An intriguing paper entitled "Women Friendly Mosques" was recently published and is being widely promoted within the North American Muslim community (e.g., CAIR is distributing it from its website). I see it as a very positive development and a sign that the concerns–"grievances" might be a more apt term–of many Muslim women who’ve been understandably alienated by mosques and organizations run by clueless men are finally getting the attention they deserve within mainstream Islamic organizations which until relatively recently had ignored and/or been indifferent to widespread gender inequality within the Muslim community.
In other circumstances, I’d smell a rat. As Shakespeare says, the Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. I’d wonder if this wasn’t a
cynical PR move by hardliners in the establishment who’ve been embarassed
by the Asra Nomani crusade and its fawning coverage in the mainstream media. Even those who are
quite happy with the intolerable status quo in the many women-unfriendly
mosques that are out there are probably loth to find themselves cast once again as the enemies of progress when the mainstream media next takes up the cause of Muslim women. The temptation to try to coopt this issue must be strong.
Still, while there’s little doubt that
some in the community will wish to use this document to deflect the
sometimes valid criticisms on gender made by non-Muslim observers and liberal Muslims,
it’s nonetheless evident that the author and the scholars she consulted are sincere and understand the problems we’re talking about. In short, this document "gets it". The analysis is simply far too nuanced, cogent,
and comprehensive to have been produced merely to score political
points in a post-9/11 America where everyone’s become an armchair expert on the faults of the Muslim community.
While one may quibble about some details or wish that the document
were a little less circumspect in its criticisms, the fact remains that
an odious mindset of what can only be termed religiously sanctioned male chauvinism
that is prevalent among some Muslims is now being publicly acknowledged and even challenged with compelling proofs and arguments drawn from Islamic tradition. Given how paternalistically many in the community approach women’s issues, this document’s prescriptions are even a bit radical (though they shouldn’t be). An intellectual malaise on gender, imported from various "Muslim" countries, afflicts large swaths of our community in America, so I pray that this profound examination of Muslim women’s God-given rights reaches a wide audience.
It is fascinating to see this issue going mainstream. A bit less than two years ago, "Khutbas for Dummies", a scathing online parody of the guff on women one heard from the minbar at far too many mosques that’s so sadly dead-on that I’d be mentioning even if it hadn’t been written by my wife, earned its author hate mail and even insinuations of heresy. Today, a manifesto denouncing "unjust and degrading" practices and acknowledging that some women "encounter discrimination when they enter the masjid" and are therefore denied "solace and spiritual renewal" in their houses of worship is being endorsed by the powers that be. Obviously, attitudes are changing and awareness of what’s wrong in some of our mosques is increasing. Alhamdulillah.
That’s not to say there aren’t shortcomings to the guidelines. I think Shahed Amanullah raises some valid concerns about the document’s vagueness. For all its strong scholarly proofs and inspiring principles, this statement does provide a fair amount of what Amanullah terms "wiggle room" that could be used by hardliners and foot-dragging conservatives to mask their obstructionism and continuing discrimination against women. There must be more from them than cosmetic changes or lip service to vague ideals.
The reason this statement is needed in the first place is that there are influential people in the community who have a long history of opposing, by hook or by crook, all attempts to empower and dignify Muslim women as their brothers’ equals. There is a benighted minority in the community whose influence is far out of proportion to their numbers and which obsesses about keeping Muslim women in their "place". They aren’t kind enough to put it this way–like patriotism, religious tradition is the first refuge of the scoundrel–but the agenda in rarely far from the surface, as their overwrought anxieties and misplaced priorities show. Such people are not likely to be dissuaded from their old tricks by pious reminders about Islamic values. Sadly, their ways are far more likely to be mended by the promulgation of specific prohibitions concerning the treatment of Muslim women by Islamic institutions–organizational hudood laws, if you will–the violation of which will result in public criticism. For some people, only the knowledge that they will be held accountable for their policies will ameliorate their treatment of their Muslim sisters. They need to know that the community is watching and that it has high expectations.
Still, that does not detract from the quality or potential of this statement. This is an excellent and much needed contribution to a long overdue dialogue on gender within the Muslim community. If a statement of principle such as this–as opposed to, it must be said, simplistic and self-aggrandizing soundbytes that do more harm than good by painting mosques as sinister dens of extremism–becomes the starting point of debate among North American Muslims, we will have made a quantum leap towards establishing a healthy, inclusive Muslim community, a community of the faithful and just that stands like a "city on a hill" for the rest of the Muslim world. We’re not there yet by any means, but this is certainly movement in the right direction.