A Tempe, Arizona, mosque has found itself tugged into the headlines after a member alleged that she was booted for being transgender.
The mosque’s board chairman tells The Daily Beast the issue isn’t as simple as it seems—and that he wanted to convince leaders to allow her to pray with other women, but needed confirmation that she had first completed gender confirmation surgery.
Sumayyah Dawud, a 30-year-old former customer service employee, says the mosque’s board chairman told her two weeks ago that she must dress like a man to pray in the mosque or provide a second medical letter to “prove” her womanhood. All of this came after, she says, he violated her privacy and shared confidential conversations with the wider board.
The first meeting about her gender history occurred in July, Dawud said, adding that she thought the matter had been resolved then and there. The board chairman told her there had been complaints from various members, ones who likely “had suspicions” about her gender history, she says. At his request, she’d even provided him with a medical note certifying her as female—with the understanding, she said, that it would stay between her and him.
Dawud had been praying at the center since converting to Islam more than two years ago, and says she hadn’t had any issues.
Dawud, who wears the full face veil or niqab, told The Daily Beast that she had searched for meaning in other religions before finding Islam. “I was cleaning my apartment and I ended up finding this old Quran that I had misplaced for years,” she said. She read through it and found the flow comforting. She took the shahadah—declaration of faith—in March 2013.
“When I realized that I actually am female, and I actually had to transition… I was so sure, I knew there was no mistaking it,” Dawud said. “And when I decided to take my shahadah, that same level of confidence was there.”
The July conversation was not the end of the road, however. She was summoned back in to meet with leadership in late August, after another woman intercepted her in the mosque’s female quarters. She says she was told she could provide an additional medical letter stating that she was female—or she could pray with the men. Dawud recorded an hour-long video about her difficulties and posted it to YouTube.
“Islam is very strict on giving people privacy,” she told The Daily Beast, though she added she’s gotten a lot of support from the Muslim community since her public outing. “You’re not supposed to dig into other people’s affairs.”
“It’s totally against Islam, what they did,” Dawud said. “Totally.”
Yet in a time when transgender people are making strides in educating the public that gender is about identity and not anatomy, the Islamic Community Center of Tempe’s board chairman told The Daily Beast that in Muslim communities, physiology is still of paramount importance.
“There is a separation between men and women,” Nedal Fayad told The Daily Beast in the ICC’s first statements on the controversy.
He maintained that the inquiry into what prayer section Dawud occupies began when he was approached by a concerned member of the community, who said Dawud had come out to her as transgender.
He also disputes Dawud’s claims that she shared a doctor’s letter about completing her “gender transformation” with him in confidence. Dawud says he’d asked for it with the intention of proving to the rest of the board that she should be accepted as a woman—not discriminated against. (He says the note was from a psychiatrist, and she says it was a primary care doctor.)
The document, he says, didn’t confirm for him that she had undergone gender confirmation surgery. If he knew she had, “she would be treated as a female—completely as a female,” Fayad said.
As a compromise, Fayad says he told Dawud in July that she could pray in the women’s section, but that she should steer clear of women’s areas, where normal public modesty rules are suspended.
“It was a very simple request. Please do not make physical contact with women, please do not use female bathrooms. Do not use men’s bathrooms,” he said. Instead, he offered Dawud an alternate private bathroom for her use.
Her activism had nothing to do with it, he insists, instead saying that he’d “commended her” for some of her work. “She stood up to people,” Fayad said. “That is something that’s commended, to be active, but within the law.”
But two weeks later, Fayad says, she was back at the mosque, in women’s sections. In both his and Dawud’s retellings of the event, a female member of the community called her out. Fayad showed her the mosque’s gender policy, which focuses on biological sex. It was later briefly posted on social media as the mosque’s “transgender policy” in what Fayad now calls a bad PR move.
She was then given the option of providing additional medical documentation—or praying in the men’s section.
“It’s a tough situation, because apparently she has gender dysphoria, which is a real condition,” he added.
However, Scott Kugle, a scholar of Islam and professor at Emory University, told The Daily Beast that Islamic interpretations of sex and gender were not always as rigid as they might seem today, though there are a couple of hadith—or recorded sayings of Muhammad—about men dressing as women and vice versa that people frequently jump on.
In the time of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, Kugle said, the understanding of gender was more expansive than just male or female. One of Muhammad’s wives had a friend known as a mukhannath—”men who dressed as women and hung out with women and did women’s work,” with no clear consensus on their sexual orientation—who went in and out of the women’s quarters. He was only banished from them when the Prophet overheard him talking to a man about a different woman’s physical attractiveness.
Another wife of the Prophet, he added, had a servant who was a eunuch and lived with her. That relationship only became scandalous when she became pregnant with a boy, and some tried to paint the eunuch as the father. (Eventually, Kugle says, a community member observed that he had been castrated and was unable to conceive children.)
Even today, “as long as you conform to [gender norms], people don’t usually ask a lot of questions,” Kugle said. But he believes only few contemplate “those deeper, more existential questions” about what it means to be a man or a woman.
“If she would’ve done what we asked and not shared [her gender history] with community members, I don’t think she would’ve had a problem,” Fayad said. “As of these days, if she follows the policies of the ICC, she is still welcome to come and attend the mosque.”
Meanwhile, Dawud says she hasn’t heard from the ICC-Tempe since the incident, but she hasn’t reached out to them, either.
“I found that I actually have a lot of support in the Muslim community,” she said. “My goal is to, sooner or later, give it another shot. Try to sit down with the board… so that we can have more of an open, serious talk, unlike how the previous meetings were.”