One woman against many
Asra Q Nomani, the journalist and writer, who lives in a small West Virginia town has taken on — and frontally, too, — the Muslim male religious establishment of Morgantown. The community is small but its men are determined to keep women “in their place”. As the traditional practice goes, women are only to enter the mosque from a special entrance and pray separately from men, generally in a basement or a balcony. Asra, a direct descendant of Maulana Shibli Nomani — her infant son is named Shibli — refuses to abide by this upstairs-downstairs system. She is therefore “on trial” for having dared to enter the mosque through the front and sat down with other men to pray. In another time and place, the pious gentlemen who consider her actions heretical, would have burnt her at the stake or embedded her in sand before stoning her.
Asra, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, was temporarily living in Karachi to research and write a book when her old friend and colleague Daniel Pearl arrived there with his wife Mariane. Asra offered to put them up in the house she was renting. After Pearl’s kidnapping, she became the sheet-anchor for Pearl’s pregnant wife. Pearl, by all accounts a warm and trusting man, never returned — and all because he was a Jew. Asra is a fighter. Diminutive she may be, but afraid she is not. As I write this, I hear that she is going to march to the Morgantown mosque on a certain day and stick on its front door 99 precepts that she believes enshrine the rights of women in Islam.
Asra says the precepts are the result of the soul searching that she began when she faced the dark side of injustice and intolerance in the Muslim world. She calls 7th century Medina, a “City of Illumination” because it embodied the highest values of Islamic teachings on compassion, tolerance and equity. “I want us to create cities of light in the Muslim world of the 21st century with doors opening — not slamming shut”, she declares.
Asra has just published a book — Standing Alone in Mecca: an American woman’s struggle for the soul of Islam — that describes her pilgrimage to Mecca with her mother and Shibli, whom she is raising alone. When she was in Karachi, she fell in love with a Pakistani who walked out on her under family pressure. Little, innocent Shibli is the fruit of that association. Asra wears this as a badge of honour. To her Morgantown detractors, she is a sinner who should be stoned, or at the very least, kept out of the House of God. Asra, a woman, has defied them and that is what they cannot accept.
She writes in her book, “One of the issues working against American Muslim women — an issue not much discussed outside the Muslim community — is the de facto takeover of many US mosques by puritanical and traditional Muslims, many from the Arab world.” At another place she writes, “I believe there are some fundamental changes the world of Islam must make in order to be true to the spirit of the religion. First, we must live by the golden rule common to all religions and philosophies of the world. We must respect others. Second, we must open the doors of Islam. Saudi Arabia must open the doors of Mecca and Medina to those who are not Muslim. Muslims around the world must open the doors of their mosques to women and those who are not Muslim. Third, we must open the doors of ijithad in the Muslim world. Fourth, and finally, we must honour and respect the voices and rights of all people.”
Asra has prepared an Islamic bill of rights for women in mosques and another bill of rights for women in the bedroom. Article three of the latter asserts that women have the Islamic right to make independent decisions about their bodies, including the right to say no to sex. That means they are not their husbands’ vassals but their equals with a will and personality of their own. Where Asra’s campaign will carry her, it is hard to say. What is not hard to say is that she is never going to give up or give in.
On her next visit to Washington, she plans to pray in the main section of the Islamic Centre. Her crusade is best summed up in her own words, “Since the beginning of time, women have been judged, banished, and punished without being able to tell their story. I will not accept the same fate. All women have an intrinsic human right to express their voice and stand up for justice.”
Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent