USA: Interview with Asra Q. Nomani

The Hindu
Asra Q. Nomani organised of the first woman-led mixed gender prayers in Muslim history.
She is a rare being, almost an endangered species: an Islamic feminist who takes recourse to the scriptures of the religion, the traditions of Prophet Mohammed and the Holy Quran to vindicate her stand. A single, unwed mother, she has organised the first woman-led mixed gender prayers in Islamic history since the 7th Century. Against tremendous odds, Asra Q. Nomani, born in Mumbai and settled in the U.S., continues to plough a lone furrow.
Some have hailed her as a woman who has recaptured the ground lost to patriarchal forces. Others have accused her of heresy. But she remains an independent woman who does things her own way. A seasoned journalist and an intrepid author, she makes no secret of her marital status in her books. Her latest literary exercise, Standing Alone in Mecca, which recounts her struggle to perform Hajj, has just hit the stands. Asra talks about the winds of change blowing across the Muslim world, and the relentless struggle she has had to wage to get where she has.

You have talked of reclaiming the voice that the Prophet gave to women 1,400 years ago. Could you elaborate?

Muslim women of the 7th Century had it better than many Muslim women of the 21st Century. Women prayed in the mosque of the Prophet Muhammad, while throughout India today women are barred from even entering mosques. Women weren't required then to veil their faces. The Prophet's first wife, Khadija, was his boss and a successful working woman, while today, often the message from the pulpit is that the best women don't leave home. I think the Prophet would weep if he saw the injustices that women face today. Instead of progressing, we have gone backwards. I firmly believe it's critical for us to go back to the progressive values of Islam in the 7th Century.

The Sachar Committee Report chronicles that, on many counts, the condition of Muslims has fallen below that of the Dalits. We will never be able to get out of the ghetto unless we practise the progressive values of Islam, just as we rightfully expect those values to be practised in the wider society.

Islam expressly forbids free mixing of men and women. How then were you able to win the right for women to lead a prayer of both men and women in America?

Islam doesn't forbid the free mixing of women and men. Only a puritanical interpretation of Islam forbids that. Muslims, and those outside the faith, must recognise the difference if we are to see a day when the most conservative don't define Islam or, for that matter, any religion. When I learned that a Muslim woman, Umm Waraqa, led women and men in prayer in the 7th Century, I thought: Why not now? Since my youngest days, I was never empowered to lead prayer or believe that I could stand as a leader in front of my community. That is a serious loss, of half of the Muslim society's resources, I believe.

I organised a prayer in which Dr. Amina Wadud led women and men in prayer because it was time for women to go from the back of the mosque (when they could even enter) to the front — not just in form but in spirit.

The prayer wasn't a one-time event. Women-led prayers of mixed gender congregations have been repeated in communities across North America from Boston to Toronto. As women, it has been ingrained in us that we're not good enough. I had to overcome my own fears of inadequacy to stand before even a small congregation in my hometown as the imama.

In the book, Standing Alone in Mecca, we do not get to know much about your Indian experience. Could you enlighten us about the early years, and your subsequent experience as a Muslim woman?

I was born in Bombay in 1965. When I was born, my father's family had settled in Hyderabad, and I lived there for the first four years of my life. A lecturer at Osmania University, my father had gone for his Ph.D. to the U.S., my mother joined him, leaving my older brother and me with my Dadi and Dada. We rejoined them when I was four, jetting to New York City's John F. Kennedy Airport alone, wearing matching clothes cut from the same striped cloth, in case we should get lost.

Since that first trans-Atlantic journey, I have lived the hyphenated life of so many Indian-American immigrants, changing my Western clothes to more traditional clothing in mid-flight back to India for summer vacations. I bristled at the messages I received from my traditional Muslim family — that silence is golden and good girls didn't go outside the home — but I thrived under the loving embrace of my extended family. So many years later, I recognise how the Muslim identity that I have carved for myself is firmly grounded in the incredible values of honesty, ethics, love and hard work that I absorbed from my Muslim family.

In the book you talk of Muslim women in the U.S, India and Pakistan, among others. Are they at the receiving end of a patriarchal society everywhere? Or is it just that the clerics have not allowed a free debate on scriptures?

Islam doesn't have a monopoly on sexism. Alas, it's a hallmark of virtually all societies. Muslim clerics aren't the only religious leaders who want to have the interpretations of their men's clubs stand as the religious law of the land. Second to letters from Muslim women, I receive letters from Catholic women, frustrated with so many of the traditional restrictions they face in organised religion. In travelling freely as a woman through Hindu temples in India, I was emboldened to experience religion without gender segregation, but I didn't see a woman pandit at a single temple. Trust me, this order that subordinates women is the curse of all societies and we've got to challenge it.

How has the American Muslim community reacted to your life and the book?

For many Muslims, it was a shock that I not only conceived a baby outside matrimony but also dared to speak publicly about it without spending the rest of my life in a corner of the mosque praying for forgiveness. I've been called every name in the book to demean a woman. That's all okay. What I heard was nothing I hadn't thought myself. I lived the nine months of my pregnancy with a sense of illegitimacy, but when my son was born beautiful without scars on his face from the tears I had swallowed during my pregnancy, I made a choice to live a life free from shame. That choice has allowed me to stand with strength and clarity about deeper values that I believe we need to resurrect in our Muslim community: compassion, love, tolerance, social justice and women's rights. And I'm thrilled to say that we've been able to make a difference, global and personal. The largest Muslim organisations in America issued a report in the summer of 2005 chronicling the ways in which mosques should reform to become "women-friendly". The largest organisation, the Islamic Society of North America, elected its first woman as president. A mosque in San Francisco tore down the wall behind which women were expected to sit. A mosque in Chicago named its first women to its board. In Seattle, Washington, a South Asian grandmother whispered the Muslim call to prayer in her new grandson's ear, a tradition typically reserved for men. The first voice a boy in Islam's newest generation heard was that of a woman — a first in his ancestry. That is change.

Interview by: Ziya Us Salam