Invisible Giants: On Women, Mosques, and Radical Activism by Juliane Hammer


hammerAt times, being ignored, erased, and made invisible, is more hurtful than open debate and disagreement. Such silencing and marginalization render the energy, activism, and work of so many people mute and, ultimately, they do not serve the communities and society we are attempting to change. In what follows I insist on uplifting and naming some of the radical Muslim activists and advocates for gender justice I saw ignored in a recent Muslim community event.

On Labor Day weekend, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) met for its annual convention in Chicago. On Friday evening, in a well-attended panel, ISNA unveiled (pun intended) its latest statement and campaign on “the inclusion of women in masjids” (places of worship) and issued a call and invitation to sign the statement and implement its central demands in mosques and community centers across the United States and Canada. Panelists at the launch included Hind Makki, the creator of Side Entrance, a tumblr collecting pictures of the various (good, bad and in between) accommodations for women in mosques, and member of the ISNA task force on the issue; Dr. Ingrid Mattson, professor of Islamic studies and former president of ISNA; Imam Mohamed Magid, also a former president of ISNA; Dr. Sarah Syeed, chair of the ISNA task force and Dr. Ihsan Bagy, another member of the task force.

The statement includes three main demands: women should be welcomed in mosques; women should have the opportunity to access and pray in the main prayer spaces in the mosque; and women should be included in the decision-making processes. The panelists repeatedly spoke of the importance of women in Muslim communities and of what would be lost if women did not participate and feel valued. They did acknowledge that there had been an earlier statement, a decade ago, that called for women-friendly mosques in quite similar terms and with similar arguments. This earlier statement was endorsed by a significant number of other American Muslim organizations and as this new one, was the result of months if not years of hard work by a group of activists, scholars, and community members concerned with the issue.

Ingrid Mattson pointed out in her short speech on the panel, that back in 2005, those involved in advocating for greater inclusion of women in American mosques were called names and were derided for causing fitna (discord and chaos) in the community. She spoke of the need for repentance on the part of those who attacked the supporters of greater inclusion and to take care to not repeat such mistakes. Hind Makki spoke eloquently of standing on the shoulders of giants in her work on the task force and specifically mentioned Aisha Al-Adawiya of Women in Islam, a New York based organization that had been deeply involved in crafting the 2005 statement. Al-Adawiya also served as a member of the task force this time. ISNA leaders and task force members then ceremonially signed the statement on stage.

I really did try to appreciate the efforts, the speeches, and in a way, I also appreciate the ISNA statement. I was, however, disappointed and dismayed that no one mentioned Dr. Amina Wadud, who, in March 2005, led a mixed-gender congregation Friday prayer in New York, Asra Nomani, the lead organizer of that prayer, or Laury Silvers, one of Muslims involved in a gender inclusive mosque in Toronto. It was as if acknowledging their work, their tears, and their contributions to this conversation and effort would taint the statement. When I inquired about this omission (gently, I swear) I was told that it was too important to achieve and then maintain community consensus and any mention of “progressive Muslims” would jeopardize that goal. I have argued in my writing on the woman-led Friday prayer in 2005 that the event played an important role in moving the debate about women, mosques, space and leadership forward and that that connection has been ignored. The women’s mosque initiative, launched in January 2015 in Los Angeles, albeit a very different radical space for (only) Muslim women, too, I suspect, has something to do with this 2015 ISNA initiative.

I go back and forth in my inner debate about meeting “the community” where it is (and working from there to be effective in our activism and involvement with that community) and insisting on much more radical commitments and putting them forward as such. Pushing our communities to at least acknowledge that it is often their most radical, courageous and yes, silenced and invisible, margins that move us forward, is a tiny step to work bridge that gap. It is precarious and wobbly to try and stand on one shoulder of one giant when there is a whole line of (invisible) shoulders to support change.

 

Juliane Hammer teaches Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research and teaching interests include gender and sexuality in contemporary Muslim societies, American Muslim communities, Sufism, and Muslim foodways. Recent books include American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More than a Prayer, and the co-edited Cambridge Companion to American Islam. She is currently working on two book projects, one on American Muslim efforts against domestic violence and one on American Muslim wedding and marriage practices. 

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Categories: Activism, General, Islam, Justice, Women's Voices

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20 replies

  1. Thanks for daring speaking out on this, when others are taking the easier road. It is just such dynamics that split feminists in religion into “faith camps” and isolated Mary Daly and other post-Christians from “mainstream” feminist conversations in religion–a situation that still exists today, with many Christians feminists being more willing to “dialogue” with feminist Muslims and Jews, than with Goddess feminists. It is about recognizing on whose shoulders we stand and it is also about recognizing with whom we wish to stand–in the case of your blog, with radical feminists or with those who criticize them as going too far.

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  2. There will be no progress on the status of women in the mosque until the organizers of such panels recognize the big obese white elephant in the room: women as spiritual leaders, women leading the prayers, women taking on roles traditionally reserved for men. i.e. women in POWER. Everyone tip toes around the big white patriarchal elephant and instead we are treated to rounds of “I don’t like to pray next to the bathroom”, “it is your own fault women for not trying hard enough to find a friendly mosque” and “women who are menustrating should still come to the mosque and babysit the small kids.”. Puh-leez. Those wonderful women activists you mention in your blog are NEVER mentioned because they are the only ones brave enough to actually poke at that elephant.

    Like yourself, I don’t know how to go about engaging with the community- this is again a bit like the old Sufi elephant in the dark story. We probably need to approach from many different angles, and even then we can only capture a small part. But until someone is willing to turn on the light and look at that complete elephant, I expect that ISNA will be signing the same petition in 2025.

    And good luck getting an apology from the 2005 ‘fitna’ detractors.

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    • Thank you for calling it out. I realize that even in my post I was afraid to turn on the big lights because I struggle with this amorphous fear of being (even more) ostracized if I say radical things in radical terms.

      I am not sure about the different angles and perhaps hope that this post and sharing my thoughts is rather working towards a realization that joint effort rather than more division is the way to go.

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  3. Thanks, Juliane, for an important post. Around the time Amina Wadud led the NY prayer, I attended a Muslim/Jewish/Christian feminist conference at Brandeis. When the issue of the prayer came up and a Muslim woman suggested it was, perhaps, not at the top of Muslim women’s agendas, a Jewish feminist spoke up. Among the three things she argued were necessary for change, one was money. I’ve forgotten the second. The third, she said, was transgressive action. People simply going ahead and doing things that many people found too radical, too divisive, absolutely impermissible would alter the broader sense of what was acceptable. She was right. Woman-led public mixed-gender Friday or Eid prayer has made a range of previously unthinkable or barely thinkable things (equal mosque space, women leading mixed-gender prayers in private spaces, women-only mosques) seem much less threatening, even if, as Side Entrance shows, they haven’t always been achieved. That’s pragmatic, that’s politics. At the same time, the erasure of actors and acts perceived as too radical from history, from community narratives is a problem. It’s troubling to celebrating progress with a narrative of accomplishment that requires a series of exclusions. Thank you for fleshing out the story.

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    • Thank you, Kecia, for reading and commenting. I have argued the same thing about the 2005 prayer but that is precisely why it is so sad that the radical activists get erased or pushed to the side in most discourses. And after more than two decades involved in mostly radical politics I am worried, like many of the feminists of old were, that the pragmatic approach carries the risk of settling for less and eventually forgetting the radical goals we started out with. As I said in the post, I go back and forth.

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      • Yes. I’m not sure it’s a tension that can ever be resolved. The acts of remembrance, of naming the processes of exclusion that go in to triumphal narratives of reform, are vital. Thank you. When I teach your book again, I’ll point students to this blog too.

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    • I am a firm believer in keeping on the ‘radical’ pressure with the use of micro-mosques. Like fleas biting the big dog.

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  4. Thanks, Juliane, for a great post. I think making one’s home within any community can be frustrating. We all have this human need to belong and we find much that is healthy and helpful within our own faith communities. We also find that those same communities can be stifling and parochial. I like your sentence, “I go back and forth in my inner debate about meeting “the community” where it is (and working from there to be effective in our activism and involvement with that community) and insisting on much more radical commitments and putting them forward as such.” When I belonged to a faith community, I tended toward insisting on putting forward more radical ideas and action such as, full inclusion of women into the organization’s structures of power. Many thought that was not “prudent.” Ultimately, I decided the “prudent” thing for me to do was to leave the community.

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  5. This was very interesting. And sad and hopeful at the same time. What these brave women are trying to do is move a whole religion out of the Dark Age and into what we hope might be a fairer modern world. Male clerics of all three standard-brand religions are stuck in that Dark Age. I guess women have to push and pull and poke and prod……….and maybe they’ll see some progress. I am not optimistic. Sigh.

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  6. Juliane, Thank you so much for this. I wondered how that went. I always find it so disappointing when we continue to be satisfied with less than full engagement in religious authority and presence in our spaces of worship. But I admire women like Makki and Mattson for continuing to fight. What Mattson has gone through to move this community in a more inclusive direction is martyr-like.

    I loved your book (if anyone has not read it, go now) and agreed with all that you said there and here. I also love your comments here about building a community of worship for ourselves. None of these people are going to move without movement, so we need to move for ourselves.

    Thank you too for mentioning Amina and I, and there are so many others like Nakia Jackson who led Eid prayers in 2005 and 2006. And of course the real third rail of this discussion is the Gay community who pushed for women’s authority in North America from the earliest days. Ghazala Anwar was the first to lead a mixed gender public prayer, as far as I know, in an al-Fatiha conference organized by Faisal Alam and then a later conference organized by El-Farouk Khaki. Mention that and the whole world explodes! The history of this movement will never be told in those venues. They cannot handle the truth.

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    • Thank you, Laury, both for reminding us that there are more giants and that issues of leadership, authority, and gender identities are connected. And I wrote about Makki and Mattson’s remarks in the post precisely because I recognize their struggles and contributions even if I want more than they are asking for.

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  7. And let’s not forget that without knowledge of Arabic, you will never be able to challenge any ill conceived ideas or policies effectively.

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  8. Great comments all around.
    As is my wont however, I will look for the most obvious structural issue to address, and in this case, it is neither ISNA, which acts as an overly cautious bridge to the community (and an even more cautious entity in its representing the muslim community to the society at large), nor is it the women who desire more inclusion. Rather, it is the oft-named but not identified community, the one needing protection from inclusion and the one whose feelings and sensitivities are to be respected before and above the feeling and sensitivities of the excluded.
    Who is the community? Whose interests does it serve? What are those interests? What are its duties to us? Why the reluctance to allow for inclusion? And more importantly, is the community local or national?
    ISNA is a national entity without, I suspect, a local presence across the country. Inclusion is a local process with a local structure that generally depends on who is running the local mosque. I suspect also that most Muslims do not relate to ISNA in the way necessary to heed its recommendation fatwa-like.

    It then comes down, ultimately, to this simple point: if the community does not allow for the desired inclusion, which to me, and to at least half of the “community” is necessary, can we/should we force it?
    If so, what is the most logical means to do it?
    Is it to do acts of disobeisance at the local mosque?
    It is to recruit its board to help support this agenda?
    Is it to set up a new prayer/meeting area, which, depending on various factors may end up competing with the local mosque? A combo of all?
    Will it be done on a purely religious basis (based on texts?) A purely social basis (gender equality mores) or a combo?

    As my shaykh says, he who desires a solution should not shy away from the problem. As some suggested above, nothing will change until it is made to change, and such change will not happen as long as women’s voices do not coalesce into a roar that demands inclusion loudly and clearly, or, and I think this is possible and a great and worthwhile challenge, we create a new type of mosque, one where the prayer is not the dominant attraction, where there is a community of learning, teaching, socializing and fraternizing, along with a prayer area, to act as core area for the muslim community as well as a reaching point for the extended community.
    If we work on creating a community first and foremost, the mosque can’t but take its character from the community, as an extension of it, rather than the opposite where the mosque comes first and determines the character of the community. This is easier to understand if we acknowledge that the mosque will always have a male character and the structure that supports it a female one. Most of our mosques in the West were established outside of an existing community, unlike the Prophet’s mosque, which was built from within and as part of their existing structure..

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