Pray-In Group Targeting Local Masajid to End “Gender Segregation”
In January of this year, Fatima Thompson, a revert to Islam living in the Baltimore metropolitan area, went to pray at the Islamic Center of Washington DC.
Arriving late, she missed the main jama’, so she prayed on her own in a section of the prayer area designated for women. The space was enclosed by a 7-foot high wooden barrier.
Soon after she finished her prayer and left the women’s area, she noticed a second prayer congregation in progress. She was upset. Had she known of this congregation, she would have joined. The barrier she prayed behind made her feel like a “second class believer”.
“That was the crystallizing moment for me,” she recalled.
Shortly after this incident, Thompson set-up a Facebook page and founded a small movement now called “Pray In”. The purpose of the group is to “end gender segregation” in the masjid, and Thompson is leading group members in what she calls acts of “civil disobedience” – praying behind the men at local area masajid, disregarding any specially designated prayer areas for women.
Their first “Pray In” protest at the Islamic Center of Washington DC took place in late February. About ten women prayed outside the women’s space behind the men’s congregation; men who came in late formed lines behind the protesting women. After the prayer, a confrontation ensued between the caretaker of the masjid and the Pray-In group. The police were called. This first protest received a good amount of media attention, but – maybe because the Islamic Center of Washington DC is largely disconnected from the community-based masajid in the region – most area Muslims did not take notice.
In early May, however, Thompson and members of her group staged a pray-in protest at Dar Al-Hijrah, the region’s largest masjid. Reporters, invited by Thompson, were already on the scene.
Although Dar Al-Hijrah has a second floor mezzanine overlooking the main prayer hall designated for women, Imam Shaker Elsayed allowed the protesters to pray in the main prayer area but only in the very back, citing a hadith which states the back most rows are the best for women. The group refused, demanding to pray with only a few rows of space between them and the men. Thompson told the Muslim Link asking the women to pray at the back wall was “essentially an attempt to humiliate” the group. A heated exchange took place, and after the prayer, the police escorted the women off the property. Dar Al-Hijrah told Thompson she was no longer welcome at the masjid.
The incident, covered on the front page of the Washington Post’s Metro section, shocked area Muslims. Moreover, Thompson told the Washington Post she already had another local masjid in mind for the next protest, and that the group won’t stop.
The Muslim Link spoke to several community leaders and Imams about the Pray-In group; very few agreed to speak about the group, and those who did answer inquiries chose to speak off the record.
Muslim leaders of masajid in Maryland and Northern Virginia were roundly critical, even upset, that Pray-In is making what one board member called a “big drama” out of barriers in the masjid.
“Our own community sisters who come and pray [throughout the week] at our masjid have never had a problem with the barriers. And now this outside group is coming with their reporters from Fox News and [other media] to make the community a laughing stock in front of everyone. It is irresponsible and … selfish. It is totally against what Islam teaches,” said a board member of a large area masjid. The masjid is exploring legal ways to prevent the group from coming on the property, he said, adding that the policy is still being discussed.
Thompson told the Muslim Link she invites reporters along to be witnesses if there are any verbal or physical threats made against the protesters; the group also believes mass media coverage of their protests is the only way to force Muslim community leaders to address their concerns. Pray-In alleges that one of its members was assaulted by a prayer attendee at Dar Al-Hijrah.
Masjid leaders also question why Thompson’s group doesn’t speak with the Imam or the masjid administration to attempt to amicably resolve any issues with the prayer arrangements. Thompson said she does reach out.
“Everywhere where we’ve had a pray-in, we have tried to engage the [masjid leadership] before hand … the responses were variable,” she said.
In April, Dar Al-Hijrah’s Imam Shaker Elsayed accepted Thompson’s invitation to speak on a panel on the women’s prayer space issue. The discussion did not prevent the heated pray-in protest at the Falls Church, VA masjid a few weeks later.
Imam Safi Khan of the Dar-us-Salaam community in College Park, Maryland agreed with other area leaders that taking the issue to the media is not the best way to approach the issue.
“There are Islamic vehicles to go through, like talking to the Imam, talking to the women in the community through the halaqas and [through] education … making the community aware of the issue. If the Imam is not responsive, we should go to the other nearby Imams to speak to that Imam. We should also go to the ulema [scholars] to issue a fatwa on the issue. If all these ways are tried and the issue is not resolved, Islamically what should be done is to remain patient, and keep educating the community. There is [a detailed] and comprehensive Islamic process for resolving differences, and we should follow that,” he explained.
Imam Safi Khan met with Ify Okoye, a Pray-In member who lives close to Dar-us-Salaam and often attends his Friday khutbah. Okoye called for the meeting, asking about the prayer arrangement for women at Dar-us-Salaam. A revert Muslimah like Thompson, Okoye said it’s “bad da’wah” when she brings her female non-Muslim relatives to the masjid and they discover women pray behind a partition.
Pray-In maintains that prayer barriers between the genders are a “bida’”, or a “religious innovation” that did not exist at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Imam Safi agreed.
[CORRECTION: Imam Safi did not agree the partitions were "bida", but he did acknowledge they were not part of the masjid at the time of the Prophet Muhammad Sallallahu 'alyhi wa sallam]
“The closest to the sunnah is to not have a barrier. If most of the sisters request the partition because they feel more comfortable like that, there is nothing haram about that. And if most of the sisters don’t want the partition, then there won’t be one – provided the sisters maintain the proper hijab. If the sisters don’t wear the proper hijab, then we need to make shura [consultation] with the sisters and see what we need to do, whether that is a partition, more education, or rules for the masjid,” said Imam Safi, who said that he can only speak on behalf of Dar-us-Salaam and not other masajid. “The Prophet Salallahu ‘alyhi wa sallam instructed the men to not turn around until the women left. If the brothers don’t follow that, then maybe in that situation a barrier could be put up,” he added.
Citing a fatwa on the issue, Fatima Thompson insists that not only are barriers un-Islamic, but a space larger than a few rows between the men and women invalidates the women’s congregational prayer. She could not recall the name of the scholar who issued the ruling; the fatwa is also not on the group’s Facebook page.
Imam Hassan Amin, an Islamic Chaplain in Baltimore City, said local Imams should give a khutbah about the issue of partitions in the masjid, and how men and women should arrange themselves in the prayer area.
Many Muslims familiar with the Pray-In group consider them “progressive Muslims”, a moniker which came into use over the past decade to describe Muslims who advocate for free interpretation of the Qur’an, the Imamship of women, and the permissibility of homosexuality.
Although Fatima Thompson is affiliated with a progressive Muslim group – a homosexual man who calls himself an Imam accompanied the first pray-in protest in Washington DC – she is adamant that the Pray-In movement is independent from any progressive organizations. Many Muslims who identify themselves as progressives are supporters of the Pray-In movement.
Asked if she thinks the involvement of people like homosexuals and figures like Asra Nomani – the main organizer of a women-led mixed gender juma prayer in New York in 2005 – affected the credibility of the Pray-In movement, she said no.
Mentioning her participation at a Gaza rally in which some Jews also took part, she said “does [the participation of the Jewish people] detract from the message of standing up against injustice? No.”
While several area Muslims sympathized with the lack of proper prayer accommodations for women at some area masajid, almost all Muslims who spoke to the Muslim Link said they disagree with the group’s methods.
At one Maryland masjid, women heard about the Pray-In group but were not interested.
“We don’t know them. They don’t come here. Our needs are being met [at our masjid] ... we have classes and a lot of activities, some with the brothers, and some just for sisters. We have needy, single mothers [in our communities] who don’t have money to feed their kids [properly]. And these sisters are worried about prayer barriers? They need to get over it,” said one sister on her way to a weekend class.
As for the rest of the women in the area masajid, the Pray-In movement doesn’t really know how the majority of them feel about the prayer accommodations. Asked if they ever presented a petition of local women to a masjid board or Imam, they said no. The women, they said, are probably too intimidated by the men to sign any petition.
Asked if they approached the Coordinating Council of Muslim Organizations of the DC area – an umbrella group representing most masajid in the region – with their concerns, they said not yet. Like Thompson, the chairperson of the CCMO is from Baltimore, and is also a woman.
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