It was true. I had witnessed the marginalization of women in many parts of Muslim society. But my parents had taught me that I wasn't meant to be marginal. Nor did I believe that Islam expected that of me. I began researching that question, and I found scholarly evidence overwhelmingly concludes that mosques that bar women from the main prayer space aren't Islamic. They more aptly reflect the age of ignorance, or Jahiliya, in pre-Islamic Arabia. "Women's present marginalization in the mosque is a betrayal of what Islam had promised women and [what] was realized in the early centuries," says Asma Afsaruddin, a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame.
The prophet himself prayed with women. And when he heard that some men positioned themselves in the mosque to be closer to an attractive woman, his solution wasn't to ban women but to admonish the men. In Medina, during the prophet's time and for some years thereafter, women prayed in the prophet's mosque without any partition between them and the men. Historians record women's presence in the mosque and participation in education, in political and literary debates, in asking questions of the prophet after his sermons, in transmitting religious knowledge and in providing social services. After the prophet's death, his wife Aisha related anecdotes about his life to scribes in the mosque. And Abdullah bin Umar, a leading companion of the Prophet and a son of Omar bin al- Khattab, the second caliph, or leader of Islam, reprimanded his son for trying to prevent women from going to the mosque. "By the third century of Islam, many [women's] rights slowly began to be whittled away as earlier Near Eastern . . . notions of female propriety and seclusion began to take hold," said Afsaruddin.
One of the issues working against American Muslim women -- an issue not much discussed outside the Muslim community -- is the de facto takeover of many U.S. mosques by conservative and traditionalist Muslims, many from the Arab world. Most of these are immigrants, many of them students, who follow the strict Wahhabi and Salafi schools of Islam, which largely exclude women from public spaces. They stack our mosque library with books printed by the government of Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabi teachings reign. Here in Morgantown, students from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, mostly male and conservative, were virtually nonexistent 10 years ago. More precisely, there were three. Today there are 55, and their wives regularly glide through the local Wal-Mart wearing black abayas, or gowns. (Ironically, the Saudi government says that partitions and separate rooms aren't required in mosques.)
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