Understanding Diversity and Empowerment

Madihah Akhter in The Feminist Wire:

MadihahOne Friday afternoon, as I was settling down to listen to a sermon in my local mosque in Orange County, California, a woman leaned over to me and whispered that I needed to take my toenail polish off to properly complete ablutions. Many people believe that since water can’t touch nails because of the impermeable polish barrier, one can’t perform ablutions. Without successfully performed ablutions, my prayers would not be accepted. My toenails have been a source of contention in mosques spanning the globe. I’ve been lectured on the moral ills of nail polish in languages I don’t understand. While I interpret lectures on ‘correct’ practices as policing, many women feel these corrections are religious and generational duties that contribute to community construction. While being scolded for nail polish may seem trivial, it is actually an entry point into a set of debates regarding how to accommodate the inherent diversity of beliefs and practices within religious spaces, especially among young American Muslims, many of whom find these comments intrusive. This experience is also the basis for a new initiative, the Women’s Mosque of America.

…The first question the board faced in creating the Mosque was how to reflect an inclusive mindset in policy. The organizers tackled this issue by having a diverse set of khateebahs. Ideal khateebahs reflect the diversity the Mosque embraces, including diversity in ethnicity, background, and sectarian affiliation. This diversity is also reflected on the advisory board itself, which is composed of men and women, Shias and Sunnis, and members from the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence who maintain varying degrees of practice. Finally, diversity is reflected in the Mosque’s “come as you are” policy, which recognizes that there is no one definition of female modesty, and pluralism in religious practice should be respected and encouraged. The goal is to avoid policing among congregation members. On one hand, this view of diversity is beautiful. It is a much-needed reminder that the American Muslim community is not a monolith. We define ourselves according to a wide ranging set of beliefs and practices informed by family background, upbringing, and experiences, in addition to varying interpretations of religious texts. On the other hand, this idealism begs the question: how can the Mosque practically implement and maintain these policies? The first step, according to Sana Muttalib, a co-founder, is to make the Mosque’s policies clear to the entire congregation. The khateebah announces this policy before her sermon and board members to keep an eye out for women policing other women within the congregation during prayer.

More here.