Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Dear Brothers and Brothers

Imams Who Don't Care #3: Dear Brothers and Brothers

A unique challenge for many Muslims is to accord to women their rightful status - as defined by the Qur'an and the Sunnah - in society. Islam ordains that men and women are equal before God and in society. However, humans, in their imperfect implementation of this principle often swing to the two extreme ends of this spectrum.

To some, sadly, equality is achieved only when SAMEness is achieved - i.e. men and women dress the same, carry the same responsibilities, and do the same things. I say sadly, because this quickly becomes absurd. Some of the sameness can never be achieved because it is physically and biologically impossible. Men will never be able to breastfeed children or carry babies in their wombs (which do not exist). While Islam allows a woman to work outside the home, this distorted sense of equality now pressures all women to feel the need that they must work outside the home to feel equal.

The other extreme, equally sad, is the one we see more often in Muslim communities. People who sort of pay lip service to women's equal status but kind of wink and nod to a reality that is anything but. Books can be written to cite evidence for this bold assertion, but two simple examples ought to suffice for now - I see some comedy and tragedy in both:

  1. Muslim Women as an Afterthought: In the last 40 years Muslims have built mosques around the United States. What amazes me is how badly designed most of these structures are. I know, I know, it's the spirituality that's more important and all that nonsense, but come on, if you're going to build a structure, please pay as much attention to it as you would to your own house in terms of functionality. The issue that receives LEAST attention is that of women's access to mosques. It's usually an afterthought. Here is how I think things really happen. The grand mosque gets built, nice dome and minaret and all, prayer rugs from Persia and Pakistan...and the inauguration day is approaching. Someone, then realizes "what about women - where are they going to pray?" The highly resourceful masjid secretary has a solution. "Hey, not to worry, we have a dark and damp basement!" If there is no basement, he usually runs to Office Depot and grabs a few pieces of cubicle furniture. Then, in the extreme corner of the masjid, the same resourceful brother, assisted by the rest of the executive committee, working together in perfect unity, installs the "Sisters' Prayer Area." Oh, the sign is quickly made too - the cover of a cardboard box is ripped, and using a matching color H1B pencil someone writes it all up and duct-tapes it at the entrance. Masjid budget: $2 million, 4 years of effort. Budget to find place for "Sisters": $125 and 35 minutes of effort.

    If you feel your brother here is exaggerating, visit the "National Masjid" in Washington, DC on Massachusetts Avenue.

  2. The "Dear Brothers and Brothers" Imam: Some of our "Back Home Imams" and others who became Imams here but picked up a hardlined strain of the deen just can't come to accepting the fact that our daughters, sisters, wives and mothers choose to join us in prayers at the masjid. These Muslim women may be braving the dark, damp basement or relegated to a corner cubicle where jackets and the masjid cleaning supplies are kept, but the biggest insult they have experienced is when the Imam just cannot acknowledge their presence. I have known many such Imams - I call them the "Dear Brother and Brother Imams." You know how it goes, the Imam in addressing the congregation considers it a sin to refer to the congregation with the realistic "Dear Brothers and Sisters" - naah, can't utter the taboo word.

    If you feel I am exaggerating, maybe I am. So these Imams simply say "Dear Brothers" even as they know the presence of the fairer gender in the masjid, but bad, old habits, deep-rooted biases just can't bring them to acknowledging them.

I worry about this issue is for the following reason: We Muslims in America, and soon Muslims elsewhere in the world, won't be able to bluff our daughters, sisters, wives and mothers for too long. Bluff season is over. It's time to fully adopt Islam and shed our old, pre-Islamic tribal principles that we have held on to so tightly for so long, even if we feel very attached to them.

Dear brothers and brothers, let's start with building mosques that are every bit geared to also meet the needs of our women. And if you know they are in the audience, don't hesitate to make them feel welcome.

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