In many ways, Sara Elghobashy's dorm room looks like any other college girl's. Stilettos, boots and leopard-print flats hang from a shoe rack fastened over her door. Jeweled bangles are stacked haphazardly on her desk next to an open text book. But opposite the shoes, is another rack, this one covered in dozens of brightly colored cotton scarves. Each morning, she picks one to wrap around her hair, arranging it artfully so the folds of fabric fall smoothly and the fringe at its edges drape elegantly across her chest. Above the bracelets and the book is a copy of the Qur'an, bound in black with Arabic script in gold leaf gleaming from its cover. As a young Muslim woman, Elghobashy stands out on the Greenwich Village campus of New York University, and not just because of her head scarves.
Above photos of her family, she has tacked up a sky blue pashmina as a wall hanging. It is a gift from her friends, presented on her first "hijab-aversary," the anniversary of the day she first donned the hijab, or head scarf, in 2007. Her friends, most of whom are not Muslims, autographed the scarf with sayings like "Hip-hop Hijab!" and "Your hair is way too sensual to handle." Pinned to the center of the scarf is a plastic tiara with a Barbie sticker in its center. It's not clear if this Barbie's hair is blonde or brunette; it was colored out with a black magic marker, giving Barbie a hijab of her own. On the shelf, a book of Qur'an commentary sits next to a stuffed Buddha and another book called Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs.
Elghobashy's room may seem like a study in contradictions—a hijab wall-hanging that celebrates and pokes fun at her decision to cover her hair? A pudgy Buddha who gets a place of honor next to an interpretation of the holy Qur'an? But Elghobashy doesn't see it that way. She is comfortable with the contradictions. She doesn't want to be put in a box.
An autographed scarf hangs on Sara Elghobashy's wall, a gift from her friends on her first "hijabaversary," or the anniversary of the day she first donned the veil.
So far, so good. She recently passed the first level of admissions into Al-Azhar. The next step is to do the memorization and then submit to an oral test of her knowledge once she gets to Cairo. That does not trouble her. What troubles her is the possibility that she will have an experience like Duha Abd El-Hakim, who studied part-time at Al-Azhar in 2006-2007. El-Hakim found the discrepancy between the quality of male and female classes disturbing, so she tried to obtain traditional Islamic learning in other ways. "In Cairo," she said, "it was difficult to find male tutors who were willing to work with me, because they didn't want to be alone with a woman." She eventually joined a study group in a sheikh's home, but the women were asked to sit in a separate room where they couldn't see him and could barely hear the lesson. "I found the whole thing incredibly insulting," she said.
Al-Azhar is a beacon of Islamic orthodoxy, a place where tradition is cherished and protected, and part of what Elghobashy wants to do is change those very same traditions—the ones that reserve the role of religious authority for men only."I'm not trying to study Islam and become a sheikha just because it's prestigious and because I want to be a part of the ulama," she said. "The point of it is that I want to empower Muslim girls all over the world and show them that what their culture has been telling them all those years about Islam, is just that, it's a cultural Islam. It's not an Islam that you are forced to practice. You make your own relationship with God."
– Robina Niaz
She wants to squash the stereotypes that exist both within the Muslim community and outside of it that Muslim women should be quiet, shy and devout, without regard to their potential to lead.
"There is this idea that Muslim women have haya, a concept in Islam where you have to be shy and conservative. While it is a virtue in Islam to be modest, I think the concept has been twisted so that a girl feels she has to be quiet and protect herself because any aspect of her is sexualized. Anything she says will turn a man on. That's a cultural thing. I've never read anything religious that tells me I have to be quiet when men are around. Throughout time there have been very intelligent Muslim women who have taught men, like the Prophet's wife. What -- her teaching them religion, did that turn them on? No! And she's the Prophet's wife!"
Islam has a long list of influential Muslim women thinkers, staring with the Prophet Muhammad's wives and continuing today, says Imam Khalid Latif, the chaplain of the Islamic Center at NYU and of the New York Police Department. "A sheikh I know just wrote a book about the female scholars of Islam and it is 40 volumes! And he stopped at 40 volumes not because he ran out of people, but because he was afraid if he went over that, no one would read it," Latif said. "There's a constant flow of scholarship within the female Muslim community, and it doesn't get discussed because we in the Muslim community just don't know enough about our religion."
Elghobashy thinks that having credentials from Al-Azhar would give her more legitimacy in the community, the ability to move farther up the religious ranks than others, and to compete with male religious leaders once her training is complete. She would be by no means the first woman to try. Other Muslim women have served as chaplains, have published their own interpretations of the Qur'an, and have even issued fatwas, or religious rulings. A 2007 documentary called "Veiled Voices," chronicles the stories of three different sheikhas across the Arab world: Ghina Hammoud, a controversial divorcee who established the Al-Ghina Islamic Center in Beirut; Su'ad Saleh, an Al-Azhar graduate who has her own show on Egyptian television where she issues fatwas in response to viewers' questions; and Huda al-Habash who teaches women about Islam in Syria. And in the United States in 2007, Shareda Hosein became the first female to graduate from a degree program for Islamic chaplains at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. She served as the Muslim chaplain at Tufts University, and was succeeded by another woman, Naila Baloch.
In post-9/11 America, Muslim women in particular have taken an even more active role in educating themselves and the American public about Islam. A 2009 Gallup poll found that some 40 percent of Muslim-American women attend mosque regularly, roughly the same as Muslim-American men and more than women in countries where the Muslim population dominates. And, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reports that more Americans, about 20,000 of them, are converting to Islam each year.
Spreading information about Islam is part of a general religious obligation called dawah, or calling to Islam. In the process of trying to educate non-Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11, the involvement of Muslim women in their religious communities has increased. The communications director for the Islamic Society of North America, Mohamed Elsanousi, thinks that the flurry of activity in Muslim-American communities since 9/11 has carved out a space for Muslim women as community leaders and liaisons. "Now, there is increased awareness of the importance of a woman's role, and women are making clear contributions to Muslim organizations," he said. "They have played a major role in building Islamic Centers in America, and they also often help shape their husbands' participation in Muslim-American communities."
But these new-found community leadership roles do not carry through the mosque doors. Once inside, men are once again in charge. Authority positions available to women remain confined to such roles as teaching religion classes to children or counseling fellow women on family matters. Elghobashy says she would never be content to limit herself to spiritual leadership for women only. So how will she accomplish her goals? And is Al-Azhar the best place to start?
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is the director of the Islamic studies program at the University of Delaware and an expert on Islamic political thought. He thinks Al-Azhar is actually the last place a girl like Elghobashy should go to study. For Khan, Al-Azhar represents the men who are keeping women away from leadership roles in the mosque. "Going to the traditional schools will have bad results because it is like going to their own biggest enemies," he said. "Will women challenge the curriculum if they do the traditional route? At Al-Azhar they will hear that women are intellectually and physically weak, that men are superior. Will they buy into those traditional opinions? What kind of knowledge are they going to come back with?" A degree from Al-Azhar for a girl like Elghobashy, Khan says, is nothing more than a "rubber stamp degree,"—ultimately meaningless unless she is content with coming back to the United States and starting halaqas, or women-only religious study circles.
Rather than the ulama, Khan thinks a Muslim woman who wants to be a reformer would have better luck making a name for herself as a Western academic. "There are surely very few career paths for women in the area of ulama—they can't come back from traditional religious training and become imams, and they probably won't even see that in the near future or in their lifetimes. They will come back with traditional degrees, and at best they can become counselors or establish private centers for women, but that's about it because all they teach you at Al-Azhar is how to regurgitate opinion."
His advice for Elghobashy? "Go to Harvard instead."
Elghobashy acknowledges this reality, but it doesn't stop her from trying. "I live in my head where everything is possible," she said. "I'm still in the idealistic world where I can do whatever I want. I don't think these men are going to be a problem for me, because if I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it, and you're not going to get in my way."
She sees herself using her eventual position as a scholar to educate and influence her fellow Muslims, even it means doing so one person at a time. But some battle-wizened Muslim women share Khan's view that Elghobashy's idea is nothing more than wide-eyed naivety.
"Go to Al-Azhar and you'll still be stuck preaching to women in the cubicle space in the 96th Street Mosque," said Asra Nomani. She is a journalist and author, a Muslim-American feminist of Asian-Indian descent. "Talk to me in 15 years after you try to change the community that way. If you live long enough, you recognize that you have to work from the outside to some degree, because who in power wants to give it up?"
In 2005, Nomani set off a fierce debate in her small Morgantown, West Virginia, community by walking into the local mosque and praying in the main hall—a space reserved for men. She meant her act to be just as provocative as Rosa Parks' sitting down in the front of the bus. Mosque leaders tried to ban her, but this only egged Nomani on. She posted her "99 Precepts for Opening Hearts, Minds and Doors in the Muslim World" on the mosque doors and soon after launched her "Muslim Women's Freedom Tour," traveling to mosques across America to educate women about their rights within Islam.
She's on what she calls her "gender jihad," working with a network of other like-minded Muslim Americans to publicize their ideas of what needs to change in the Muslim community. "Gender jihad is a struggle for women's rights. Any woman who doesn't feel truly realized and fully expressed in the community is a perfect candidate. Not everyone has that compulsion though. It involves being able to be a full citizen in our community, to speak with a loud voice, to be elected to office. As American women, we are told to go out there and do anything we want, but the same doesn't apply to us as Muslim women," she said in a phone interview. "In the seventh century, women were in the main hall, talking back to the Prophet. Try doing that today in an American mosque and you'll be shut down. A woman's voice is not to be heard, and that is a complete backslide on rights that women had in the seventh century mosque."
While many Muslim-Americans may support women's leadership opportunities in the rest of American society, the mosque is seen as the guardian of traditional values—values imported from abroad. "If you go to a place like Egypt, there is a normative understanding that women don't go to the mosque for prayer--I wouldn't say that's rooted in religion, it's just part of the culture and how gender is understood," said Imam Latif. "Now, you get this immigrant influx into the United States, and they are the ones to build the mosques that serve as the epicenters of the Muslim-American community. They basically create this little version of what they had back home, and it becomes highly ethnocentric. If in their native country, women didn't go to mosque, then they can't understand why they would be expected to build a woman's section or seek to put a woman on the board here in America."
Nomani, like Elghobashy, also calls the current Muslim leadership in this country and abroad an all "men's club." Although many Muslim-American organizations allow women to serve as leaders in an administrative or community-outreach capacity, and The Islamic Society of North America, the largest Muslim organization on the continent, elected its first female president in 2006, women rarely have the chance to lead religiously. In 66 percent of mosques, women pray in separate sections where they sometimes cannot even see the imam, according to the 2001 Masjid Study Project. In 1994, this number was 54 percent, so the practice of segregating women is increasing. Women are also not allowed to serve on executive boards in 31 percent of mosques surveyed.
These statistics seem contradictory to the message of gender equality preached in the Qur'an. Women's rights advocates point to verses like 9:71 of the Qur'an to show that men and women are equal under the eyes of God: "The believing men and women are protectors and helpers of each other. They (collaborate) to promote all that is good and oppose all that is evil; establish prayers and give charity, and obey Allah and his Messenger. Those are the people whom Allah would grant mercy. Indeed Allah is Exalted and Wise." Like Nomani, they also point to the long history of women as religious authorities in Islam, often citing the Prophet's own female relatives as influential leaders of the early Muslim community.
Where Nomani and Elghobashy disagree is on how they are going to crash the club. Nomani wants to shock the mainstream Muslim community into change. "Images matter, shock blasts matter because you end up with a tremor and then change," Nomani said. "We have to upset the status quo, because we've had to wait long enough. It is mind boggling to me how stunted we are socially and psychologically. Shock waves are a good thing, because maybe they will help jolt us into the 21st century."
In 2005, Nomani helped organize a controversial and much-publicized mixed gender prayer in New York City, where men and women prayed side by side. To stir the pot even more, a woman imam led the prayer, something unheard of throughout the Muslim world. The woman, Amina Wadud, is a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, and an expert on women and Islamic law. She is already an established and respected Islamic academic, but the prayer was largely condemned as sinful at worst and as a publicity stunt at best.
Elghobashy is all for the empowerment of Muslim women, but doesn't think stunts are necessarily the best way to do it. "I think the shock and awe approach is effective to a certain point, but only in the short term," she says. "When all the hoopla is over, it's brushed out of their minds. Whereas if you do something that fits within the framework a little more, a larger crowd of people will feel more compelled to take your views in and you can affect more people if you're not completely ostracizing yourself from the rest of Muslim society."
Khan thinks that Nomani's shock tactics have been effective, but only in pushing for small changes. "She scared the traditionalists," said Khan of her gender jihad movement. "The old school panics at the idea of women like her achieving drastic change. The moderates who are pushing for small changes see this panic and get empowered." After watching Nomani demand that women be able to pray next to men and even lead prayers, conservative leaders are more receptive to comparatively minor changes to a woman's position at the mosque, says Khan. "It's a better option. You might not get a woman to be an imam but you might at least get a clean women's bathroom or a more adequate prayer space."
In 2005, Muslim feminists scored big when they successfully lobbied large Muslim-American organizations to publish a report on "women friendly mosques," recommending reform such as better female prayer sections and more opportunities for women to serve on mosque boards. In a "call to action" addressed to mosque leaders, the brochure says: "There are confirmed reports that many mosques relegate women to small, dingy, secluded, airless and segregated quarters with their children. Some mosques in Canada and the United States actually prevent women from entering. There are also some Islamic centers and mosques that discriminate against women by denying them the rights of membership, voting, or holding office. These practices are unjust and degrading, and they contradict the teachings of our Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. It is urgent that they are corrected."
What worries Khan is that much of this success has come from women like Nomani who have already left the mosque community and are working from the outside. "The women who are still a part of the traditional Muslim community haven't worked hard enough, and the women who do want change and who are working hard are leaving the mosque," he said.
Elsanousi agrees that the problem does not just lie with men. He is more optimistic about the increases in women's participation in the mosque, but says that women also have a responsibility to push their Muslim brothers into understanding that many gender boundaries long perceived as religious are actually cultural. "For the past 40 years, we haven't seen much women's leadership. But recently, over the past three years especially, women have been much more visible in the community and it's impossible to overlook them now. But women have to come forward and say, 'we are knowledgeable and we have a right and a responsibility to our community to share our knowledge," he said. "Women have to step up and help educate men on these cultural misperceptions."
While Nomani provokes the community from the outside and Elghobashy prods it from the inside, Duha Abd El-Hakim straddles the line—one foot in the world of Westernized reform and the other in the world of Islamic tradition. She is a graduate student and teaching assistant of Islamic Studies at NYU who converted to Islam in 2003. Her family comes from a mixed Western European background, her parents were raised in Catholic communities, and she herself was baptized in a Presbyterian church but hardly ever attended services. After studying Arabic at a seminary school, she found herself drawn to Islam through its language—Muslims believe that Arabic is the language of God, the language he choose to communicate with the Prophet Muhammad and through which he revealed his message.
"When I converted, I didn't know that much about the religion. I was personally motivated to learn more about the religion I just joined," she said.
She traveled to Morocco and took traditional Islamic classes there, even memorizing the Qur'an. She then received a fellowship to study in Egypt, studying part-time at Al-Azhar and at Dar al-Ifta', the Office of Religious Edicts. She moved from sheikh to sheikh in various study circles, the traditional way of obtaining formal Islamic learning, but she also studied as an aspiring Western academic at American University in Cairo.
Abd El-Hakim wants to be both a Western academic, teaching Islam as a secular field of learning, and a sheikha, serving as a religious guide for her fellow Muslims.
"I found more and more that the two paths of studying Islam, religiously and academically, are often placed at odds against one another. Western academics and Islamic scholars have different attitudes looking at the principals of the religion," she said.
Abd Al-Hakim finds this conflict frustrating. "I want to teach Islamic studies in American universities, and work within the Western academic field, but I also want to be able to have enough of the traditionally gained knowledge to be accepted as an authority in the Muslim community." She is afraid that within the Muslim community, her role as a member of Western academia will lessen her legitimacy, and vice versa, as a devout Muslim, Western scholars may view her academic opinion as tainted by her religious beliefs.
Abd El-Hakim not only wants to become a Muslim scholar herself, she also wants to publicize the women who have come before her. She is working to put together and publish a list of accomplished female Muslim academics, a group of women, she says, that most Muslims don't even know exist. "We never hear about Muslim women scholars anywhere. The male sheikhs who lead the community don't know about them, so they don't teach their congregations about them. I want to give people more access to these women."
By educating her community about the existence of female scholars and their accomplishments, she hopes to encourage her fellow Muslims to judge religious leaders by how knowledgeable they are, not by what gender they are.
Rowshanara Rafique, an undergraduate of Islamic Studies at NYU, stumbled upon the world of female Islamic scholars by accident. She decided to do an independent study on Islamic history, both for her major and also for her own personal benefit. "I wasn't very into my religion before freshmen year. You name it, I did it," she said. "I just felt like there were all these aspects of my religion that I didn't know. Like I heard men quote this hadith that says that women are in the bottom layer of hell, and I never believed it. I had all these questions, so I wanted to do my own research and answer my own questions."
In the process of her research, Rafique noticed that she wasn't coming across any women, and wondered if there really weren't any female scholars or if their absence was perhaps like the hadith about women in hell—a byproduct of a male-dominated culture. So she changed the focus of her research to women scholars throughout Islamic history. "I changed my research and found that there are all these female scholars that I never heard about before, and I wondered why their work hasn't been reproduced."
In eighth century Damascus, A'ishah al-Bauniyah, a scholar, an author, an expert on Sufi poetry and Islamic law, would travel all the way to Cairo to meet with the finest scholars of her time and give lectures to crowds of the educated elite. But where is A'ishah today? Like many of her educated female counterparts in the medieval Muslim world, she has been largely dropped from the historical narrative of Islam.
A'ishah al-Bauniyah was born into a prominent family of scholars and sheikhs in Damascus. Both her grandfather and her uncle were preachers at the famous Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. She reportedly memorized the Qur'an by age eight and growing up, learned poetry, hadith and jurisprudence from her father and uncle. She also specialized in the study and practice of Sufism, following a long family tradition of mysticism. When she traveled to Cairo to join the city's elite circles, "A'ishah studied and shared views with a number of the finest scholars of the time, who authorized her to teach and give legal opinions of her own," writes Thomas Emil Homerin in one of the few scholarly articles to mention her in any detail.1 As a female scholar, A'ishah is rare in that she not only studied and taught but also published religious, poetic and prose works of her own.
In 2007, Mohammad Akram Nadwi of Oxford University, the sheikh Imam Latif mentioned, conducted a study documenting some 8,000 references to female scholars in biographical dictionaries and classical texts between the 7th and 14th centuries C.E. To scholars like Nadwi, these examples are proof that women in the time of the Prophet and the first caliphs were encouraged to seek education and permitted to teach in mosques and other religious settings. "Pathetically, today there are debates in the Muslim world as to whether [women] can even come to the mosque for prayer. This is an indication of our ignorance of our own Islamic heritage, and of our digression from the practices of our pious predecessors," he told an audience in Blackburn, England, back in 2007.2
After the 16th century, the citations of female scholars began to drop, perhaps, scholars suggest, because of the formalization of Islamic education at that time, which made it more difficult for women to break traditional gender roles and participate. As educational systems evolved over the years that followed, Muslim sensitivity to gender boundaries increased. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, the modern era has brought Muslim women deeper into seclusion, perhaps in a reaction to those new influences and in an attempt to protect traditional gender roles threatened by changing world powers and new influences in society. "One reason women were excluded from education in madrasas," writes Jonathan Berkey, "was the intrinsic threat to sexual boundaries and taboos their presence was believed to represent in an institution housing any number of young males."3
Throughout the Ottoman Empire, for example, women were still educated in the home. Their religious education was often limited to knowledge gained through domestic rituals which taught them what their role as women was supposed to be. There are some cases of poor women attending school with their brothers or disguised as boys like famous Egyptian singer, Umm Kulthum did as a child, but they are rare.
The 19th century, with its development of Arab nationalist movements, brought some improvements in the status of women. Religious leaders and social reformers began encouraging women's education in both secular and religious fields, sparking what became known as "the women's awakening," not unlike Western women's movements gaining ground around the same time. But after centuries of exclusion from education, the progress has been slow. In Egypt, for example, which was at the forefront of the women's awakening, some estimates show that more than half of the adult women today still lack basic reading and writing skills.
The conflict today does not seem to be about whether a Muslim woman should obtain an education—most people would agree that she should—but what the appropriate role is for a woman who has obtained the highest levels of education, particularly religious education. She can become a sheikha, but can she advise men and women, or women only? Is her legal opinion equivalent to that of a man? Can she give a khutbah, the Friday sermon on the Muslim sabbath?
When it comes to matters of "ritualistic practice," there is no clear-cut religious answer as to what a woman can or cannot perform, says Imam Latif. There are some sheikhs who say Islam absolutely forbids a woman to lead religious services, while others say just the opposite. Then there are imams like Latif who stand in the middle, disagreeing with the idea that a woman can lead prayer, but also acknowledging other opportunities for women to lead religious rituals. "In terms of the Friday khutbah, because it becomes analogous to a ritualistic practice like a prayer, then that's a role given to a man. But in a broader context, some scholars say that women could give marriage khutbahs," he said. "Just because certain practices like prayer or Friday sermons have to be led by men, it doesn't mean that puts a blanket statement that says women aren't allowed to speak in general."
While these questions are still being debated across the Muslim world and among scholars in the West, women with religious educations are slowly being incorporated more into the mainstream framework of authority. In Morocco, for example, the government recently started training women religious leaders at Dar Al-Hadith Al-Hassania, a religious seminary previously reserved for males. The female scholars are assigned to mosques where they are responsible for answering religious questions and providing legal guidance on issues such as family law. They will not, however, be able to act as imams who lead prayer. And in Egypt in 2007, the Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa approved the appointment of thirty female judges, saying a woman serving as a judge does not conflict with Islamic law.
The women Rafique discovered in dusty history books motivated her to confront the religious questions that troubled her and to encourage other women to do the same. "People don't know about female history and women's contributions to Islam, and I am baffled and angry about it," Rafique said. "We should be taught about this at the mosque, because if more women know about this then maybe they will be inspired to learn about Islam for themselves like I was."
She too is disappointed with Al-Azhar. As the most prestigious place for Islamic scholarship, she thinks it has a responsibility to educate the Muslim public about a woman's role as scholar, educator and leader. "When sheikhs at Al-Azhar write something, we believe them. If they come out with this information, people will listen," she said.
Rafique, who is also a pre-med student, wants to join Doctors Without Borders when she graduates, but not just to help people medically. "Part of the reason I want to do Doctors Without Borders is to learn different languages, especially African languages spoken in Muslim areas. That way I can read the religious texts of the region, and see what they say about the role of women. I want to know what Muslim women across the world are being told," she said. Rafique feels like her position as a doctor might help encourage Muslim women to trust her. She wants women to know that they shouldn't trust everything they read or are told about the religion, and that they actually have more rights than they are informed of.
"When I talk about this dream of mine to Muslims I thought were progressive, I have felt resistance," Rafique said. "They asked me, 'how are you supposed to become a wife if you do Doctors Without Borders?' But I don't need to be a wife. The children I help treat will be my children, and if I choose to marry then my husband will accept me. The men who say that Islam tells women to stay inside and pray, those men don't know anything about Islam."
Elghobashy has experienced rebuke from some of her peers for trying to become a sheikha and for wanting to give the Friday sermon. "One time, I was sitting with this boy and telling him about how I want to study at Al-Azhar, and he was like, 'Wow, don't you think that's taking it too far? I never hear a khutbah being led by a woman, I would never pray behind a woman,' I just said, 'I'm not asking you to pray behind me, but you will listen to my khutbah!' He thought it was preposterous, even though he himself had attended a class I taught on the prophets of Islam!"
During her junior year, Elghobashy taught a class at the Islamic Center at NYU called "Stories of the Prophets." It was a mixed-gender class and she was very adamant about the men and the women not sitting on opposite sides of the room. And, despite some grumbling, they all sat together, including the boy who said he wouldn't want to listen to her preach. He was comfortable attending her class and letting her teach him about the most important figures of Islam, but not with the idea of listening to her give a sermon?
"I just don't understand that, because if you're going to listen to me teach you something about the Prophet, that's basically what the khutbah is. The only difference is that the khutbah is given on a Friday in a mass setting. I think those boys just don't know what they believe—they have very confused ideas about the role of women," she said.
Nomani thinks that many of these boys are conflicted about what they learn as Americans and what they learn from the largely immigrant community leadership. "The Muslim immigrant diaspora needs a space to hang with their home boys and talk their language, so they build their own fraternity house in the mosque. The younger men don't have the self-confidence to express their own intellect, so they just go along with the uncles. The second generation Muslims need to prove that they can have their own voice and still be pious," she said.
At the Islamic Center at NYU, Imam Latif admits that some young men might not be receptive to the idea of a woman taking a more authoritative role. "Part of the problem is the social awkwardness between Muslim men and women. Sexuality is so skewed in the Muslim community." Latif thinks these distorted views of gender are also often reinforced in the home. "When I say that some boys here wouldn't be inclined towards learning from a woman, it's not because they are chauvinistic--it's because of the communities they grew up in where what it means to be a woman or a man is something very specific. A lot of them watched their mothers stay home in the traditional role of wife and mother, which is perfectly fine when a woman chooses to do so, but often it's just the thing that is done without question."
Both men and women fear change in the traditional gender roles that older generations have enforced in the mosque, says Latif. "People get scared when it comes to religion, but they forget that Islam in and of itself is highly pluralistic. Different people are going to do things different ways," he said. "But if people don't know the distinction between what's right and wrong, what's halal or haram, they are going to err on the side of caution and say, 'well, this is the way it was done before so it must be right.' "
A big part of the problem for Imam Latif is not the lack of visible role models for Muslim girls but the lack of open-minded intellectual role models for Muslim boys. "I'm not trying to be funny, but I think women are smarter than men," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "I think women are more intellectually driven than men are. I don't think we need people to teach girls how to be women; I think we need more people to teach boys how to be men."
Every year in the spring, NYU's Islamic Center sponsors a series of events to celebrate Islam's diversity. Elghobashy was in the audience for one such panel on "Empowering Women of Faith." Most of the young women attending were like her—young, veiled college students—there to listen to successful Muslim women speak about their roles as women of faith in the mosque, at work, and as active members of American society. There were no more than 15 males in an audience of about 50. The event opened with a young man reciting Chapter 66, "The Prohibition," from the Qur'an and a young woman following with the English translation. The Qur'an is divided into chapters, called surahs, and verses, called ayahs. The reading was carefully chosen, because Surah 66, Ayahs 11 and 12 end with examples of devout women who serve as models for all other believers: "But to the faithful God gave an example in Pharaoh's wife, who said: 'Lord, build me a house with You in Paradise and deliver me from Pharaoh and his misdeeds. Deliver me from a wicked nation.' And in Mary, 'Imran's daughter, who preserved her chastity and into whose womb We breathed Our spirit; who put her trust in the words of her Lord and His scriptures, and was truly devout."
The panelists represented a range of Muslim-American women—veiled and unveiled, black and white, American-born and foreign-born, converted and born into the faith. There was Robina Niaz, a Pakistani native and founder of "Turning Point for Women and Families," a group that specializes in educating Muslim women about domestic violence, and Nzinga Knight, a fashion designer who makes couture and Muslim-appropriate evening gowns. There was Aliya Latif, Imam Latif's sister and the New York civil rights director of one of the largest Muslim-American organizations CAIR, and Debbie Almontaser, the founder of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn—the school that sparked a national debate after Islamaphobes successfully and ludicrously defamed her as a radical Muslim who aspired to instill Sharia law in schools across America. There was Lina Sayed, an Arab-American who works at JP Morgan Chase, and Rabia Kamal, a doctoral student doing her research on Muslim-American leaders.
They are all successful women, proud women, devout women. They are the antithesis of every stereotype that says a Muslim woman is oppressed. But they are also realistic about the problems facing the Muslim-American community from both the inside and the outside. As Niaz, the domestic abuse activist, mentioned, Muslims are grappling with a million different questions at once, a sort of post-9/11 identity crisis. "When 9/11 happened, we realized that it was a common tragedy for all of us, and that we need to learn to communicate with one another as Americans and as a Muslim community," Niaz said. "It reminded us that we don't know our rights as Americans and we don't know our rights as Muslim women." Niaz mentioned the man in Buffalo, New York who killed his wife in a gruesome beheading in February, and how the media had a field day, claiming that the crime was rooted in Islam. "They said 'this is how Islam treats its women.' So as women, we are really fighting two battles: one against the stereotypes and prejudices of American society and one within the Muslim community to educate ourselves."
But that is the question Nomani and Elghobashy and Muslim women across the world have been asking: how do they go about educating themselves? What is the most effective way to get a dialogue going?
Rabia Kamel, a PhD student doing her research on Muslim-American leadership, chats in the audience before taking her place as one of the panelists on a discussion on women's empowerment at the NYU Islamic Center.
As part of Latif's job, she visits a lot of mosques. One time, she was invited to speak in front of an entire congregation, the first time this particular mosque had ever allowed a woman to do so. Latif entered the main hall wearing pants, a sweater and her hijab, but before she was allowed to speak, one of the mosque leaders stopped her—her clothing wasn't modest enough for them and they wanted her to put on a large man's blazer over her own attire. "I stood there looking at him and wondering, 'Aliya, do you have to conform to them? Should I just walk away?' But I decided that standing in front of the congregation was more important to me, so I stood there in that ugly blazer because sometimes you have to take baby steps."
Afterward, a man in the congregation, who had previously walked away from her when she tried to speak with him, came right up to her. "Excuse me Aliya, I heard what you said up there and I have a question," she remembers him saying. "After he listened to me talk, he stopped looking at me as just a female and started thinking about who the best person for the job was," she said. And after that, she got another invitation from another mosque that had also never had a woman speak before. "It's hard to reconcile this American identity of female empowerment with the limits we encounter at the mosque, but I've been in the crappy section of the mosque and I've also now been at the front of the mosque and it took baby steps to get there."
For some women, taking "baby steps" like this is too much like coddling an over-indulged child. Nomani didn't wear the blazer—Nomani barged into the mosque and prayed with the guys. But both tactics were effective in their own ways, and both tactics had their own weaknesses—Latif ceded to outdated cultural traditions of what a woman is expected to be and Nomani antagonized much of her mosque community, making them hostile to anything she could have to say in the future.
Nomani, for all her anger, does see progress in the way women are engaging with the questions of participation and faith. "To get change, you start with lone voices and then the lone voices find each other. That is happening now, especially with the Internet and it's very exciting to watch," she said. But in order to see tangible progress, there needs to be institutional change, Nomani says. The institutionalizing of change is where activists are hitting a snag, of course, but perhaps this is where the different women fighting the same battle come together—the Nomanis and Waduds of the world make the first ripple and the Elghobashys and Latifs of the world bring an echo of that same ripple to the mosque doors.
The progress may be slow and frustrating at times to the women, but it is still palpable. Nomani causes a stir in West Virginia, and mosques around the country start looking at their female prayer spaces. Latif chooses to wear the blazer when ten years ago, she wouldn't have been given the option. The space for women to lead used to be marked by the sign hanging over a door: "Women's Section," but now the leaders of that room are exiting and interacting with the people and the society beyond it. There is no clear line anymore of what a Muslim woman in America can or cannot do in the mosque because rules are changing all the time and new precedents are constantly being set.
"I think that for my mother's generation, there was definitely a clear line as to how much authority a woman could take on," Elghobashy said. "But I think my generation is kind of changing that. Because when I wanted to lead a class in the mosque, I did, and it was even a mixed sex class. Whereas if my mom wanted to lead a class like that, no man of her generation would attend."
Khan also thinks change will come out of the younger generation Muslims who will have to push to compete with the first generation immigrants that run most mosques now. "Change will come from American enlightenment, from Muslims who grow up in American schools, who learn about equality of gender, who begin to realize that we can't be fighting for our own Muslim civil rights and be denying the rights of our women," he said.
Children in this country are taught from elementary school that leadership is something we should all aspire to and something we are all capable of. The idea of leadership as a right and responsibility of all is part of the great American ideal. Muslim-American children grow up with this ideal just as all other American children do. But recently, young Muslims have been forced to consider their faith and how it fits into the American framework as they never have before. With a relatively new immigrant population, a surge of new American converts, and with the backlash and subsequent spotlight of 9/11, the community has been thrust into totally uncharted territory. The experience of the American Muslim is unique from any other Muslim in the world, and with that comes an increased self-awareness. Second-generation Muslims are largely devout and proud of their faith, but they are also products of a society that tells them to do more than their parents before them, a country with a strong feminist history, where leadership, as a quality, can come from anyone.
Young Muslim-American women carry this ideal with them as the rest of the world judges them. At a time when Muslims are seen as a great mystery, a puzzle to be solved, women are the most scrutinized of all, somehow seen as a key to understanding the entire community and the entire faith. They have the most to prove—to the non-Muslims who don't understand their beliefs and to their old guard of Muslim leadership in the mosque who don't understand their desire, their need even, to be active and guiding participants of the faith.
Elghobashy and Nomani, although using different strategies, are still fighting to prove the same thing. And while Nomani is sometimes referred to, and sometimes refers to herself, as an outsider, she is still a Muslim woman. A Muslim woman with something to say—a Muslim woman like the ambitious 22-year-old hijabi from NYU, a Muslim woman like the frustrated academic, a Muslim woman like the med student with a chip on her shoulder, a Muslim woman like 8th century A'ishah. "Sometimes women like me are seen as coming from outside the community, but it's not true," Nomani said. "We're a part of it still. We're just different. There's not just one way to fight this battle."
Aisha can be contacted at
1 Essay "Living Love: The Mystical Writing of A'ishah al-Ba'uniyah' included in the Mamluk Studies Review, VII ed. 1, 2003 published by the Middle East Documentation Center at the University of Chicago. Pages 211-235
2 From a transcript of the lecture delivered by Nadwi at the Jamiatul Ilm Wal Huda in Blackburn, England in September, 2007 and printed on the Islamic website:
The lecture was adapted from his book, "Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars of Islam."
3 Berkey, Jonathan P. "Women and Islamic Education in the Mamluk Period." Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender. Ed. Nikki R. Keddie and Bath Baron. Yale University Press. New Haven: 1991. Page 148