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Last Friday's launch of the first women's mosque in North America garnered worldwide attention. Women's mosques are rare anywhere in the world – with the exception of China, where female imams and women's mosques have been in operation with little fanfare for the better part of two centuries.

The Women's Mosque of America is a natural outgrowth of the lack of meaningful inclusion of women in many mosques across North America. This was reflected by a 2011 survey of American mosques undertaken by a coalition of national Muslim organizations and the Hartford Seminary. The ensuing 2013 report, Women And The American Mosque, painted a dismal picture:

  • For example, on average, just 18 per cent of congregants attending Friday prayers were women. The report points to imported Muslim cultural practices that discourage female attendance as one source of the poor numbers;
  • Two-thirds of mosques were using dividers (or separate rooms) to demarcate women’s prayer spaces in 2011, an increase from 50 per cent in 1994;
  • While 71 per cent of mosques had some sort of women’s programs, only 4 per cent indicated that these were top priority;
  • The proportion of mosques that allow women to serve on boards was up significantly, from 69 per cent in 2000 to 87 per cent in 2011. However, 83 per cent of Salafi mosques barred female board members, whereas Shia and African-American mosques place few or no such gender restrictions. Roughly 60 per cent of mosques had female board members serving in the period between 2006 and 2011.

Perhaps the most significant finding was that just 14 per cent of mosques were deemed to be "excellent" as a women-friendly mosque. The majority scored "fair" or "poor."

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Not surprisingly, mosques that are open to engagement with American society, follow a flexible interpretation of the Koran within a North American context and involve women in governance tended to be deemed more friendly to women.

In addition, many mosques offer inadequate prayer spaces for women, as documented by Hind Makki, who has collected photos and accounts of women's prayer spaces throughout the world. The common theme is that women have been made to feel less than welcome at houses of worship – which are supposed to be accessible to all. Too often, women are treated as an afterthought, herded into closets, basements or separate rooms where they cannot see (or even sometimes hear) the imam. Their pleadings have often been met with condescension and scorn – a reflection of imported Muslim cultural practices that deem women inferior to men. And yet, many Muslim leaders (male ones, typically) sincerely believe that there is no discrimination against women.

Sana Muttalib and M. Hasna Maznavi, co-founders of the Women's Mosque of America, should be lauded for taking the bold and pragmatic step of providing a vehicle for Muslim women's empowerment. The goal is to complement existing institutions and provide women with the necessary tools to make a difference in their communities. They have decided to stay within orthodoxy, by having a female imam lead only women in prayer – a practice that goes back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed. Women will be welcomed as they are – with or without a hijab. The mosque will provide public lectures for men and women by female scholars.

More importantly, it will be a centre where women can study the scriptures and traditions for themselves, within a cultural context where gender equality is non-negotiable. Or, as author Asma Barlas puts it, "unreading patriarchal interpretations of the Koran." They will have the opportunity to discover how women helped to build Muslim societies from the seventh century onward – female warriors, Islamic scholars, judges, philanthropists, poets and rulers.

Most importantly, they will contribute to the evolution of an indigenous form of Islam that's reflective of North American culture.

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