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In US, Muslim women challenge mosque gender separation

world Updated: Mar 08, 2010 14:23 IST

AFP
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A group of Muslim women risked arrest on Sunday as they sought to pray in the main area of the Islamic Center of Washington -- an area ordinarily reserved exclusively for men.

"Wooden barriers have to be taken down and women have to be allowed to join, to pray behind the men in the main praying area. That's our request," said Fatima Thompson, an American Muslim who converted to the faith 18 years ago.

"We are against gender segregation, against the fact that women are put aside or in a totally different room at the mosque," added Thompson, who led the group of female protestors, all self-identified progressive Muslims.

The Sunday protest was the second time women have sought to share the main prayer area at the mosque in Washington DC, after a group of twenty women first tried in February.

"The general issue we are pushing is gender segregation and the ramifications it fosters. It's not healthy, and not reflective of our society here. It's very reflective of very restrictive, ultra orthodox societies," Thompson added.

Their hair covered with headscarves, the group of six women entered the mosque's prayer area via the main door usually reserved for men and walked through to the room where around 20 men had already arrived.

Women and children ordinarily enter the Washington mosque, located in the city's embassy district, through a small door hidden behind a screen.

"If you are black in this country they can't tell you to sit in a corner but if you are a woman they can," said Asra Nomani, a Muslim feminist who has participated in similar protests elsewhere in the United States.

The imam presiding over the prayer interrupted proceedings to announce by microphone: "We are going to wait, because some people came to disturb the prayer, until the police come and take care of this issue."

Within minutes, three police officers arrived and told the women to leave or face arrest.

"In Indonesia where I'm from, it's not the way we pray," said one woman, who declined to give her name, of the segregated prayer setup.

"I'm shocked," added the woman, who sobbed, she said, because she felt so humiliated.

"I want to make them think about it and make some change," she added.

"We may not get to see that in our lifetime but we do that for our daughters," said Jannah Hannah, who converted to Islam 25 years ago and said she would continue to fight for shared prayer space.

The group of women agreed to leave the mosque, but performed their prayers on the street outside, facing the metal gates of the building as police looked on.

The mosque's imam, who declined to give his name, criticized the group as "people who come and don't respect the law."

"It's disgusting," added a man as he left the mosque. "If they are Muslims they have to follow the rules."

"Build your own mosque," another man told the women.

After a brief exchange at the mosque's exit, one man seemed to have a change of heart.

"Traditions control Islam at the moment, and that's not the same as Islam," said Bachir Kardoussi, a lecturer in comparative religion at the University of Constantine.