Muslim Feminism: Women At Prayer

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The main question I’ve been asked since I became a Muslim has been, “How do you reconcile being a Muslim with being a feminist?” The answer is complex and I won’t go into all of it today. But one part of the answer is that any woman can be a feminist, if being one means that you want to see women find self-fulfillment on whatever path they choose to travel. That doesn’t mean that every journey is easy. Certainly if you come from a culture where women have been traditionally marginalized and you want to continue to be a part of that culture, you’re going to find the going tough. Does that mean that you shouldn’t try? No, but it might mean that you have to weigh your options carefully and be sure of your convictions before you proceed.

The main question I've been asked since I became a Muslim has been, "How do you reconcile being a Muslim with being a feminist?"

I decided to write about this today because of an article by Tracy Clark-Flory I ran across on Salon.com in its Broadsheet department: “Muslims protest sexism with prayer.” In it Clark-Flory recounts the story of Muslim women who dared to pray on the main floor of a mosque in Washington, D.C. Why is that a big deal? For one thing, they were praying with the men and not behind a partition in an area reserved for women. For another thing, they risked arrest to do so. I would say that this is Muslim feminism in action, whether or not these women would identify themselves as feminists.

Segregation during prayer

What is my take on their actions? While I haven’t prayed often in a mosque (yet), when I have, I’ve been relegated to the women’s room along with the other women. The main negative feeling I had was irritation, because it was sometimes hard to hear what was being said on the main floor (which of course is the men’s area) and as a result, it was also hard to feel that I was a part of what was going on, which after all, is supposed to be a communal act of prayer. At the same time, it didn’t bother me all that much because of the feeling of sisterhood I had from being there with the other women. Not to mention that I was more intent on getting my own prayers right than on where I was praying.

Women are too noisy

One Muslim man once told me that women make too much noise during prayer and that’s one reason why men don’t want them praying in the same room. But maybe women tend to be noisy because they don’t take what they’re doing as seriously as the men do, exactly because the men don’t take what the women do as seriously. What does it really matter if the women make a little noise if they’re not even supposed to be there? (There are a few mosques that don’t allow women to even enter the building.) Then there is the problem of children who are of course with the women (at least until the boys are considered old enough to pray with the men). Children tend to be noisy, too, but the men don’t have to and don’t want to deal with that. They don’t want anything to distract them from their prayers.

Women are distractions

Women are also considered to be distractions because they might cause the men to think impure thoughts when they’re supposed to be praying. I get that. Women can be distracted by men as well. If the goal is total concentration, then there is something to be said for the separation of the sexes during prayer. Having said that, I don’t see why adults can’t be trusted to try harder to keep their minds on Allah instead of on each other. Then again, one of the things that attracted me to Islam is that it is so pragmatic about human nature. We do tend to get distracted, pretty easily as a matter of fact. So why make it harder for us to concentrate?

I’m still a feminist, so now I’m a Muslim feminist. That doesn’t mean that I advocate crashing the men’s prayers. I don’t think at all badly of women who sincerely feel that their spiritual lives are made fuller by being able to pray in the main hall of the mosque. I may be one of them someday. But for now I’m content to follow my path to spiritual fulfillment. And to concentrate on my prayers, without distractions.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

5 thoughts on “Muslim Feminism: Women At Prayer”

  1. hello i am a revert muslim man and i just want you to know that i liked the article. i live in scottsdale arizona and the woman are in the same room just on separate mats beside the men. i was told it was because they dont wan it so women are bending over in front of men. i love my mosque though. and just to clear the air not all muslim men look down on women. i believe women are the greatest thing in this world. it is said to kill a man is to kill a nation but to kill a woman is to kill the earth. i dont know how i ended up on this site.lol. not taking any sides not saying whos right and whos wrong just remember that its easier to understand why someone thinks or acts a certain way if you try to understand where they are coming from and that goes for everyone. Asalam Alakium my sisters

    1. Thank you, brother, for your thoughtful comments. I know that not all Muslim men look down on women; in fact, all the Muslim men I know personally hold women in high esteem. You sound like one of them, alhamdulillah! Your mosque sounds progressive in that they allow men and women to be in the same room. All the mosques I’ve been to have separate rooms for the women, and sometimes even a separate entrance. I’m glad you’ve found a good environment. May Allah bless you in your journey!

  2. I LOVE that you centered this around prayer first. It is lovely. I quit dressing up when I go to church because I spent all my time comparing myself to the other ladies. When I started going “plain” I started praying and listening much better. It WAS a distraction for me and in order to fulfill my prayer life, I eliminated the distraction the best I could. For ME.
    I have learned a long time ago not to judge outside issues since they do not affect my life, I normally don’t know what I am judging anyway and it’s best left to those who do know!
    This is a beautiful piece.

  3. Some mosques in Britain (whose Muslim population is mostly Desi — or “Asian” in British ethnic parlance) don’t allow women in at all — you may be interested in the programme Women Only Jihad about a campaign to change this, run by the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK.

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