MACHISMO E INTOLERANCIA EN LA MEZQUITA DE MORGANTOWN
Quieren expulsar a la hija del fundador del centro Islamico de Morgantown.
Zafar Nomani is professor emeritus of nutrition at West Virginia University. He is a founder of the Islamic Center of Morgantown and a former board member. He is also editor of the International Journal of Ramadan Fasting and a winner of the King Hassan II international award for research in Ramadan fasting.
Morgantown, W.V.--I am a 71-year-old man, born and raised in India, an immigrant to America as a young doctoral student, and a professor emeritus of nutrition, graying in the few places where I still have hair. I am the patriarchy that feminists discuss in women’s studies courses. I am the status quo. I am the old guard.
But now I stand strong beside my daughter as the leaders of our mosque put her on trial to ban her from the mosque. The mosque management committee has informed my daughter that 35 members of the congregation have signed a petition to “expel” her from the mosque for “actions and practices that are disruptive to prayer, worship and attendance” at the Islamic Center of Morgantown and “actions and practices that were harmful to the members of our community.”
Her crime: speaking out against gender inequity, hate and intolerance at our mosque. This kind of retribution is unprecedented in my lifetime of working within the Muslim community, but it is emblematic of the way that extremists and traditionalists try to squash dissent within the Muslim world.
To enlighten me, it took the courage of women who no longer accept the status quo. On an overcast Friday afternoon not long ago, I marched with seven Muslim women to our local mosque here so they could challenge cultural traditions that order women to enter through back doors and pray in secluded spaces in mosques throughout America. And I am proud to be part of a historical reform movement of Muslim communities led by Muslim women who have more courage and power to realize a vision that I have shared but couldn’t manage to bring to my hometown mosque during 28 years of leadership. The women who marched were inspired by Hajar, the historical mother of Islam (Hagar in the Bible and Torah), a single mother who raised her and the prophet Abraham’s son Ishmael in the desert of modern day Mecca.
Since my earliest day, I have firmly believed that Islam is a religion of peace, love, justice, equality, respect and accountability. Five times a day, I unfurl my prayer rug at home and pray to Allah, Islam’s expression of God. I have long felt Islam’s principles of equality, justice and respect apply to everybody – Muslims and non-Muslims, black and white, male and female, adult and children.
Born in India during the British colonial rule of India, I was touched by expressions of human struggle. The echo of the start of World War II still rings in my ear: "World war has started. Japan has bombed Pearl Harbor,” the radio announcer said on BBC. I still remember the cuts of the tree I climbed to listen to Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi protest British rule. The scenes of death and survival during the famine that hit India in 1942, claiming an estimated two million to five million lives, are seared in my memory. I imagined myself as one of the children lying dead on the streets of Calcutta. Allah kept me alive.
I asked, “Why?” In my reflections as a child, I found the answer: to serve humanity and care for my family and the community. At home, my mother was the leader of our family. She was the pilot of the ship we called home. She was the radar. She was the force. She was the "shakti," a concept in India for “energy.” I learned from an early age to always respect women, their voice and their authority.
Growing up, I witnessed highly educated men verbally and physically abusing their wives. I was struck by the double standard by which the preached ethics in the public sphere but little practiced it at home. I realized that the global society is male-dominated and social, cultural and legal rules are mostly made by men to favor men.
To me, Islam was a pioneer 1,400 years ago in encouraging and supporting women's rights, freedom and social status. Islam gave women the right to divorce and remarry. Islam provided inheritance rights. Islam provided stipends to elderly poor women (now called social security). Islam gave rights to women to speak in public. Islam preached treating women respectfully. Indeed, the West adopted Islamic principles of equality, justice and accountability. But the question is: Where are Muslim communities now? What is the status of these Islamic principles in so-called Islamic countries and communities? How do Muslim men treat and behave toward Muslim women today?
We hear about "honor killings" when a father murders his daughter for having had sex before marriage or even being raped. I have long wondered how many fathers have shot their sons for dishonor? Many men do all kind of nonsense, but they remain clean, as men in society look the other way. Women are exploited or oppressed in the both the West and the East, while we as men preach justice and equality. I am struck by the double standard with which we live.
I am not just pointing fingers. I am pleading mea culpa. I, too, am guilty. In 1975, I helped start the Muslim Students Association on the campus of West Virginia University but had a roster of only men for years. In 1981, I helped start the first mosque in Morgantown, but somehow we didn’t find room for the women, including my wife and daughter.
It took my daughter’s fresh perspective to help open my eyes. Last October, she went to the new mosque I had helped build in Morgantown, eager to introduce her son to our religious community and re-acclimate herself to a religion that had felt separate from her life in the West. She returned home angry and sad. She had been ordered to enter through a back door and pray in a secluded balcony where women couldn’t see or speak to the men or mosque leaders gathered in the main hall below.
She helped to show me that which I had left in the corners of my knowledge: in the mosque during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, women prayed in the main hall of the mosque and participated in meetings and discussions. It made immediate sense to me that women today should be granted the same right. I supported my daughter, wife and niece when they walked through the front door and prayed in the main hall. They were at least 20 feet away from the men and always prayed behind them with a respectable separation.
I was shocked the next day when, at a hastily-called meeting in the kitchen of the mosque, members of the Board of Trustees of the Islamic Center of Morgantown, W.V, proposed stopping women from entering from the main door and praying in the main hall. Within minutes, the resolution passed 4-1. I was the lone dissenting vote. At that moment, I was overwhelmed with the serious betrayal we had exercised against women who looked to us for leadership.
I started weeping. The men moved into the office. I continued to weep, crying so hard I started to choke upon my tears, losing my breath. I begged the men to reverse their decision.
“Have mercy on me,” I pleaded. “My daughter has returned to Islam. Welcome her.”
They were untouched. “Everything will be okay for you,” they tried to reassure me. It was as if my self-preservation was all that mattered. Why was I so consumed with grief?
I had seen the suffering of women since my childhood. I also remembered in the early 1980s that my daughter had handed me a copy of a paper she had written for a class at Morgantown High School, describing a teenaged Muslim girl's turmoil in identity growing up in America. I had read from her thoughts for a sermon I gave at the mosque. I had only men in the congregation. We hadn’t made room for women at the mosque. I saw my daughter’s struggle with her Muslim identity continue into her adult years.
Still crying, I told the board members, “Don’t adopt this policy.” In search of spirituality and peace, my daughter had traveled all over the world, making pilgrimages to the holy places of the world’s major religions, including Mecca during the Muslim holy pilgrimage of the Haj. Finally, she had concluded she would find her home in her own religion, Islam. “Treat women with respect,” I pleaded. “Give them equal opportunity to pray and to learn about Islam.”
Alas, my pleas had no effect on the board members. They were solid in their certainty. During subsequent board meetings, the board members continued to maintain their policy of women praying in a separate space in the balcony. Weeks and months passed, as my daughter tried to meet with the board, but there was no change in the policy. She sent letter after letter appealing to the board. Invoking the avenues of complaint available within the Muslim community, my daughter complained to the ACLU of the Muslim world, the Council on American Islamic Relations, but its spokesman told her the group didn’t intervene in community issues. When she protested to the Islamic Society of North America, a national organization under whose umbrella the Morgantown mosque has gotten non-profit status, a leader there called a board member, prompting the board president to issue a policy against discrimination at the mosque. When my daughter asked for a clarification of what rights the policy protected, she got a typical response: silence. Informally, the members and leaders of the mosque allowed my daughter to sit in the main hall, but they never changed their policy formally.
Turning to the power of the pen, my daughter was alienated for exposing the community’s “dirty laundry.” But someone had to try to clean it, not continue to stuff it into a corner. Our family started getting the cold shoulder from longtime family friends; a man at the mosque thrice called me an idiot when my daughter simply tried to join a study session, politely sitting behind the men. “You are an idiot!” he yelled. “Look at the kind of daughter you’ve raised.”
Seeing this cycle of narrow mindedness, I resigned from the board. I am an old man. I don’t have energy to argue and fight with stubborn people. As my daughter readied her defense for the secret mosque tribunal, I found myself in the hospital emergency room, short of breath and reeling from chest pains. Many of the mosque leaders want to continue native traditions followed in the U.S., disrespecting the human rights of women. They need to be more open and tolerant not only towards women, but also to those who aren’t Muslim and those who don’t follow their particular ideology.
After retiring, I am happy to be a soccer mom to my grandchildren. Sadly, I feel as if I was a failure in protecting women’s rights at our Islamic center. Other men, in all communities, remaining locked to tradition and power, need to transcend their egos so they can understand the pain and suffering women endure at the hands of inequity and injustice. Until recently, I couldn’t admit to my wife and daughter that I’d wept trying to fight for women’s rights with the board at our mosque. But I told them and realized, with the release of this secret, that this adage is true: To liberate women is to liberate men.
With my daughter’s assertion of women’s rights, the first woman was elected recently to our management committee. The day I marched to the mosque with my family and five women from around the country, the new woman mosque executive publicly asserted women’s rights to the front door and the main hall, although the mosque hasn’t put the policy in writing.
If my daughter is banned from the mosque, I, too, will never walk through the threshold of my mosque. I know my relationship with Allah, subhana wa tala, “the sacred and the mighty.” In case of my death, I will ask that my salatul janaza, the Muslim prayer for the dead, be performed at the Islamic Center of Greater Pittsburgh or any mosque where women are respected. On the day of the march on the mosque here in Morgantown, I was proud to walk in through the front door – behind my daughter and my wife.