What’s the story behind founding the Women’s Mosque of America?
I have been watching the media and the way that journalists pick up on certain elements and ignore others. And I think what’s really not coming through right now is that this entire project stems from a place of love and inspiration. And, you know, starting a mosque was always a childhood dream of mine.
Are you familiar with the concept of sadaqa jaria? [A charity or donation that keeps paying off through the generations, like a mosque.]
So as young child, I think I must have been like seven, I decided that before I die, I want to build a mosque. And so, my whole life I had kind of been collecting ideas on how I want this mosque to look like, but I never really thought that I would be creating it at the age of 28 or 29. The reason why it happened at this time was because, first of all, I had a great mosque experience growing up, in Garden Grove mosque. Women were on the board, women and men prayed in the same space, my older sister was president of the Muslim youth group, and there were no barriers, as is the prophetic model.
What ended up happening though was that once the mosque grew to such a large size, they renovated and they ended up building the new mosque in the style of another country’s culture. That meant having the dome on top of the mosque, and it meant putting the women upstairs. So now, instead of being with the entire congregation and the imam, now we were separated and cut off. We could look through a glass window, but we couldn’t be heard or seen. What was interesting was that even though this mosque was a beautiful, inclusive, warm, welcoming environment, slowly that architecture started to trickle down into the culture.
When I would go to this mosque during off hours, because I have this love of mosques, there’s this gigantic main prayer area, and it would be completely empty except for maybe a few men. I would go pray and enjoy the beautiful dome and the atmosphere and then, as soon as I enter, they would come rushing towards me — not in a bad way, they were very polite about it — but to let me know that I was in the wrong place.
It became difficult to not interpret and internalize this disconnect and un-welcomeness that I was feeling in God’s house of worship as a lack of worthiness of my own spiritual connection to God, and it starts to hurt my self-esteem.
As I started to go to different mosques around the country, and especially in the Bay Area, I found one mosque in particular, Masjid Al-Iman. They have a sign above their mosque that says, “Where Everyone is Welcome,” and that’s what really sparked my love of mosques.
I went to Berkeley for college, and after I came back down, I was desperate to find another mosque that had that same spirit of inclusiveness as Masjid Al-Eman. For years I had dreams of going to San Francisco every Friday for Jummah prayer. Then when that became unrealistic, driving up and down, I decided (since I live on the border of OC and LA) that I’m going to drive up to Los Angeles, because that’s the only mosque I feel comes close to having a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere.
Then, as time went on, it just became more and more difficult to find a mosque. I had a really bad experience in that [Los Angeles] mosque, and then I totally ran out of options of mosques to go to, and it became a very deep struggle for me.
Friday used to be my favorite day of the week, a day I looked forward to, and now it became a day of immense guilt and pain and struggle and shame. I began asking myself what was wrong with me — how can I call myself a good Muslim and feel this much internal resistance going to the mosque? It really started to hurt my spirituality. The way I was surviving at the time, as I was in graduate school at USC, was by joining a halaqa (discussion) group. After the group’s founder moved away, I continued that halaqa group. That was my lifeline, that was how I was getting my spiritual community or connection to a spiritual community, and it’s actually an interfaith halaqa that I have now once a month, in which we talk about purification of the heart and growing closer to God.
However, it still wasn’t fulfilling that need to go to the mosque and have that Friday experience. I had this experience in 2012 of going to a conference at UC Santa Barbara called “The Reconstituting Female Authority in Islam Conference,” and it was at that conference that my eyes were completely opened. All of the internal struggles that I was feeling, everything became crystal clear at that conference, and I realized,
“Okay this is not an issue with me internally, there is an issue with the way women are being treated currently in our religion.”
I also learned about the vast history of female Muslim religious authorities and scholars. Thousands of them during the time of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and up until a few hundred years after his death were female Muslim scholars, and they were chosen to memorize hadith (sayings of the Prophet) and pass them on. They chose women because the translators wanted as short a train of narrations as possible, and women had a longer life span and sharper memories. They picked them as young girls and had them sit with scholars, at three or four years old, learning and memorizing hadith, and then passing them on until the end of their lives.
One of the scholars there, Dr. Khaled Abu El Fadel, drew this amazing metaphor:
“You know, if there were a group of scholars who wanted to come up with a decision or a fatwa on stem cell research, but none of those scholars consulted any doctors, none of them were medical experts, none of them were doctors themselves; would you say that their fatwa and their information, in deriving those laws, are complete? Similarly, even though many male scholars studied under female scholars, those who wrote down the laws of fikh, the ones who actually codified Islamic law were mainly men. Could it be said that, because none of them were women, and none of them had the knowledge of what its like to be a woman, that there is an element that is missing to women’s fikh?”
This concept of women’s voices being an awrah [something that must be guarded] is not a prophetic concept, it’s an idea that came afterwards. It could be said that if there were female scholars who were writing down the law at that time, wouldn’t the women say men’s voices are also an awrah? Women are not just passive objects of desire, women also have agency, they also desire men.
So in a way, we really missed out when the female Muslim scholars and leaders of Islam sort of died out of the framework. We, as an ummah [community], really started to miss out. So that’s what inspired me to see a resurgence to that time and to start to inspire and develop more Muslim leaders and scholars. Muslim women make up half the ummah, and not only that, it was a 2009 Gallup poll that said that Muslim women are the second most educated female religious demographic in America, second to Jewish women.
So why is our ummah in a state of disrepair? The first Muslim astronaut was a woman, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner was a Muslim girl, and we have so much potential. Why is that these voices and talents are going to waste? We need to hear the Muslim female voice.
I returned to that conference and enrolled in Al-Rawiya College, where they had an Alimah training program. For a year I studied under Shaykha Reima Yosif. I felt so inspired that every time I went to the mosque, I was like,
“Wow, I wish I could just hear a woman speak to me, instead of a man speak at me. And not even at me, he can’t even see me, he doesn’t even know I exist.”
And so that’s where this came from. It came from a place of love and inspiration and just wanting to hear the female voice.