On a warm evening last September, Asra Nomani parked her car across from the only mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia, a hulking brick building on a quiet residential street. She watched a trickle of congregants stroll in for evening prayers at the house of worship her father helped found 25 years ago. After the last one entered, she pulled the hood of her sweatshirt over her jet-black hair, then slipped through the green steel front doors and up the stairs to the main prayer room, where a dozen-odd men and boys were gathered. Nomani, a tiny, saucer-eyed 40-year-old, found a spot in a corner of the sparsely appointed sanctuary and quietly went through the ritual bows and prostrations. The males studiously ignored her, except for one small boy who stared openly at her as his father led him away at prayer’s end.
Nomani’s presence hasn’t always been so quietly tolerated. Two years ago, she launched a campaign demanding that women be allowed to pray with men in the main sanctuary, instead of being segregated in an upstairs balcony where a waist-high wall blocks their view of the imam. After months of angry words, letters to the editor, demonstrations, and a petition drive to expel her from the mosque, she was grudgingly granted access in June 2004. Now she’s expanding her campaign, joining the efforts of a nascent movement pushing for an expansion of Muslim women’s rights.
“Intolerance toward women is like the canary in the coal mine for intolerance toward other people,” says Nomani. “When you allow sexism to go unchallenged, you allow bin Laden-type mentalities to go unchallenged. That’s why it’s so vital that the expression of Islam in the world be one that is completely affirming of women’s rights.”
The daughter of Indian immigrants, Nomani was raised as an observant Muslim in this riverside university town. As an adult, however, she drifted away from her faith, focusing instead on her reporting job with the Wall Street Journal. Her work eventually led to Pakistan—and a confrontation with “the worst of how Islam is expressed in the world.” That came when her close friend and colleague Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded by Muslim extremists. Sickened, Nomani became determined to reclaim her religious heritage from those who had hijacked it. She left the Journal, made a pilgrimage to Mecca, and went home to Morgantown—where she soon locked horns with members of the town’s mosque.
Its practice of segregation is not unusual: A recent survey found that two-thirds of the nation’s mosques place women behind partitions or in separate rooms, and nearly one-third ban women from sitting on their governing boards. With that in mind, Nomani took her campaign on the road last spring, getting herself very publicly harassed in mosques in Los Angeles and Seattle when she tried to pray alongside men.
Nomani isn’t the only one campaigning to literally improve the position of women in Muslim houses of worship. Last March in New York, Amina Wadud, an Islamic studies scholar, ignited a theological firestorm by acting as an imam, leading a group of Muslim men and women in prayer—a prerogative that for centuries has been reserved only for males. Religious leaders from Saudi Arabia to Malaysia denounced her, and she received death threats. But a handful of other North American Muslim women have since led their own prayer sessions, and the Progressive Muslim Union has launched a web-based resource center promoting women-led prayer specifically and women’s rights in general.
In recent months, mosques in Chicago and San Francisco have lowered partitions separating men and women, and a group of major American Islamic organizations published a resource guide on making mosques more female-friendly, including calls for women to be allowed to pray with men.
None of which has made Nomani any friends at her own mosque. Her father has stopped paying his membership dues because of worshippers’ simmering resentment toward his daughter. Some accuse her of simply trying to drum up publicity for her memoir, Standing Alone in Mecca. Sohail Chaudhry, the mosque’s black-bearded imam, says Nomani’s confrontational approach alienated many in the insular congregation. “She started writing articles, going to the media, giving us a bad name,” he says. “It was all very shocking to the community.” He insists that both the male and female congregants, most of them immigrants from conservative countries like his own native Pa-kistan, prefer to pray separately, so as not to be distracted by the presence of the opposite sex. Even after the mosque issued a statement in 2004 allowing women to pray in the main area, he points out, “Asra is still the only woman there.”
Nomani isn’t expecting much more progress from Morgantown’s small Muslim community. She’s embarked upon a far more ambitious goal: working with other activists to develop a whole new social movement within Islam—one that respects the Koran but interprets Islamic law to take modern sensibilities into account, especially regarding women, much like the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism have done. “All religious reform starts with people who are called heretics,” she says. “But enough people within the faith are fed up with how the ideologues on the right are pushing us around.” So she prays.