You would have to be on a desert island to not know about the Duggar family who have been showcased on The Learning Channel (TLC). Jim Bob and Michelle have more than replaced themselves in this crowded world by adding 19 children to it. Of course, in some parts of the world, 19 isn’t unheard of. (And get this, the record number of children born to one woman is 69!*) But it’s rarity for the U.S.
What makes the Duggars particularly noteworthy is the reason they have so many children: They belong to the QuiverFull movement, which believes that it is God’s will for a woman to have as many children as she is able to. Contraception, even natural family planning, is a sin. (There’s also a group called Blessed Arrows which is for those who have been sterilized where they can “make amends for their sin” by getting reversals.)
Devotees of the QuiverFull movement teach that children are a blessing from God and that attempting to avoid a pregnancy is a subversion of God’s will. Everything is in God’s hands: the health of the mother or baby, the emotional and financial resources necessary to support another child, and the “so-called” problems of over-population and over-consumption. Obviously, they are against abortion, which puts them at odds with most feminists. That’s not the only thing that alarms feminists, however. They also preach that the man is the head of the household and the wife is to be submissive to him in all things. They blame all the ills of society on women wanting their own way, especially over their own bodies, which are meant to be a “living sacrifice” to God.
I was asked yesterday what subject really needs to be addressed when it comes to Muslim women in North America. I’d like to say that the most important issue is how to communicate our faith. Or inspire respect. Or dispel negative stereotypes. What I did say was something that ties into all three: the way that a Muslim woman dresses.
That seems superficial in the broad scheme of things. But the reality is, it’s a huge problem for Muslims. Not that all Muslim women dress “Islamically.” But for women who do “cover,” even walking down the street can be a challenge.
First I should explain what I mean by dressing Islamically and covering. There are a lot of opinions about what exactly a Muslim woman should wear but the general consensus is that she should be modest. That means no midriff-baring tops and jeans, no miniskirts, low necklines or skin-tight clothes. The most traditional Muslim believes that everything should be covered but the hands and feet. Some even interpret that to mean that the entire face should be covered as well, but they are definitely in the minority.
Last Thursday I wrote a post called “Muslim Feminism: Women at Prayer.” It was about a group of Muslim women who dared to pray in the men’s section (which is really the main hall of the mosque and should be open to every Muslim) as a sort of protest. Today I found an insightful article on altmuslimah which gives more background on the “pray-in.” I’ve recently had the privilege of getting to know Fatima Thompson, one of the women who participated in and who is interviewed about the protest. She is quoted as saying:
“The Greensboro Four broke established, non-constitutional, yet explicit rules to break down the barrier of the implicit idea that blacks weren’t as privileged as whites…. and this is what we are doing with women’s rights in the mosque,” Thompson explained. “It’s implicit in the space available to women that they aren’t deserving of the same privileges as men in the mosque. It’s in the mindset.”
She added: ”Women need to be communicated with when designing mosques. Women are clearly cut off from being part of that community when they are corralled into areas that cut them off from congregational prayer.”
In the first woman-designed mosque in the world (in Istanbul), women are still separated from the men on a balustrade above the main hall (which is still reserved for the men), but the leading architect, Zeynep Fadillioglu, vows to make their area every bit as beautiful as the men’s. Too often, the women’s section is a dingy, neglected room behind a partition from which the women can’t even see and often can’t hear what is going on in the main hall. So, although there is still a separate space for women, it is integrated more fully into the mosque’s design. (For pictures of and more information about this mosque, go here.)
I was talking to a Muslim man last night to whom I confessed that I’ve only been to a mosque twice. He teased me, “Once women find out that they are not obligated to go to the mosque for jumaa (Friday) prayer, they stop going at all.” I couldn’t help but think that it might be because they dislike the experience they have when they do go. If Muslim men truly cared about the spiritual lives of Muslim women, you would think that they would want to do anything possible to make their mosque experience as uplifting as it is for the men.
Insha’allah. (God willing.)
Read this article by the religion reporter for the Statesman, Joshunda Sanders, about her visit to a mosque.
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. [quote]
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.