Leading PostsMay June 2005

Getting Behind The Woman Imam

Esther Nelson

Dr. Amina Wadud, a female Religious Studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, in the United States, led a mixed gender prayer service in New York City on March 18, 2005. Repercussions have been felt all over the world—especially the Muslim world.

Dr. Nasr Abu Zaid, a male professor of Islamic Studies, who occupies the Ibn Rushd Chair for Islam and Humanism at the University of Humanities in Utrecht and currently lives in exile in The Netherlands, delivered a public lecture to an overflow audience at Virginia Commonwealth University on March 31, 2005.

When Nasr was in Virginia, he and Amina met. They exchanged ideas and viewpoints. Nasr supports Amina’s bold move to lead a mixed gender prayer service, finding it most appropriate within an American context. He notes that the Qur’an talks about the equality of men and women. “If all are equal, why does this cause a big stir?” The “big stir” happened because Amina’s courageous step—leading both men and women in prayer—is an attempt to bring the divine space (where the equality of women and men is asserted) and the social space (a human realm where men institutionally exercise power over women) together. Her goal is admirable. If there is equality in the divine realm, why should human beings resist that equality as they live their lives within society?

What Amina seems not to understand, though, is that the United States is not Afghanistan, nor is it Egypt, nor is it Syria. In other words, Amina Wadud has failed to put her admirable act into social context. According to Nasr, having a woman lead a mixed gender prayer service at this moment in history in Afghanistan, Egypt, or Syria will not set in motion those wheels to accomplish that equality which the Qur’an speaks about—bringing the social and divine space together. Time will tell if her bold action will move us in the direction of equality between women and men in the United States. Those folks who live in Afghanistan, Egypt, and Syria must decide how best to attain equality between women and men within their specific and particular realities. To ignore or dismiss what Amina has done, though, and not strive towards building a society where social equality between women and men flourishes in the social space would be to go against the teachings of the Qur’an.

Education for women, the right for a woman to divorce, and issues having to do with women’s inheritance are just some aspects that command attention and demand work within the political structure of Muslim countries in order to accomplish equality between men and women. Many women in Muslim societies are unaware of their rights. They need to be taught. Many men would prefer that women not be aware of their rights within Islam. How will having a woman lead a prayer service, as noble and appropriate as that act may be in the United States, be helpful to women in other parts of the world who have more pressing priorities? Folks in other parts of the world need to answer that question, but perhaps Amina’s act—done in the United States—will help to set in motion the wheels of change throughout the world.

Amina is old enough to remember the feminist movement in the United States that erupted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Black women or “women of color” accused this emerging feminism of being a white, middle-class movement. Black women (Amina is a Black woman) were right. Feminism at that time had tunnel vision. The movement failed to take into consideration the particularities of women from different races, classes, and economic situations. It did not contextualize itself within the lives of ALL women. To the movement’s credit, its members and those in sympathy with the movement listened to those who were critical. And things changed. Feminism today speaks about the nexus of race, class, and gender. These categories overlap.

Amina would be wise to listen to women and men from other parts of the Muslim world as she continues to work for equality in the social space—an equality already present in the divine space. Is she truly interested in making a lasting change or just a big splash? She’s already accomplished the big splash. I’d like to see evidence of some effort put into lasting change.

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