Next week I will be in Washington DC to lead the services for Eid ul Adha, the holiday that marks the end of Hajj. Many friends have asked me, Why fight for women’s right to lead congregational prayers and preach in the mosque? Aren’t there more important battles? What about domestic violence? What about women being stoned for adultery while the men go scot-free? What about political rights? Or educational and economic rights? Is this really what we should be spending time on?
My answer has always been a resounding, “Yes! It is definitely worth fighting for.” Women’s leadership in the mosque is the touchstone for women’s rights in every other aspect of life. When women are denied leadership in prayer, when they are denied the right to sermonize, it has profoundly negative ramifications upon their ability to practice leadership and to have a voice in less important spheres of life.
First, it creates an atmosphere where women’s leadership is devalued, or worse, prohibited. If women cannot lead prayers, it throws their suitability for leading anything into question. When it is OK for women’s voices to be silenced in the pulpit, it becomes OK for them to be silenced in other arenas. If they cannot be heard in the most important place — and according to the Islamic worldview, religion is the most important sphere on one’s life — if they have no right to offer leadership in the most sacred of human activities, certainly it doesn’t matter if they are not heard and do not participate in other, less important spheres of life.
In essence, by allowing a second class status for women in the mosque, we are allowing women to be considered second class citizens at all times. The implications are broad and scary — if women’s voice and leadership are secondary to men’s anywhere, then clearly men have the right to rule in the family, in the workplace, and in the government. It is only a short step from there to limits on women’s economic rights, political participation, and men’s sense of superiority over women that leads to violence against women.
On the other hand, if women are fully participatory in religion — the most important part of life according to the Islamic worldview — including leadership of the prayers and delivering sermons, it becomes harder to argue for political disenfranchisement, economic and educational restrictions, and patriarchal family structures. It becomes less easy to whitewash domestic violence, to justify inequal justice in our courts, and to maintain a position that women are subordinate to men.
Second, this is, I believe, an Islamic right. The Prophet commanded Um Waraqa to lead the people of her area in prayers. He assigned her a muezzin (the person who calls the faithful to prayer). When she asked permission to go to battle with him, he refused, saying that she had been commanded to lead prayers, and should consider that a more important duty than jihad. (This is documented in hadith in Sunan Abu Daud). I do not believe we should compromise on our rights, not at a time when women’s rights are severely challenged in so many Muslim countries. When we compromise on one right, it becomes easy to compromise on other rights. When we settle for less, so that we don’t rock the boat or upset other folks, then we end up always settling for less. No, we don’t always have to demand every right, and a world based upon the premise that we should would be not a particularly happy one. But today, the rights of Muslim women are being impinged on a global scale. Today, we cannot compromise, so that in the future, if we choose forgo a right, it will be from a position of strength and general enfranchisement, not from a position of weakness and disenfranchisement. It will be an act of free choice, not an act of appeasement.
And third, aside from the systemic effects mentioned above, there is the matter simply of women’s fulfillment. Some women are called to the pulpit. Some are called to theology. Some are called to motherhood, or to be an engineer or doctor. Some are called to work in non-profit organizations; or to athletics. As long as these callings are wholesome (sorry, if you are called to be a mass murderer, you are out of luck!), then women should not be denied the opportunity to live their lives as they choose. Women who are called to ministry should not be limited to being chaplains, or leading prayers for city councils (while being denied the right to lead prayers in their own mosques!). All human beings should be able to follow their dreams, and have agency in their own lives.