Beyond the Veil Worship


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.

Toronto’s Noor Cultural Centre offers desegregated prayer space, where Muslim women and men pray in two distinct but equal groups, arranged side by side.

Peter J. Thompson/National Post

The two sexes are divided in prayer by a narrow band of cream-coloured linoleum, arranging themselves on patchworks of brightly coloured carpets in two distinct but equal groups.

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.

The centre is at the forefront of a push by some Muslims to carve out a greater role for women within Islam.

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.”

One of the reasons the headdress is so controversial is that even in Islam it is open to interpretation as to whether Muslim women are required to veil at all. There is no central religious authority clarifying scripture, leaving scholars and others to debate the matter. This passage is typical of the many from the Koran that discuss the issue of modest dress: “Oh Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters, and wives and daughters of the believers, to extend their outer garments around themselves, so that they would be distinguished and not molested. And God is All-Forgiving, All-Merciful.” (Koran 33:59)

The blue or grey, tent-like, full-body covering that women in Afghanistan were forced to wear under the Taliban.
The head-to-toe shroud covers even the eyes, with vision permitted through a latticed panel of fabric.
The burqa is also worn by some women in Pakistan and northern India.

A veil worn by some Muslim women that covers the face, as well as the hair, leaving only the eyes exposed.
Traditionally popular with women in the Persian Gulf states, but worn by Muslim women in countries around the globe.

The outer garment worn by some women in Iran when they venture out in public.
A black semi-circle of fabric trailing to the ground and open down the middle, the chador is thrown
over the head and clasped shut with the hands, teeth or by tying the loose ends at the waist.

Literally, a curtain. In general it refers to any clothing that Muslim women wear to fulfill their religion’s requirement of modest dress.
However hijab has popularly come to describe the headscarf that covers the hair, neck and in some cases shoulders, leaving the face exposed.

The long, loose scarf made of a light material that some women in India and Pakistan wear on their heads.
It often matches a traditional outfit of loose-fitting trousers and a tunic.


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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