Last week, a group of Muslim women launched a new Women's Mosque of America project in Los Angeles and held its first women-only Friday congregational prayer. Before you support or oppose this move, consider the following seven important factors.
1) The marginalization of women is real, including in the American Muslim community. Despite Islam's teachings of gender equality, many mosques and other Muslim-run organizations continue to deny women equal and fair access to space, services, programs, and leadership roles. Such practices are rooted in faulty cultural and non-mainstream interpretations. It should not come as a surprise that some Muslim women lost patience waiting for the community to address those practices of exclusion and marginalization and decided to create their own welcoming space. Everyone's patience has a limit. It took courage for those Muslim women to offer a solution rather than allow for the status quo to continue. Kudos to them.
2) In many Muslim communities in the U..S., the situation is not that grim. A large number of mosques and Muslim organizations have taken major positive measures to ensure gender equality and partnership at all levels within their organizations. Those mosques and organizations are striving hard to ensure that they provide a space where all segment of the community feel equally welcome and empowered. For example, I am proud to work for CAIR where our national chairperson, our state chapter chairperson (my boss), and many of our nationwide offices are led by highly qualified and effective leaders who are women. A growing number of our mosques, including the largest one in Southern California, the Islamic Society of Orange County, are led by a woman. And there are many more examples, not only of women in leadership positions in Muslim institutions, but of mosques that provide equal space and access for women, following the example of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
3) From an Islamic or practical perspective, there is nothing wrong with women choosing to set up their own space to address their spiritual needs in an environment that provides them comfort, privacy, and full access to all events and services. There are women-only gyms, spas, schools, colleges, salons, and swimming pools, so why not a masjid/mosque? In the short term, a mosque for women only can help address the immediate challenges that Muslim women are facing at some mosques. A few women-only mosques already exist in China and India.
4) As a matter of long term interest, I oppose a female-only mosque for the same reasons I oppose a male-only mosque. As we learn from the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), mosques are meant to be a space where all segments of the Muslim community and even the larger community -- men and women, young and old, rich and poor, immigrant and indigenous, Muslims and others, etc. -- can equally benefit from and feel welcome. It should be the space where all can come to nourish and fulfill their religious, spiritual, intellectual, and social needs. Separate, exclusive physical spaces might help address temporary gaps, but will never provide the comprehensive experience that an ordinary, inclusive mosque was intended to offer. It is in the community's interest to genuinely and promptly address the injustices at our mosques so no one would feel the need to establish their own separate ones.
5) But what are the risks? Well, imagine if every time a segment of our community genuinely feels marginalized at our mosques and decides to split into its own exclusive mosque. We might soon have, not only women-only mosques, but also the Syrian-only, Latino-only, Black-only, Egyptian-only, Pakistani-only, Memon-only, Palestinian-only, White-only, new convert-only, working class-only, ... (you get the gist) mosques. What would then happen to the Muslim community and its universal message of equality and unity? Would you want to live or raise your children in a segregated community like that? I certainly would not. Rather than accepting this divided state, we must do the work to ensure that all members of our community know that the mosque is a place where they are valued the same as everyone else.
6) Woman-only mosques hide the problem rather than solve it. Intelligent, well-spoken, and assertive Muslim women leaving to their new mosques would weaken the voice for change and correction within our community and mosques. While those Muslim women might no longer have to deal with the inequalities, the community will be under less pressure to address the legitimate grievance of exclusion of women. Women-only mosques will provide a temporary band-aid for some, but will result in the avoidance of the real problem. Out of sight, out of mind.
7) The new women-only mosque is an opportunity. Let's have candid dialogues, not arguments or snap judgments, about this serious issue. We need to seriously discuss the inequalities that exist in our mosques and in our communities, the rightful and important role of women in Islam, the role of men in advancing gender equality, and the role of Muslim leaders and scholars in upholding Islam's teachings over cultural practices.