Showdown at the Mosque

When Asra Q. Nomani and other women attempted to pray at Virginia’s notorious “9/11 mosque,” an explosive scene ensued. Inside the protest movement dividing Muslim Americans.

05.17.10 3:04 PM ET

FALLS CHURCH, Va.—Over the years, the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center, a mosque in suburban Virginia, down the road from a Sears, has welcomed some noteworthy congregants: alleged Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan, some of the 9/11 hijackers, and Yemeni al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki—said to be an inspiring figure to both Hasan and alleged Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.

This past weekend, though, six Muslim women and I received a very different kind of greeting. As part of a grassroots civil rights movement we call “Pray In,” we walked through the front door of the mosque instead of a dingy back door designated for women. In the cavernous main hall we attempted to exercise our Islamic right to pray behind the men, instead of in the secluded “sisters’ section.” Some of us wore pink head scarves, the color we've chosen to symoblize our "pink pray-in" movement of Islamic feminism.

Click Below to View Photos of Muslim Women Protesting at a Washington-Area Mosque

“Get out of here!” a man from the congregation yelled, lunging toward us, before being restrained by other men.

Attempting to desegregate Dar Ul Hijra, known in law enforcement circles as “the 9/11 mosque,” is significant. The strict ideology of gender segregation we are challenging is part of a broader, problematic interpretation of Islam that I believe often incites violence against civilians, suicide bombings, and terrorism.

We began our fight in February by challenging the segregation at the Islamic Center of Washington, a mosque with close ties to the Saudis and the strict Wahhabi ideology of Islam. But ever since I moved to the Washington, D.C., area in 2007, I have wanted to attend “the 9/11 mosque,” in order to better understand what it preaches. I was afraid, but I overcame my hesitation after organizer Fatima Thompson, a convert living in the area, pulled together a group of women activists using Facebook.

Read Asra Nomani’s report of an earlier mosque protest at the Washington Islamic CenterThe angry, violent response we received at the Virginia mosque is indicative of how threatened some men are by the presence of women in “their” space. Standing in the front of about 100 men, many of them agitated, the imam, Shakir Elsayed, told the men, “We have women who want to make a point.” Naively, we had expected a friendly welcome. Just weeks earlier, Elsayed had told a town hall meeting on women’s space in mosques that he invited women to pray in the main hall, but they preferred the privacy of the balcony. A few days after these remarks, Thompson called Elsayed to inform him that a group of women were planning to accept his offer and pray at his mosque. “Go ahead,” he said.

But the day of our protest, he demanded we pray with our backs against the wall. “The best rows for the women are the last rows,” he said, repeating a hadith, or saying of the prophet Muhammad, that some scholars, such as UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, have refuted as inauthentic. Thompson bravely spoke up, referencing a hadith that recommends continuous lines without much space separating prayer rows. It was a modern day moment in the “hadith wars” that have plagued Muslim communities since the death of the prophet Muhammad: Muslims trying to establish authority and legitimacy through the supposed words and actions of Muhammad.

We inched forward—rather than backwards—but still stood about 10 feet behind the men, joining the prayer as it started. Before the last prostration, shouting broke out behind us and a group of men, including the mosque’s head of security, yelled at one of the women from our group, Ify Okoye, a Nigerian-American convert. They pushed her and she fled the main hall, worried about her safety. (Not long ago, Okoye courageously wrote a blog post protesting the "penalty box" behind which women are expected to pray at the Islamic Center of Washington.)

The prayers complete, men surrounded the women in our group, some of us still sitting on the carpet. “Get up! Get up!” they shouted. Elsayed walked by, charging us with “fitna,” a loaded word in Muslim communities that refers to people who cause conflict. It can be grounds for killing another Muslim. A member of the congregation responded, “Go! Go! Go! You are not allowed here!”

Elsayed then told the men, “This is what we talked about in the khutbah (sermon) yesterday … They are among those people aligned with Satan and want to influence 1 billion Muslims.” We knew how significant that statement could be. We considered it a verbal threat, giving men grounds by which to assault us. In March 2010, a Saudi cleric said it was acceptable to kill Muslims—like us—who accept gender mixing.

Mosque officials called local Fairfax County police officers who arrived at the scene, telling us we had to leave or face arrest. Outside the gates, the scent of nearby honeysuckle bushes wafting toward us, Officer S.P. Regan handed Thompson and me trespassing notices that said we weren’t allowed back at the mosque. Our case became police report No. 20101350237.

Two nights later, after the shock of the event surpassed, Okoye filed assault and battery charges with Fairfax County Magistrate Claude Bradshaw, against the man who pushed her. She has a June 30 court date. Thompson and I filed complaints against the imam, Elsayed, for intimidation and assault. Our complaints are on file with the court.

Today, we are filing an additional complaint with the Council on American Islamic Relations, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that has built a reputation protecting the rights of women to wear head scarves, or hijab. In 2005, CAIR and other Muslim organizations released a report on making mosques “women friendly,” asserting the right of women to pray in the main hall, behind men, but without a partition segregating them. The report urged mosque leaders to welcome women without "fear and anger." It recommended to leaders: "Make available designated space for women in the main prayer hall."

Separation of church and state statutes can perhaps protect mosques from the reach of American non-discrimination laws, but I’m certain that the strides we made at “the 9/11 mosque” will be part of a revolution, reclaiming Islam from the likes of Maj. Nidal Hasan and Anwar al-Awlaki.

Offering us some hope, before our contentious prayer in Virginia, two male worshippers turned around to discreetly express their feelings; they gave us “thumbs up” signs. But then they disappeared anonymously into the lines, leaving us to fend for ourselves.

Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women's rights at her mosque in W.V. is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She recently published a monograph, Milestones for a Spiritual Jihad: Toward an Islam of Grace. [email protected]