Juliane Hammer’s article, “Performing gender justice: the 2005 woman-led prayer in New York”, describes the events of March 18th 2005, when Muslim men and women gathered for a historical Friday prayer. What made this event historical were namely these three things: the prayer and sermon was led by a woman, the call to prayer was done by a woman, and the absence of gender separation in the congregation. Sadly, with no access to a mosque the service had to be done at an Episcopal Cathedral. There was also high security due to threats, protests, and media coverage (93). The organizers of the event were hoping to change traditional views on women and worship. They expressed during a press conference that women have not yet reached full equality and participation in their communities.
The organizers had mixed views on the presence of the media. Some thought word of this event would inspire others, while others, namely Dr. Amina Wadud (the prayer leader), were more focused on the sacredness of the event in itself (94). Wadud had used divine authority from the Qur’an in her sermon to justify the equality of men and women (95). Even though Wadud felt the importance of this event for Muslim women, she wanted to retain its original intent of worship. “I was especially keen that I concentrate on the nature of public ritual as performance directed toward Allah, rather than an act of defiance against those who have created the necessity for a gender jihad by simply denying women the full human dignity with which Allah has created us (102).” Wadud and others were gathered to worship Allah, not to upset people, even though this was inevitable.
Hammer’s main argument is that the worshippers and organizers that day actively participated in creating a new image of Islam (92). This image was not only a new image for the world to contemplate but an image for Muslims to address as well. “The image of the oppressed and silenced Muslim woman is only second to the even more pervasive image of the violent Muslim extremist and its association with terrorism (96).” Muslim women in America have had great opportunities to speak for themselves and dispel such stereotypes even though they are rooted in the fact that women do not have the same rights to worship. Many Muslim women have published books that discuss the meaning of their religious identities. “American Muslim women, through these writings, have joined the existing tradition of religious American women sharing their stories. These memoirs are typically stories of questioning patriarchal forms of religion, as well as journeys of liberation and faith struggles (97).” Muslim women have used media in America to show that the Muslim woman is not monolithic. In the case of the female led prayer, media was used to portray these women as non-submissive and very proactive in fighting religious oppression. However, there is a backlash among Muslims to the creation of this image.
Imam Shakir’s “An Examination of the Issue of Female Prayer Leadership” opposes women who justify what took place on March 18th. He takes a lot of time refuting a particular woman, Nevin Reda, and her use of hadith to argue for female led prayer, by showing that her choice of text has questionable authority and has numerous interpretations.
He cites many hadith that show gender segregation has always been a part of Islamic worship, yet he never tests these texts as rigorously as the ones used by Reda. It is also unclear from what he has cited, the religious reasons (if any) behind this segregation. It just happens that men have always been in front of women, never mind that this might be more a product of the culture and time and not the religion.
Shakir says, “[I]t should be clear that a woman leading a mixed gender, public congregational prayer is not something sanctioned by Islamic law, in the Sunni tradition.” He notes that his evidence comes from a particular context. On pages five and six, he even notes disagreements between Sunni schools. I appreciated that he did this so one can see that views on women and prayer are not monolithic even though they all have same conclusion about public mixed gendered prayer.
I found it odd that he did not address any of Reda’s Qur’anic evidence. He justifies this by saying that it does not affect legal rulings (10). He just demonstrated the ineptness that hadith can sometimes have and he does not wish to look at a text which holds more authority. In his conclusion, he demonstrates that yes, Muslim women do need more attention just not necessarily power. “Perhaps, if the men of our community had more humility, we would behave in ways that do not alienate, frustrate, or outright oppress our women (11).” Perhaps, it was the inability of men in Muhammad’s culture to show humility to women that put them behind men in worship and in lower standing. If Shakir were to take this idea of humility seriously, then women would be given equal power. Surely, Shakir means having humility with limits.
He also stresses that Islam does not advocate this worldly liberation. “Our fulfillment does not lie in our liberation, rather it lies in the conquest of our soul and its base desires That conquest only occurs through our enslavement to God. Our enslavement to God in turn means that we have to suppress many of our souls’ desires and inclinations (11).” If men suppressed and conquered their base desires there would be no issue. Women will have liberation when men liberate themselves from their desire for power. Shakir’s conclusion confuses me because these statements seem to advocate equality. This makes me wonder whether the divine principle of equality is less important than the rulings derived from hadith. The United States seems to be a great environment for Muslim women to test the limits of the Islamic law against Qur’anic values.