Asra Nomani and the Mosque Crusade: Lofty or Ludicrous?

Mosque in Morgantown, a documentary about Asra Nomani’s quest to eradicate gender segregation in the mosque, airs tonight on PBS at 10 pm EST.

I watched the film this weekend. Twice. I took three pages of notes, but still had a difficult time writing a review. This could be because my head has been in another place this weekend with the aftermath of Iranian elections.

But the reason could also be that the documentary just didn’t work. It begins with Asra Nomani, sharing her personal stories. Then the film is about the Morgantown mosque. Then the film is about Asra. Then the film is about Asra and the mosque. Then the film is about Asra’s book tour and “trouble-making” at mosques around the country. Then the film is about the Morgantown mosque again. Then the film is about banning Asra from the mosque. You can see a trailer here:

This jumping around irritated me: though I understand the value of illustrating how Asra’s personal life influenced her behaviors concerning the mosque, I think that the jumping around created a lack of cohesiveness. If you asked me what the purpose of the documentary was, this is what I’d tell you: it was about Asra Nomani…sort of…and the mosque in her hometown…sort of.

Almost as soon as she introduces herself, Nomani brings up the fact that she has had a child outside of marriage, and is thus a “criminal in the eyes of Islam”. Her “child outside of marriage” story bothered me because that it’s one of the first things a viewer knows about her–why was that necessary? It felt as if she was using it as a badge to prove that she’s a “black sheep” Muslim, which takes us into the next scene: her victimization.

Nomani describes going up to the newly-built local mosque and trying to enter through the front door for prayer. She was turned away because the front door is for men and the side door is for women.

What the documentary does not tell us is whether other women were turned away, whether other women were irritated about the segregation, what happened to Morgantown’s old mosque (the one she went to as a child), and whether men and women had separate entrances there. Is the entrance segregation a new phenomenon? Or is it as old as the beginning of Islam, which is how most media outlets described it?

The documentary, and even Nomani herself, cast the beginnings of this crusade as a personal vendetta: she feels she has been humiliated at the mosque and so, ten days later, she marches through the mosque’s front door and prays next to male worshippers, seemingly pissing everyone off. She talks about having a child outside of marriage, 9/11, and how “militant Muslims who prayed five times a day” killed her friend and colleague, Daniel Pearl.

All of those things somehow add up to Nomani wanting women to pray alongside men. The documentary follows her on her book tour, watching her talk to Muslims and go to mosques elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada, on a quest to make everyone pray the way she wants them to. Notice I didn’t say “quest for equity in the mosques” or “quest for gender equality in Islam.” Nomani is very much a feminist, but the picture we get from the documentary paints Nomani more as a televised guerilla activist who lives out a personal spat with her local mosque on a national platform.

During her trip to Los Angeles, Asra sits in a McDonald’s parking lot after upsetting the “most progressive mosque in the country” and eats ice cream. This scene constructs Nomani as a victim that we should feel sorry for: the Big, Bad Muslims don’t like her (most likely because she stormed into their mosque, flouted their rules, and told community elders they were wrong about the religion they’d studied longer than she’d been alive) and so she’s forced to eat ice cream alone at McDonald’s.

But it’s hard to feel sorry for Nomani because she builds herself up to be a victim when she usually isn’t. This is apparent during her meeting with the Morgantown mosque board, where she argues even with the community moderates, and walks out of the meeting after calling board members “naïve” and the meeting “a waste of time” because they didn’t agree with her way of doing things.

I hate to admit that I didn’t like this documentary, because I wanted to like it. Though I hated how she did it, I personally very much agree with the idea of equity in the mosque. Edina Lekovic made a great appearance in the film during Nomani’s ruckus in Los Angeles and voiced my thoughts exactly, stating that Nomani’s shenanigans detracted away from what was really important: women gaining full and equal access to the mosque and positions of power therein. Instead of working with mosques, Nomani worked against them and expected them to comply.

I hated the documentary because it highlighted all the things I hated about how Asra Nomani did this entire “campaign”. Long-lasting change does not happen unilaterally or without dialogue, and there is no dialogue when no one else’s viewpoint counts except Nomani’s.

Readers, what are your thoughts on the documentary? Consider this an open thread, but don’t forget comment moderation rules!

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