Beyond the Veil WorshipALLISON HANES
When the faithful heed the call to Friday prayer at the Noor Cultural Centre, men gather on the left side of the light filled hall facing Mecca, while women align themselves on the right.
It is exceedingly rare for Muslim men and women to pray side by side, without a curtain, wall or some other physical barrier between them. At most mosques in Canada and around the world, women pray in the back of the room or are relegated to separate quarters altogether. Sometimes men and women must even use separate entrances to the mosque.
But the Noor Centre, perched on the edge of the Don Valley in a tranquil glen of maples, has desegregated the prayer space for its small but growing community of followers.
The centre is at the forefront of a push by some Muslims to carve out a greater role for women within Islam. The small but global movement aims to dispel widely held notions that their religion is sexist at its core by replacing patriarchal readings of Islam, pursuing shared prayer space and even having women lead prayer, a move so radical it is akin to a woman saying Mass in a Catholic church.
“Islam is a faith for all people, of all times,” said Samira Kanji, president of the Noor Centre. “We say we are creating a Canadian brand of Islam — but it has to absolutely follow what the Koran teaches.”
During a tour of the brutalist-style building that houses the centre, she points to a white Arabic script that is etched on the modern glass wall of the prayer hall and translates: “Oh Mankind! Behold! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the best in conduct. Behold! God is all-knowing and all aware.”
The passage spells out the vision of Islam they are quietly advancing, mining the Koran and the Hadith to show that what they believe the prophet envisioned for women was respect, recognition and rights — not segregation and oppression.
It may sound revolutionary, but the centre is cautious about this movement being labelled feminist or even progressive.
Kassim Ebrahim, the centre’s administrative officer, prefers the label “pristine,” and says that before the first sideby-side prayer service was held, religious scholars gave their stamp of approval.
“Whenever we embark on any action we feel might be different ... it must be within the bounds of Islam,” he said, pointing out that men and women mix freely during prayer at Mecca, Medina and the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem — Islam’s holiest sites.
The Noor Centre’s prayer service is intended to reach out to such women as Mr. Ebrahim’s wife, who felt like a second-class citizen relegated to a balcony or shunted to the basement if men overflowed the main hall.
“The whole objective of the Noor Centre was to restore what was taken away from our Muslim women and create a place where they would feel comfortable and feel like they belonged,” Mr. Ebrahim said.
Raheel Raza has taken this push for Muslim women’s equality even further.
Last March, she covered herself very conservatively, stood in a friend’s backyard and conducted a prayer service for a mixed-gender audience of about 50 people. In so doing, she became the first woman in Canada to lead Muslim prayer.
It is an act as controversial in the Muslim community as it would be for a woman to conduct Mass in a Catholic curch — it would be unthinkable in many parts of the world and is indeed considered blasphemous by religious conservatives.
In fact, the Toronto writer, speaker and commentator very nearly declined the invitation after the intense public reaction that accompanied the first woman-led prayer in New York in 2005.
“My husband actually took me aside and said, ‘You know, it’s ironic that you give sermons in churches, and you give speeches at synagogues and temples, and you actually lead prayers, in a way. And now your own community is asking you and you’re not doing it ... I want you to go ahead and do it,’” she recalled him saying.
In the end, it was a low-key service that Ms. Raza called one of the most “heartwarming, sublime and beautiful” experiences of her life.
Although many were appalled — including her own sister in Pakistan — she insisted she wasn’t trying to prove anything to anyone nor challenge the precepts of Islam.
“I didn’t do it for attention. I did it because we needed to send a message that we are spiritually equal,” she said. “It is extremely important for Muslim women who are living in free societies in the Western world, in North America, in Canada where my religious freedom is protected, to speak out and talk about the fact that Islam is progressive and bring Islam into this century.”
DUPATTA OR CHUNARI
Allison Hanes, "Beyond the Veil Worship." National Post, (Canada).
Reprinted with permission of the National Post.
Allison Hanes writes for the National Post.
Copyright © 2006 National Post
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