(Edited version first published in the Guardian – Comment is Free, 14th June 2010)
A woman led Muslim prayers in Oxford last week. Her actions and those of others like her, across faiths, deserve our support.
Only Muslim women from abroad dare lead men in Friday prayers in the UK. Canadian, Raheel Raza, became the second Muslim woman to do so at the Muslim Educational Centre in Oxford last week. African American convert, Amina Wadud, was the first Muslim woman to lead mixed prayers at the same centre in 2008. It’s not surprising that British Muslim women are not brave enough to follow their footsteps – both have been demonised, labelled as heretics and have received death threats after leading men in prayers in their own countries.Why is the idea of female imams so controversial amongst Muslims? When Amina Wadud initially shocked the world in 2005 by leading mixed-gender Friday prayers in New York, I must admit even I felt uncomfortable. I had been brought up to believe only men could be imams, something I never questioned up until recently.
An honest study of Islamic texts reveals that women are not forbidden to lead men in prayer – the Quran does not even address this issue. In fact the conditions required are Islamic knowledge, skill and piety – none of which are gender related. However, the mostly male scholars, fanatically maintain there is consensus on the impermissibility of women leading men in prayer despite lack of evidence to substantiate their position. In fact this issue is not even open to debate, yet centuries ago it was discussed without controversy and diversity of opinion was respected. According to female scholar, Halima Krausen, a number of male scholars such as Abu Thawr al-Kalbi, Abu Isma’il al-Muzani, al-Isfahani, at-Tabari and Taymiyya, had nothing against women leading mixed prayers. Also one woman, Umm Waraqa is known to have led men in prayers in her household during the time of Prophet Mohammed.
Male clergy often cite questionable hadiths or take them out of context to criticise women such as Wadud. However their main argument is about women’s bodily movements arousing desires in men. Are men really so weak that they can’t keep their eyes off a fully covered woman’s posterior during prayer? I believe men have invented arguments about their sexual excitement – it is only their ego that prevents them from praying behind a woman.
Popular notions of sexuality casting women as temptresses and men as weak and dominated by sexual urges must be challenged. The Quran does not even remotely suggest that men are sexually more excitable than women. In fact I have discovered the following hadith which is conveniently ignored: “God has created the sexual desire in ten parts and he gave nine parts to women and one to men.” The same narration goes on to say, of shyness, women have been given nine parts of that too. So if women can control all nine parts of their desire when men are bending in front of them, sometimes wearing the tightest of jeans, it’s about time men took responsibility for their own urges too, and not hold women responsible.
Despite these powerful arguments supporting the permissibility of women leading mixed congregation prayers, I doubt this practice will become widespread in the near future as religious institutions are controlled by men. Also most Muslim women are more concerned about fighting for equality on basic grounds such as education and economic empowerment. I don’t think leading prayers is a battle that most are ready to fight, even if they believe in it. At least Wadud and Raza are paving the way for more female imams to come forward to lead other women in prayer. Last year Hawaria Fattah became the first female imam in Europe after being recruited to a mosque in Belgium which is a pioneering appointment even though she only works with Muslim women.
Restricting women’s role in religious structures and practices is not exclusive to Islam. Historically all the world’s major religions have been instrumental in doing this. For example, the first female rabbi worldwide was Regina Jonas, who was only ordained privately in 1935 in Berlin. Then it was not until 1972 when the next one, Sally Priesand was ordained by a reform movement in the US. Since then, all branches of Judaism, except the Orthodox, have found a way to ordain women. However there are still other barriers to overcome – Jewish women are still forbidden from wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (leather box with straps that Jewish men wrap around their arms during prayers) at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Recently a Jewish woman, Noa Raz was physically attacked by a man after he noticed her arm bore the imprints of tefillin straps.
Female priests may have been ordained in various branches of Christianity. However its largest denomination, the Roman Catholic Church has consistently refused to ordain women and those ordained unofficially are often excommunicated. This status quo continues to be challenged – last week a group marched to St Peter’s Square demanding a debate on this issue. Opening the doors to priesthood would mean women could ascend to the papacy – and perhaps the possibility of a future female pope is too much for the Catholic Church.
Women are suffering the consequences of oppressive misinterpretations of religious texts in all faiths. Its time more women question their legitimacy and no topic should be out of bounds for discussion including women religious leaders. Women wanting to break down the last barriers to female participation, sends an unequivocal message about equality.