Women-only mosque aims to build female authority in Islam

 Several women brought their daughters to the inaugural service of the Women's Mosque of America, which took place inside of a Jewish Synagogue. Rebecca Gibian/The GroundTruth Project

Several women brought their daughters to the inaugural service of the Women's Mosque of America, which took place inside of a Jewish Synagogue. Rebecca Gibian/The GroundTruth Project

By Rebecca Gibian and Christan Brown. Originally published on Global Post

LOS ANGELES — Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, young M. Hasna Maznavi had a long-standing dream. The devout Muslim girl wanted to build a mosque.

Because men and women typically pray in separate places within the mosque, with men given more direct access to the imam, Maznavi said she felt her gender segregated her in the house of prayer she loved so much.

“I grew up in a great mosque, but men would run towards me to tell me the women’s section is upstairs,” said Maznavi. “I felt disconnected with God himself. That’s when my disillusionment with the mosque experience began.”

The 29-year-old’s dream became a reality on Jan. 30 when she co-launched what is believed to be the first all-female mosque in the United States: the Women’s Mosque of America.

On that day, more than 100 women, as well as a few children, attended the first Friday prayers, known as jumuʿah. Edina Lekovic, who led the first sermon, called upon the community to understand that the opening of this mosque was bigger than those gathered before her.

Lekovic read a prayer that urged all the women to step up within the community and to continue having important discussions outside of the mosque. “Go forth and strive and struggle whether you are equipped lightly or heavily,” she read in both English and Arabic.

After the service, the women sat in a circle on the floor for a question-and-answer session. Some in jeans, some dressed more formally, and all wearing head scarves, the women asked about the service, voiced concerns about which prayers should be read and expressed joy about the mosque’s opening.

“It’s about our spirituality,” said Nia Malika Dixon, who came to the service looking for fellowship with other Muslim women. “We’re united in sisterhood and that was my motivation for participating. I thought to seek my own spirituality with sisters.”

The mosque is housed in a multicultural, interfaith center that is also home to several Jewish and Christian groups.

For Maznavi, who works as a comedy screenwriter by day, the inclusiveness and equality of the Women’s Mosque is part of a larger Islamic movement to restore female authority to the faith.

“When we talk about Islamic history, women’s leadership is vital,” she said. “The first Muslim was a woman — the wife of the prophet Muhammad, Khadija. She was instrumental in the founding period of Islam.”

Other prominent Muslim women in the Quran — such as Muhammad’s second wife Aisha, who became a respected Muslim scholar and narrator — inspire Maznavi, who believes male leaders removed the female influence from Islam with the codification of Sharia law. Known as the “Mother of the Believers,” Aisha helped serve the Muslim community for 44 years after Muhammad’s death.

“The woman’s voice was left out in the period after Muhammad’s death and the equalities started to wear away,” said Maznavi. “But I hope he’d be proud of what we’re doing.”

Sana Muttalib, Maznavi’s co-president at the mosque, said she shares similar goals. Muttalib and Maznavi met through a shared friend and connected immediately.

“[The Women’s Mosque] will open up access to the female perspective of Islam and the Quran, which I think is really important and really beneficial to the community,” said Muttalib after the inaugural service. “For me personally, I had stopped going to [mosque] a while back because I didn’t find a space that was fitting for me, and I just feel incredible joy at knowing that there is a space I can be a part of.”

Muttalib said she knows many women who have left co-ed mosques because they did not feel welcome, or because they didn’t connect with the male voices speaking to them. She believes the creation of the Women’s Mosque allows many of these women to return.

“There is some scholarly debate as to whether a woman can lead a service, because some people believe there is no precedent,” said Muttalib. “We believe that there is precedent, that there’s a good amount of precedent, actually, for women leading prayer, coming from the time of the prophet.”

According to Hussam Ayloush, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), there’s no religious prohibition for women to lead prayer with other women. He said the controversy comes when women lead prayer in a mixed mosque.

Ayloush added that he sees a women’s mosque as a short-term solution to imbalanced gender dynamics in Muslim houses of worship, and he would like a long-term solution that improves gender equality in co-ed mosques.

“If this becomes a long-term solution, it becomes a port of shame that we were not able to resolve or address that inequality that might exist at some of the mosques,” he said. “It will deny us the experience of having diverse mosques — age and gender and ethnicity — something that makes that experience full. The full experience is being able to interact together in that mosque, men and women, young and old.”

He continued, “That’s what enriches the experience at the mosque. I would hate to see each group separating itself from the other to have the full attention it deserves.”

The youngest of four children, Maznavi recalls a traditional Muslim upbringing, attending prayer services on Fridays and learning how to recite the Quran from an after-school tutor during the week. Maznavi never doubted Islam until al Qaida carried out the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I became curious. I heard so many things about Islam during that time,” she said. “At 15, I picked up the Quran and read it. I expected to read hellfire and damnation, but every chapter talked about how loving, kind and beautiful God is.”

In the age of the self-declared Islamic State, news about kidnappings, abuse and murder perpetrated by IS has often overwhelmed more nuanced discussions of Islam’s role in the world — while increasing pressure on Muslims to denounce terrorism.

Ayloush says that the world is already polarized between those who believe that Muslims should be held responsible for the actions of IS extremists and those who do not lump all of Islam into one singular group.

“When we hear more and more of that news, there are more people who are pushed away from the center, who are more entrenched in believing the negative stereotypes of Islam and Muslims,” said Ayloush.

Maznavi believes the actions of IS threaten the work she and other Muslims are doing to spread peace and equality around the world.

“We’re scared of Muslim extremists too. … A lot of these groups are taking verses out of context,” she said. “Most mosques are very welcoming to everyone outside the community.”

To anyone who doubts the sincerity of peaceful Muslims, Maznavi offers simple advice: “Get to know who we actually are and turn off the TV.”

She said other American Muslims are proud of what she and Muttalib have accomplished, shown by a wellspring of support that has flooded her inbox.

“Three different mosques offered to host us and one imam wrote that he tried to start this at his own mosque, but the culture was difficult,” said Muttalib. “We’re trying to allow all our congregants to feel spoken to and included.”

Lekovic focused her opening sermon on what she described as a sisterhood sitting before her, acknowledging that more work must be done in order to spread the mosque’s message.

“People have come from far places because they are yearning for spiritual nourishment from other people,” said Lekovic. “We need to go back to other mosques and feed them and work with them and tell them what we need.”

“A safe space for women is profoundly important, especially in connection with God,” said Rabbi Kerry Chaplin, who participated in the prayer service to support the work Maznavi and Muttalib have done. “When we’re not safe, we’re not able to create enough space for God.”

Chaplin is a member of the 2015 Young Professionals’ Fellowship of NewGround, a Muslim-Jewish service organization that seeks to advance relations between the two faiths. Chaplin believes the Women’s Mosque allows women to truly devote their energies to God without distraction.

“It felt like prayer [inside]. It felt like empowerment,” Chaplin said. “I got to see the dream manifested in [Maznavi’s] voice, on her face, with the community, and it was beautiful.”

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