CAIR Revises American Muslim Policy on Women in Mosques
CAIR has announced that it will distribute a “Women Friendly Mosques” Brochure. This document is perhaps the most enlightened statement that CAIR has ever issued in its eleven-year history. This is a good beginning for their new Chairman, Dr. Parvez Ahmad. I hope that this document is a promise of more progressive thinking to come from CAIR. The document is meekly titled as a brochure when in fact it is a document that clearly lays down a new mosque policy for American Muslims.
The endorsements by major groups such as ISNA, ICNA, MANA and Canadian Muslim organizations gives it a lot of clout and suggests that there is a possibility that it could be adopted widely in North America. It is interesting to note that Muslim American Society [MAS], some consider it the American extention of Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, is not one of the signatories to this brochure. Sohail Ghannoushi of MAS told me that while they are aware of the brochure they were not invited to endorse it. It is a bit disturbing that more Muslim organizations endorsed John Kerry than this brochure. Hopefully others will come forward to endorse and implement it.
As far as CAIR is concerned this brochure helps them distance themselves from the alleged conservative and Salafis” that man our mosques. It also gives them an entre into the emerging Islamic reformation in North America. Now even CAIR is a progressive Muslim voice.
It is important that moderate and progressive Muslims use this brochure to initiate change in the attitudes of local Mosque dictators and ensure that the vision of a women friendly mosque that the brochure talks about so poetically is realized. This brochure by itself will do nothing to alter the embedded gender bias in mosques. But it can serve as a tool that gender jihadis can use to precipitate change. CAIR is the biggest and the most influential American Muslim organization, but it too has its critics and some of them on the right are more vitriolic than those on the left. They may use this brochure to reduce the influence of CAIR on local Islamic organizations rather that change the gender situation at mosques. For example in some mosques the Tablighi Jamaat has a lot of control and they are not exactly fans of CAIR or ISNA or ICNA. But there are many mosques whose management includes people who are highly active and supportive of the local affairs of CAIR, ISNA and ICNA and they must be the first places where the new policy can be implemented.
I fear that some progressive Muslims may react in a knee jerk fashion and reject this document because it is sponsored by CAIR. I hope that wisdom will prevail and they will instead welcome it and work with local groups and mosques to ensure that it is implemented. This document, because of CAIR’s legitimacy with mosque centered Muslims in North America, is a more powerful weapon for progressive Muslims than any argument that they themselves can advance.
The brochure itself is very strong and clear in its message that mosques must revise their attitudes and stop the practices that perpetuate gender bias. The brochure not only calls for an end to gender bias but also calls for initiating practices, which will provide equal access and equal participation. The brochure is quite brutal in recognizing that Muslim women have been marginalized, ill treated and feel alienated and unwelcome in the mosques. It uses statistics to show how mosques have become a place where mostly older men come to pray while women and youth stay away. If mosques and Islamic centers are expected to play a role in the future of Islam in America then they need the youth, the future generations and women to participate.
The brochure cleverly sidesteps the current controversy over women led prayers and rightly so. It does not need to address that particular issue and its call for equal participation can be interpreted in many ways. However the brochure does address the issue of women praying in the same hall with men and does a good job of debunking any and all arguments in favor of separation of genders during prayer. Hopefully Masjids will in future ensure that women and men pray in the same hall. Many mosques already practice this.
Another important aspect of the brochure is that it laments the absence of women from leadership positions. This is perhaps the most important thing for American Muslim women who are highly accomplished and successful in all walks of life and find it insulting when their intellectual competence or spiritual devotion is questioned. Perceived intellectual or spiritual inferiority is often the reasons why women have been excluded from leadership positions in Muslim societies. This is the issue at the heart of the women led Friday prayer controversy and until that prejudice is erased women will never experience and enjoy the “unprecedented rights” that Islam once granted them, long, long, long, long, ago and Muslim men took away nearly immediately.
When Asra Noamani started her crusade, I was happy that someone was taking this issue seriously. When Amina Wadud led the Friday prayers, I had mixed feelings and I am still not convinced that it would help the cause of liberal Islam. But this brochure, clearly a response from mainstream Muslim organizations suggests that unless there is an alternative voice that challenges them, they will hesitate to confront the status quo. I extend my congratulations to both CAIR and to Srs. Asra and Amina. This brochure, in spite of its limitations, is an important moment in the emancipation or re-Islamization of Muslim women in North America.
PS. Can someone keep track of which organizations and mosques have formally adopted this policy? Perhaps MSA or CAIR itself can maintain a page with lists of mosques that endorse and commit to implementing it.