Last Friday, Dr. Julianne Hammer, Associate Professor and Kenan Rifai Scholar of Islamic Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, gave a talk entitled “The Women’s Mosque of America: Muslim Women, Religious Practice, and Space,” in which she spoke on directions of change related to American Muslim women.
Hammer has an M.A. as well as a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies, both from Humboldt University in Berlin, and she self-identifies as a Muslim feminist.
Hammer focused on a movement called the “Women’s Mosque in America,” started by two Muslim women in Los Angeles in January 2015. The goal of the organization is to empower and provide a safe space for Muslim women. This movement resulted in a monthly, women-only Friday prayer in what was described as a “multi-faith synagogue.” Prayer is led by a different female scholar of Islam and is followed by a communal discussion. Boys are allowed only until the age of 12. Friday prayer is not required for females, and Islamic law prohibits a female from leading it.
This movement piggy-backs on an earlier event, held on March 18, 2005 in New York City. This event was a mixed-gender congregation, but had a female call to prayer, Khutbah, and leading prayer. Islamic law typically gives them separate rooms within mosques because the idea is that a male would be too tempted and unable to focus on communicating with God in the presence of a woman. While the Women’s Mosque of America is women leading women, the 2005 congregation was made up of all genders.
The Khutbah was given by prominent Islamic scholar Amina Wadud, who came under heavy fire from several male religious leaders in the community after doing so. In addition, protests outside argued that Wadud is not a Muslim, while some of the other dissenting points of view claimed this was not allowed or that Muslim women had bigger issues than leading prayer. In contrast, there was almost no open opposition to the Women’s Mosque of America in 2015.
Although it is held only once a month, the Women’s Mosque of America is significant in that it opens a space previously denied to Muslim women. Hammer notes that Friday prayer is not only a place of religious importance, but also of communal and political importance, and the lack of female attendance represents their exclusion from the public sphere. Muslim women have always had their own spaces. However, by having women take charge of those spaces rather than have them designated, they are empowering themselves and choosing to isolate themselves. As Hammer puts it, “maybe all the fun stuff happens in women-only spaces.”
At the 2005 event, there were more reporters and journalists than actual participants in the prayer, and Wadud complained that everyone was so focused on the fact that a women was leading that no one actually listened to her Khutbah, which Hammer called “a beautiful piece of speech performance.”
Hammer ended the lecture talking about Muslim women who are opposed to these women-led prayers and spaces. How do we, as feminists, or as Muslim feminists, she asked, relate to those who disagree with us? She prompted the audience, “What do we do with people who don’t agree without falling into the trap of labeling them as ‘other’?”