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Last Updated: Monday, 26 July, 2004, 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK
US Muslim woman defies hardliners
By Seema Sirohi in Washington

Ms Nomani and her son, Shibli in front of the Islamic Center of Morganto
Ms Nomani says she is being discriminated against (Photo by Andy Starnes)
Indian Muslim Asra Nomani has found herself on the frontline of a battle for women's rights in Islam in the United States.

She entered the local mosque through the front door and dared to pray alongside men, an act that has triggered heated discussions among America's Muslim community.

An all-male "tribunal" of the mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia, wants to banish Ms Nomani because they think she is a frequent trouble-maker.

In their campaign to silence her, she has been depicted as heretical, misguided and westernized, someone in need of reform.

They argue that women should only be allowed to enter a mosque through the back door, Ms Nomani says.

In our mosque, only the men are allowed to use a microphone to address the faithful
Asra Nomani

She says women like her, who are articulate, deeply religious and independent-minded, simply do not fit their version of a true believer.

"I have demanded a public hearing but they denied it," Ms Nomani said.

"They pulled names out of a plastic bag to sit on the tribunal. It has been hell and it would have been easy to walk away.

"But I am finding support from many people who don't want to accept the status quo. And I find my answers in Islam."

Deeply religious

For Ms Nomani, who was born in Bombay (Mumbai) nothing would be more painful than being rejected as a Muslim by her local mosque.

She sees herself as a progressive modern woman who is also religious: there is no contradiction in her mind.

Ms Nomani comes from a deeply religious Muslim family, but one which she says tries to embody the spirit of Islam rather than the outward symbols such as wearing veils.

(L-R) Zafar Nomani (father), Asra Nomani, Shibli Nomani (21-month-old son), Sajida Nomani (mother)
Ms Nomani's family fully supports her campaign (Photo by Jackson Lynch)

Her parents, originally from Hyderabad in India, moved to the US when she was four and today her extended family is spread all over the world.

Her father, a retired professor who helped build the mosque in Morgantown, supports her struggle to pray in the main hall and her larger quest to find her identity within Islam.

Nomani, a journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, is today juggling life between finding a lawyer to help her in the dispute and looking after her 20-month-old son, Shibli.

Unwed mother

Support for her campaign outside her family within the Muslim community is muted: her demands for an open hearing with the mosque authorities have received little support.

She has however received backing in internet chat rooms and in articles that appear on liberal Muslim websites such as Muslimwakeup.com and altmuslim.com.

It is not just Ms Nomani's defiance of mosque prayer arrangements that raised local blood levels but also her status as a single unwed mother.

She says the Muslims in her area do not accept or understand her.

Members of the executive committee of the Morgantown mosque say Ms Nomani has challenged time-honoured Islamic traditions.

They say that men and women are separated because they have to kneel down to the floor and their shoulders can touch when they stand side by side.

Both men and women want privacy as a result, they say.

Some women in the mosque accuse Ms Nomani of being a "publicity hound," using her journalistic skills to write strong opinion pieces in support of her unfair views.

That she chooses to speak about her dispute has shaken the male-dominated world created by people she derisively refers to as "true believers."

She and six other Muslim women, all writers and academics, recently formed an organization to tackle what they say are interpretations of Islam which relegate women to a secondary role.

'Sexual provocation'

Ms Nomani argues that it is wrong that women are prevented from attending some mosques in the US, yet are allowed to pray together at Islam's holiest shrine in Mecca.

According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a growing number of US mosques are putting women behind a partition or in another room to pray.

President Bush in Turkey with Ortakoy mosque in the background
A survey suggests that segregated mosques in the US rose from 52% in 1994 to 66% in 2000

A survey done by the group shows that segregated mosques rose from 52% in 1994 to 66% in 2000.

"In our mosque, only the men are allowed to use a microphone to address the faithful," Ms Nomani said. "When I asked why, a mosque leader said that a woman's voice is not to be heard in the mosque.

"What he meant was that a woman's voice - even raised in prayer - is an instrument of sexual provocation to men.

"Many women accept these rulings: their apathy makes these rules become the status quo."

Ms Nomani says that she is campaigning for a more inclusive Islam.

Part of that, she says, is created by underlying divisions between South Asian and Arab Muslims which came to the fore as she began questioning what she said were hate-filled sermons by Arab students who had taken over her mosque.

Ms Nomani argues that Morgantown is a microcosm of what is happening in mosques across the US.

Muslim women in California, Minnesota and Maryland are against the practice of "herding" women in small rooms like sheep where much of the time they cannot hear the preacher, she says.

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