At 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.