the perpetual campaign for women's empowerment.

What has that led to? The exact opposite of what it aimed at. The empowerment rhetoric did not end exploitation of women; it actually has opened exciting new avenues for it. As Dr. Brooke Magnanti wrote in the Telegraph, “Too often the word is used as a smokescreen for increasing consumerism, a cousin of L'Oreal's 'because you're worth it' whereby you can presumably empower yourself by buying shoes and pretty little journals, which is somehow worthier than simply buying things because you need or like these things. Or worse still, by landing some 9-to-5 corporate grinding job.”[2]

But it has done much more. It has destroyed the home and family beyond recognition. Even more, it has drastically changed men and women. Here are the words of Father John McCloskey, a Catholic priest lamenting the disaster that this world has faced.

There is something radically wrong with the family and the relationship between the sexes in the West as we rapidly approach the third millennium of the Christian era... Indeed it would be hard to find similar situations in history, unless it be the pre-Christian paganism of the Roman Empire (cf. St. Paul's Letter to the Romans l: ll-20) or the behavior of the barbarian hordes of central Asia as they poured into a weak and decadent empire... Today, in societies that are nominally Christian, we witness the phenomenon of women who do not act like women, nor men like men, nor families like families. Codes of moral behavior that have made the family the central unit of society and have been the "guardrails" of civilization for centuries have been discarded as antiquated."[3]

If we blindly follow the talk of women's empowerment, we will also be headed to this lizard's hole. Or we can follow the path of falah shown by the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam and say goodbye to the borrowed language and borrowed ideologies.

The Women’s Mosque organization was started by two ladies, a comedy writer and a lawyer, as a reaction to their “mistreatment” at some other mosque. The “mistreatment” consisted in somebody in that mosque gently pointing them upstairs to a separate area for women.  They apparently thought that the separate upstairs space that had been provided was beneath them. One wonders if that is the attitude of a humble servant of God. In reaction they organized an event that violated the commands of the same God whom they so desperately wanted to serve. And they started a first ever “protest mosque.”

Among other firsts, it also encouraged women to “enter the mosque in the type and style of clothing in which they feel comfortable.” In other words it decreed that Islam does not prescribe any dress code for prayers. Anyone who thought otherwise was asked to keep their opinions to themselves. It asked that no woman should remind another woman to, say, cover her head while praying. If the mosque was a consecrated space which imposed its own rules of decorum and proper conduct, including dignified and modest attire, the “Women’s Mosque” had nothing to do with that.

Such is the tragedy when we become consumed by our desires. These ladies and their sympathizers would do well to listen to the words of Imam Zaid Shakir: “Our fulfillment does not lie in our liberation, rather it lies in the conquest of our soul and its base desires. That conquest only occurs through our enslavement to God.”

The empowerment rhetoric did not end exploitation of women; it actually has opened exciting new avenues for it.

Does Islam ask the women to get sacred knowledge? Absolutely. And today, unlike the bleak picture painted by the marketing department of Women’s Mosque, women are very active in seeking religious knowledge. They are doing it from their homes over the phone and Internet; in gatherings arranged at private homes; in schools established for this purpose. And they are doing it in mosques as well. There are some institutions who have thousands of women studying with them from their homes. They are studying Arabic, Hadith, Fiqh, Qur’an, and so on. May Allah bless these efforts and multiply them. This is the right answer to the problem of women education. Not a Jumuah khutbah delivered by a woman once a month.

The organizers of the Women’s Mosque are right that for proper education women need a safe space where they are by themselves. Where they can discuss their problems freely, get inspired by other sisters, and seek both emotional and intellectual fulfillment from them. Where they do not have to act like men or compete with them. Where women can be women. If one is guided by Islamic teachings and not the talk of empowerment then one could easily see that it should lead to the development of female only schools, colleges, and youth groups.


[1] For a detailed discussion of the fiqhi ruling on women leading prayers, see Imam Zaid Shakir’s article at http://www.newislamicdirections.com/nid/articles/female_prayer_leadership_revisited. But the matter is simple to understand even without a detailed technical discussion. Dr. Salman Nadvi, who headed the Islamic Studies department at the University of Durban until his retirement and who is the son of the illustrious scholar Allama Sulaiman Nadvi, said: “If Allah wanted women to lead their own Jumuah prayers He would have asked the Prophet to order this and would have asked the Ummahat al-Mu’mineen to lead the prayers.”

[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/journalists/dr-brooke-magnanti/

[3] http://www.catholicity.com/mccloskey/singlesexedu.html