‘From the mosque to the bedroom, we must assert our rights’

Print edition : May 13, 2016

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Interview with Asra Nomani, who organised the first mixed-gender namaz led by a woman.

THE noted author and activist Asra Nomani may ruffle a few feathers with her interpretation of Islamic scriptures, but there is no denying that she has a few firsts to her credit. For instance, she helped organise the first mixed-gender prayers since the seventh century led by a woman imam (Amina Wadud). Asra Nomani, unlike many feminists, quotes not from modern Western literature to buttress her contentions but from Islamic scriptures. She focusses on women’s independence during the Prophet’s time, pointing out that his first wife, Khadija, was not just a successful businesswoman but also his boss. Asra Nomani holds the patriarchal society responsible for denying women their space in masjids, and in decision-making, from the bedroom to the boardroom. “I think the Prophet would weep if he saw the injustices that women face today. Instead of progressing, we have gone backwards. I firmly believe it’s critical for us to go back to the progressive values of Islam in the seventh century,” she said.

Born in Mumbai, she spent the early years of her life in Hyderabad. Asra Nomani, who teaches journalism at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., United States, is one of the active voices today for women seeking to reclaim their lost space in the Islamic world. Excerpts from a telephonic interview:

In a country where both the Constitution and the Shariah protect a woman’s right to enter a place of worship, why should a petition in the Supreme Court be needed at all?

The interpretation of Islamic law, or the Shariah, in India doesn’t protect the right of women to enter mosques. From Tamil Nadu to Uttar Pradesh, I have personally visited mosques where women are denied permission to enter. This policy is not only a betrayal of the tradition, or sunnah, of Islam in the seventh century, when women freely entered the mosque of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina, but it is a violation of the ethos of equal rights enshrined in the Constitution of India’s secular democracy. Just like in the U.S. during the civil rights struggle against separate and unequal practices of segregation and other unfair practices against people of colour, we must support the brave Muslim women in India who are standing up for their rights to not only pray in mosques but be leaders. We must also enforce this same equity in temples, monasteries and all places of worship and society.

In my book Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam, I argue that we must challenge man-made laws put forward in the name of religion to oppress people. I am so proud that HarperCollins published the book in India. It is from India that I get my courage.

In India, the Jamat-e-Islami Hind makes a special provision for women in its masjids, including Friday prayers. Why does it not percolate down to other masjids as well?

From the mosque to the main square, men who are afraid of losing their power and control in society deny women their fundamental human rights. They are threatened, insecure and afraid. They use religion as an excuse to hold on to their power, and they must search deep within themselves to realise that we are serving humanity when we uplift all people, including women and girls.

We recently had women qazis solemnising nikaahs (in Bhopal in 2013 and in Jaipur this year). Has something like this happened elsewhere?

We have Muslim women officials solemnising Muslim marriages in the U.S. and Canada. It’s revolutionary times we live in that hark back to the progressive spirit of Islam. We need to realise that we must move forward, not accept the teachings of Saudi Arabia’s clerics, imported into India too, marrying with the local Deobandi conservative culture, and creating a monster of ideological tyranny. From the mosque to the bedroom, we must assert our rights.

There are also some “women’s only” mosques. Does it not defeat the purpose of the exercise of equality?

I would rather bring social justice to the mosques that exist today. But I understand that different people have different paths to empowerment, so I support their hope. After being shut out of the men’s clubs that are mosques, these women are practical in getting our act together to move forward.

In India, women are taking a lead over men in understanding the Quran. While men are hafiz (those who have memorised the whole book), it is the women who are learning to understand it through tajweed, or genealogy. Will it help in breaking men’s stranglehold over everything religious?

If we really think about it, we know that most of us learned faith through a female teacher. In my case, it was my mother. Then my dadi, or paternal grandmother, and my phuppi, or paternal aunt, who lived near me. I was liberated from rote memorisation of the Quran when I sat in a secluded women’s balcony of my local mosque in West Virginia, reading the works of the scholars Asma Barlas and Amina Wadud in their reinterpretations of the Quran. By dissecting loaded words such as hijab and awrah that have been used to cover women’s faces, their voices, their power, we can liberate ourselves from the levers of religious tyranny used to deny us rights. I have learned that the word hijab, when it appears eight times in the Quran, never means “head covering”. It means “curtain”. I realise that covering women, by deeming they are too sexy for their voices, their hair, their presence, is a construct. And thus we can fight those [who] deny women rights and stand up, strong and clear.

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