Pray-in Weigh-in: The D.C. Mosque Protest

At the end of February, a Muslimah “pray-in” led by Fatima Thompson at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C. created a stir in the media.  A small group of women chose to pray in the back of the men’s section of the prayer area, rather than use the separate women’s section.  Mosque leaders proceeded to inform the police after unsuccessfully asking the women to move to the small women’s “area off to the side and gated off by a solid seven foot partition.”  The women were eventually asked to leave.

Masjid prayer areas for women are frequently criticized as shockingly unequal from men’s.  Over at altmuslimah, Sarrah Abulughod eloquently writes about women’s place in the masjid:

When speaking to the multitude of women who complain about the accommodations and treatment they receive in the mosque, one common thread runs through their criticisms. They want a decent, clean, quiet space to reflect on their Lord, a space that does not pose a barrier to education or ideas, just as the male worshipers enjoy. Yes, some prefer a separate space altogether and we’re not discounting those among us who do, but regardless of whether the women’s prayer room is separate or not, the second-class nature of the back door, the dingy basement room, or the cluttered storage hall will not do any longer.

Over at The Daily Beast, Asra Nomani relates the D.C. pray-in this year to her own struggle for receiving a better prayer space:

What unfolded that day inside the mosque underscores a growing agitation inside the American-Muslim community by women frustrated by separate-and-unequal status. A survey by the Council on American Islamic Relations showed that two of three mosques in 2000 required women to pray in a separate area, up from one of two in 1994. In 2003, I challenged rules at my mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia, that women enter through a back door and pray in a secluded balcony….The men at my mosque put me on trial to be banished.

In addition to the blog posts, the event was also picked up by news outlets.  In an Associated Press article, the women who participated in the pray-in are portrayed as revolutionaries, having “risked arrest by praying in the main hall.”  The article includes an assertion from one of the protesters, Jannah bint Hannah, who proclaims that she feels like a “second-class citizen.”  Surprisingly, the brief article does not include any comments from representatives of the actual Islamic Center of Washington, D.C. and instead attributes an explanation for the segregation to an imam from an entirely different institution.

The Washington Post also covered the event, which it portrays as one in a long line of reform efforts led by “Muslim activists” and elaborates on the “discrimination” Muslim women face in masjids:

Thompson’s protest at the stately mosque along Embassy Row is the latest effort by Muslim activists to reform conditions in U.S. mosques that they say are discriminatory and degrading to women. Muslim prayers are typically led by male imams. Behind them are rows of men, and behind them rows of women and children.

The interest in this news event highlights the overwhelming interest in how Muslim women are treated unequally in Islam, while also bringing to the public’s attention what Muslim communities have been unable (or unwilling) to address on their own.  How often do we hear how Muslim women are subjugated by their religion at the hands of men?

But the coverage here also shows that Muslim women (and not non-Muslims) are asserting their views in what has traditionally been a male-dominated place.  More importantly, Muslim women are voicing their silenced concerns for everyone—not only the Muslim community—to hear as a means to effect change.

  • Tanvir

    I’m surprised at all the brou ha ha this incident has caused, well evidently the western media would pick it up but the actions by the muslim women puzzle me. In Islam, women can not lead prayers, they can however pray behind the men due to hijab reasons(why does the mosk not allow this?) and yes they are entitled to having a clean and equal space to that the men have access to. However, isn’t seperate entrance a good thing for those who observe hijab?
    Women should be allowed to assert their veiws but these views should be within the boundaries of Islam.

    • Fatemeh

      @ Tanvir: “they can however pray behind the men due to hijab reasons…and yes they are entitled to having a clean and equal space to that the men have access to.” Personally, I believe their actions ARE within the boundaries of Islam, and you yourself agree with your above statement.

      But the purpose of this story isn’t to debate whether they are right or wrong. It’s to analyze how the media has covered the event. Please keep this in mind.

  • http://www.lightuoponlight.com/ Abdullah

    Rasul Allah (sal Allahu alaihi wasallam) said: “Oh Ali, if two people come to ask you to judge between them, do not judge in favour of the first until you hear the word of the second in order that you may know how to judge.” [Ahmad, Abu Daud]

    Can we hear the other side of the story? Why did the women forcibly insist on praying in the brothers area?

    • Fatemeh

      @ Abdullah: This isn’t a news site, but a news analysis site. We’re examining how the Muslim women who protested were portrayed in media coverage of the event.

  • Sister K

    For anyone who has not visited the DC Islamic Center, it needs to be said again, that the women’s prayer space is ridiculous in that mosque. It’s not a balcony, it’s a tiny, cramped little rectangle of incredibly high walls, haphazardly stuck on the side of the musalla like a afterthought.
    It’s a breathtaking masjid and clearly a historical landmark on Embassy Row, and the women’s space is a glaring pockmark on all the work Muslims in America are doing to prove Islam does not subjugate women!

  • Mutagata

    I’m always fascinated to see the way, whenever women say something or demand something, “people” will quickly ask to ask the other(male)point of view. But whenever a man says/asks something, we don’t question his motive.

    Let me rephrase that to ensure my “sarcasm” is well understood:
    when “people” say:
    “oh, well, let’s wait to hear the Mosque’s version of what happened, before we say that the women were right!”

    I say: in what circumstances is it “ok” to make women pray in less-than-human spaces while reserving the comfortable spaces for men?

    It goes without saying that my question is especially addressed to those who are quick to throw ahadith not in the goal of enlightening us but more in order to shut down any form of legitimate protest. Must I really remind you that Islam is the way to liberation and NOT oppression?

  • Sumaya

    Women prayed behind the prophet Muhammad pbuh if it was ok for our prophet then women are covered properly then we should still be allowed to pray the same. It was the media that made Muslim women look oppressed it was the way the Muslim men behaved that day at the masjid.

  • Emma Apple

    “Why did the women forcibly insist on praying in the brothers area?”

    Why did the brothers call the police because the sisters wanted to pray behind them? That should be the question we are asking here.

  • Jannah

    Fatemeh, about that media coverage. 1) I was astonished at how quickly this made worldwide headlines. 2) It’s kind of weird how every time Muslim sisters stand up for their rights, the biggest concern is not whether the sisters are achieving justice but whether the Western media are conspiring to make Muslim brothers look bad (quite apart from the question of whether our brothers are actually making themselves look bad). Umm, what about the women? 3) My specific gripe is that a reporter spelled my name wrong in the first story published, and ever since then, that misspelling has been repeated. There is no apostrophe in “bint” and it isn’t capitalized. I even spelled it out for her twice and said “little b” but was ignored.

  • http://ummahzy.blogspot.com/ Kadi

    We’re trying to look at how the media portrayed the incident. What troubles me is that the media will give a voice to anyone they choose. They will equate a knowledgeable person (mujtahid) with someone who certainly has rights to be heard but lacks knowledge (muqallid).

    From New York city to Kuala Lumpur, I have been in both types of masjids, those where the women’s section is some kind of afterthought and those where it is obvious women frequent the masjid and do so in comfort and privacy. There is no doubt that women have right to be in the masjid but men have a duty to be there. How can this be communicated to the general public via the media if we make every person’s voice equal?

  • Mutagata

    Kadi said: “They will equate a knowledgeable person (mujtahid) with someone who certainly has rights to be heard but lacks knowledge (muqallid).” (…) “There is no doubt that women have right to be in the masjid but men have a duty to be there. How can this be communicated to the general public via the media if we make every person’s voice equal?”

    My response:
    - Personnaly, I tend to doubt any “knowledgeable” person (mujtahid) who seems to lack BASIC knowledge of other people’s RIGHTS. And if I may put it more blantly, anyone who has yet to understand the rights of women and children is NOT a “knowledgeable” person.

    - YES, we DO all have an EQUAL VOICE. It is because this has been denied to us that we found ourselves in this very situation.
    One shouldn’t need to study at Al Azhar to acknowledge my right to pray in a decent environment! How is that rocket science?

  • http://www.wluml.org Rochelle

    “There is no doubt that women have right to be in the masjid but men have a duty to be there. How can this be communicated to the general public via the media if we make every person’s voice equal?”

    yuk at you, sir. just yuk.

  • Stacey

    The reality is that men do have an *obligation* set forth by Islam to pray in the masjid.

    Not only do women not share that obligation but it is actually *better* for them to pray at home (again something we know from our religion not our opinions.)

    How then can we (women) expect to have an equal portion of the masaajid? That wouldn’t actually be fair. Men attending the masjid outnumber women and rightfully so since we women were advised by the best example who ever lived that the best place for women to pray is at home.

    Look at inheritance rights. Men get more than women and it doesn’t make the laws unfair and it isn’t a reflection of a woman’s value in conjunction to a man’s– calling these laws unfair is calling Allah unjust. A lot of Islamic laws (derived directly from the ayaat of Allah like that of inheritance) are not equal in this sense. They are however JUST. Allah is just and so many women are caught up in feminist movements they can’t even see when they are going against their own religion.

    If I need something and you want it is it fair for you to get it? ‘Need’ logically precedes ‘want’.

    I am not against women having nice and comfortable places to pray/learn in the masaajid in fact I am all for it. I’ve seen my share of cramped places but in most cases it is a matter of not having the funds or many times masaajid I have been to have things planned and a few times I have actually gotten to see the new masaajid which would be built to replace the old and the women were always nicely accommodated. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of finances and things take time.

    As far as the masjid space – men have to be given priority because they are the ones who HAVE TO go there. For us women it is just something we want to do or like to do and when going for prayers it’s actually not even better but actually less good than praying at home.

    Lastly, if we want to make a complaint about these such circumstances why can’t we be adults about it and call meetings to voice concerns rather than potentially taking space a man might be needing to use to pray in when it is his OBLIGATION to ALLAH to be there and he cannot pray behind or beside women. Potentially robbing someone of fulfilling their obligation to Allah for the sake of making any point is ridiculous.

    If the women’s area is too small to accommodate the women then call a meeting – let people know that there simply isn’t enough space. Let them section off an area for women in the main prayer area which might usually be reserved for men *unless* reserving this area will cause men to not have enough space also. In that case it would be a longer project of actually constructing a place which can accommodate the women comfortably which takes patience.

    • Fatemeh

      @ Stacey: Perhaps if mosques had better spaces, women’s attendance would equal men’s.

      You’re also assuming that these women have not tried to voice their concerns in ways other than the pray-in. I doubt that these women all woke up one day and said, “You know what? I have just decided that I want a nice, clean, roomy space for prayer at my local masjid. I think I’ll let everyone at the mosque know this by refusing to pray in the terrible space they have allotted me and instead pray behind the men and cause lots of trouble and get lots of media attention!” It’s not fair to assume they have agitating intentions.

  • Raaz

    I think one of the reasons that this story was picked up as much as it was is due to the fact that the masjid in question is the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C. What message does it send when people see how Muslim women in the nation’s capital are treated by asking the police to intervene?

    @ Kadi-The media has a responsibility to ask witnesses to voice their opinion surrounding an event, regardless of the level of “knowledge” that person has so that we can come to our own conclusion/opinion of an event. What saddens me the most about this event is the lack of an official response from representatives of the Center itself…

    @ Jannah-Thank you for your comment. I’m not quite sure who you are referring to when you say “the biggest concern is not whether the sisters are achieving justice but whether the Western media are conspiring to make Muslim brothers look bad (quite apart from the question of whether our brothers are actually making themselves look bad)”? Who is this a concern for? Do you mean Muslims or non-Muslims? Or another group entirely? I feel like this event portrays Muslim women as individuals who face challenges in achieving fair treatment at their places of worship which they are trying to combat by voicing their concerns. As for Muslim brothers looking “bad” as a result of this event, the brothers who were offended by the presence of women “in their area” have not explained their opinion in the media for this event, which says something itself…

    I was not aware of the spelling mistake of your name by the media. I will make the changes you mention in your comment to the post.

    @Emma Apple-I like how you ask: “Why did the brothers call the police because the sisters wanted to pray behind them? That should be the question we are asking here.” Ditto.

  • Jannah

    @Raaz– Actually, I was (over)reacting to one sentence near the end– “How often do we hear how Muslim women are subjugated by their religion at the hands of men?” We hear it all the time, and sometimes the interpretation placed on such articles is that reportage on feminism is a “kaafir” conspiracy to smear Islam in the media. I understand the caution around publishing accurate facts about Islam, since the American media have a poor track record there. But when taken too far, this attitude progressively turns into defensiveness, apologetical, and finally denial. It’s used as a derailing technique to silence women who are seeking equal rights. I guess I’ve gotten a little too sensitive to the silencing of legitimate women’s rights issues. I apologize for overreacting.

    Many of the news stories on our action were not particularly well written. The firsthand accounts of Asra Nomani in the Daily Beast and Margot Badran in al-Ahram are much better written, and give a vivid sense of what it was actually like. Here is the link to Margot’s article:
    http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2010/988/op14.htm

    Please visit our page on Facebook for links to many more news stories from around the world–
    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Washington-DC/STAND-IN/303158365675
    The Facebook page still has the earlier name Stand-In, but the movement has been renamed Pray-In. (Has a nostalgic ’60s feel for grannies like me who grew up then.)

  • http://www.wluml.org Rochelle

    @Stacey

    “calling these laws unfair is calling Allah unjust”:

    I see you’re using a computer. I don’t recall the Prophet using a computer. Come to think of it, I don’t think a lot of mojtaheds use computers. And they are the learned ones. Are you a mojtahed? (Of course you’re not — you’re a woman.) You must not be learned. I guess by using a computer you’re just calling the Prophet and all the Mojtaheds unjust. And by calling them unjust, you’re also calling Allah unjust. Why do you hate Islam so much?

    Enough with the sarcasm…

    I’ve heard this time and time again: ‘You dissent the mainstream interpretation, so you must be against the religion itself.’ By libeling these women, accusing them of ‘calling Allah unjust’, you are silencing their agency, voice, and intellect that Allah gave them in the first place. You put them on the defensive. Now not only do they have to argue for justice to their grievances, they also have to prove to you that they are really Muslim. It’s an extremely affective tactic to silence dissent and strangle constructive dialogue.

    So I applaud you for your emphatic attempt to retain the status quo.

    Fortunately, though anyone with half a brain and a Quran can see through the bs.

  • Raaz

    @ Jannah-No need to apologize for “overreacting.” We all need to rant sometimes. ;) I agree with you completely on the paucity of coverage in the more “traditional” news media–I thought the articles were super-short and perfunctory compared to Nomani’s, for instance. Thanks for including the link!

  • Jannah

    @Fatemeh– Actually, sister Fatima Thompson organized the movement after she had tried to contact the head of the Islamic Center, ‘Abdullah Khouj, to engage in dialogue, but she had repeatedly been ignored. He would not even acknowledge receipt of her communications, let alone respond in any way.

    So sister Fatima turned to nonviolent direct action, civil disobedience, to bring about change for justice, as the next step up after having her attempts to open dialogue totally stonewalled repeatedly.

    This movement is only demanding one thing: To let women pray in the same main open space as the men (behind them in all-women rows). This is fully supported by sunnah, and we consider the segregation of women in the mosque to be a bid‘ah (reprehensible innovation). We have carried out two actions in the Islamic Center already, by simply going quietly in the main entrance (which has been restricted to men) and praying our nawafil and jama‘ah prayers and quietly doing dhikr of Allah. For this they called the cops on us and had us thrown out, threatening to arrest us. We are moving forward with this, so look for more media about us coming up soon, in sha’ Allah.

  • aliyahh

    @ Rochelle

    Well said Rochelle! I found Stacy’s argument of ‘since you dissent you must be against the religion itself’ so ridiculous that I think she must be a Troll (someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community to provoke a response).

  • Mutagata

    Rochelle said:
    ” By libeling these women, accusing them of ‘calling Allah unjust’, you are silencing their agency, voice, and intellect that Allah gave them in the first place. You put them on the defensive. Now not only do they have to argue for justice to their grievances, they also have to prove to you that they are really Muslim. It’s an extremely affective tactic to silence dissent and strangle constructive dialogue. So I applaud you for your emphatic attempt to retain the status quo. Fortunately, though anyone with half a brain and a Quran can see through the bs.”

    I couldn’t have said it better! May God bless and protect you and yours.

    And to sister Jannah, I will keep you in my prayers. Stay strong and resolute in your endeavor. I look forward to see how things progress. I am with you.

    (I KNOW!)God is with us.

  • loveProphet

    Salam,

    I see a lot of emotion here and a lot of intellectual discourse missing.
    A few things need to be said. Firstly it is true that it would be unfair to have equal space in the Mosque since it is an obligation for men to pray and therefore they outnumber women for prayer times and in Jumuah there is a lack of space.
    Secondly the women should have a good and decent place.
    Thirdly once Sayyidina Umar(RA) told some men off for using the entrance of women to the Mosque so the establish of having separate entrances is well established Islamically. And there were barriers at the time of the Sahaba no doubt so calling the segregation a bid’a is acknowledgement of gross ignorance of the texts.
    Fourthly, protesting like this has not been the practise in Islam and it isn’t the right way to go about this situation. When did any group, men, women, tribes etc go about taking over the places of others in protest like these sisters did?
    Fifthly, we shouldn’t be forcing opinions on others but these sisters are trying to do that here.
    Sixthly, a lot of these movements for rights need to look at the texts and proofs and religion from an Islamic perspective. There’s too much selfishness and distortiong being done to get rights and also a western paradigm or frame of reference is being used to analyse Islamic practises and texts. They are very different. One wonders, were any of the Awliya(including women) from the modernists of today’s times? Rights are determined by Allah Most High and therefore we need to see the rights by refering to Islam. We can’t impose rights in Islam just because we believe the propaganda that certain ideologies in the west are promoting.
    Finally, for those who seem to oppose mainstream Islam, this Hadith is enough:
    “Allah’s hand is over the group, follow the largest group, for verily whoever dissents from them departs to hell.”
    Use reason people.

    Wa salam

  • Abu Wardah

    I stopped reading the article as soon as I hit the word “Asra Nomani”. I thought MMW is a site run with sisters who are not like Ms. Nomani.

  • Fatima Thompson

    Assalamu Aleikum
    Since it has been stated several times that this website (blog) is designed to analyze news and several questions has asked to that end, I will submit my first comments about that.
    1) We did attempt to contact the management at the mosque many times and in numerous different ways. They refused phone calls and did not call or email us even after I hand delivered letters to them.
    2) We called the media to be a recorder of our actions. This would serve several purposes: 1) record our actions and the response of the mosque 2) Get the word out to the public about the issue 3) would be a source of *some* information to the mosque leadership (I am sure they have seen some of the articles or news reports).
    3) We did not just decide that we are a bunch of bored housewives who need to create some excitement in our day – women’s rights are being violated in many ways and it is time for us to stop being “invisible” and standing on the main prayer area where, in case you “knowledgeable” persons did not notice, was how it was in the day of the Prophet Mohamed.
    4) There are some lazy writers out there who are simply copying the reports of others. I know who they are. The mistakes in the names being repeated is because of that.

    Ok – I invite you to learn more about the movement including the documents that I provided to the mosque management before the protests, reports of our protests and various discussions at our Fan Page (Facebook) – http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/pages/Washington-DC/STAND-IN/303158365675
    (we will be setting up a webpage/blog with the new name ‘PRAY IN’ soon).

    Now I am going to respond to ‘loveProphet’ – his comments below with my response in brackets [ ].

    Firstly it is true that it would be unfair to have equal space in the Mosque since it is an obligation for men to pray and therefore they outnumber women for prayer times and in Jumuah there is a lack of space.
    [This is not a space issue, it is about power and control... even in smaller mosques where there is overflow of men - they solve it by two congregation prayers held one after the other. I have seen men prayer areas that are huge and are only filled about 20% while the women are off to another room 1/3 the size and filled to capacity with the women and ALL the school children.]

    Secondly the women should have a good and decent place.
    [No contest. Agreed and absolutely.]

    Thirdly once Sayyidina Umar(RA) told some men off for using the entrance of women to the Mosque so the establish of having separate entrances is well established Islamically. And there were barriers at the time of the Sahaba no doubt so calling the segregation a bid’a is acknowledgement of gross ignorance of the texts.

    [You mention the Khalif Umar - who lead after the time of the Prophet - and then mention an event that happened during his rule, after the death of the prophet and then saying it is well established “islamically”… Islam was given to us by the Qur’an and the Prophet. The Prophet himself said in his farewell speech “today I have perfected and completed your religion…”. Even if we agree that what a Khalif said or did is sufficient basis for the establishment of something as “Islamic” to have men and women enter from separate doors is not the same as having barriers in place or relegating them to separate rooms. This was not the practice of the Prophet – who perfected and completed our religion. ]

    Fourthly, protesting like this has not been the practise in Islam and it isn’t the right way to go about this situation. When did any group, men, women, tribes etc go about taking over the places of others in protest like these sisters did? [Actually, protests were the practice of Islam – Mohamed walked into the Kaaba and destroyed the idols… this is just one example. And we did not “take over the places of others” – we took our rightful place on the main prayer area behind the men. When we were finished we left and the mosque was in the same condition as when we arrived.]

    Fifthly, we shouldn’t be forcing opinions on others but these sisters are trying to do that here. [We are not forcing our opinions on anybody. We are simply trying to be heard. I said earlier that we tried to give plenty of opportunity for discussion but we were ignored.]
    Sixthly, a lot of these movements for rights need to look at the texts and proofs and religion from an Islamic perspective. There’s too much selfishness and distortiong being done to get rights and also a western paradigm or frame of reference is being used to analyse Islamic practises and texts. They are very different. One wonders, were any of the Awliya(including women) from the modernists of today’s times? Rights are determined by Allah Most High and therefore we need to see the rights by refering to Islam. We can’t impose rights in Islam just because we believe the propaganda that certain ideologies in the west are promoting. [it is interesting that you speak of “selfishness” in the context of movements for rights… since when does the concepts of one’s rights become selfish? Men have a right to be at the mosque but I would never selfish for them to do so. However, we might assign the term selfish to the practice of setting up tables of refreshments that are made available to the men and not to the women. That is selfish. If the women then walk over to collect some of the refreshments to distribute to other thirsty or hungry women would that then be selfish? No, they are simply exercising their rights.]

    Finally, for those who seem to oppose mainstream Islam, this Hadith is enough:
    “Allah’s hand is over the group, follow the largest group, for verily whoever dissents from them departs to hell.” [Oh, knowledgeable one I challenge you on two things here… one, please provide that proper references for this hadith (narrator, isnaad and grading) two, we all know from our experience here in America, and even more so in other countries with despotic, tyrannical leadership that the majority can still be wrong. The Beloved Prophet himself was ONE only and he was right. As YOU YOURSELF said in your statement, the issue of barriers and gender segregation is an innovation (bida’a) and the division (fitnah) it and its promoters cause is due to them alone – not those who are challenging it.]

    By the way “loveProphet”… I am posting this statement on the Fan Page where, if you are so inclined, you may view any discussion that continues about it.
    Your sister in faith,
    Fatima

  • Fatima Thompson

    Considering the moderated comment guidelines I am surprised that the comment about Asra Nomani was posted. So, that is the new slur nowadays?
    All comments are moderated by Muslimah Media Watch. To ensure that your comment is posted, make sure it falls within the following guidelines. Comments with relevant points will be edited to fit within these guidelines. So if you don’t want your comments edited, don’t violate the guidelines:
    1. Don’t ever make threats of violence.
    2. Don’t make personal attacks based on character or personal history. On anyone.
    3. Comments denigrating race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, ability, or gender will not be tolerated or posted. Do not make blanket statements about ANY group.
    4. This blog is about the media/pop culture representation of Muslim women. Please make sure comments are relevant to the posts, and do not get bogged down in historical, religious, or political tangents.
    5. Please be respectful of other readers’ views and don’t use disrespectful language when posting.
    6. Please post comments in English.

  • http://www.wluml.org Rochelle

    Loved Fatima’s response. Such wisdom and courage!


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X