Groundbreaker

Women-only mosque in Los Angeles is the first of its kind in the U.S.

A California woman talks about launching a women-only mosque and the plan to empower young Muslim women

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Women's Mosque of America/Facebook

Friday, July 17, marks the close of Ramadan, with more than one billion Muslims around the world celebrating the revelation of the Qur’an to the prophet Mohammed. According to a 2011 PEW study, nearly one million Muslims, the majority of the United States’ approximately 5- to 12-million-member Muslim Community live in socially progressive California. Southern California is one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the United States and, according to PEW, the Muslim faith is one of the most ethnically diverse religions in the world. And so, it only seems fitting that The City of Angels, Los Angeles, is home of the nation’s first female-only Mosque.

Starting a Mosque was a childhood dream for M. Hasna Maznavi, a 29-year-old comedy writer and director. As she grew older, she noticed a lack of space for female Muslim leaders in the various Mosques she attended throughout California. Recently, the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California reported that two-thirds of Mosques “have women praying behind a partition … they cannot see the Imam giving the sermon.” Maznavi, who has said that “The prophet Mohammed was arguably the greatest feminist of all time,” felt a need to continue the long tradition of female Muslim scholarship and leadership by creating a space just for women, where they could access female scholars, and become speakers themselves.

In 2014 the non-denominational Women’s Mosque of America found its home in an interfaith center in Los Angeles, and held its first Khutbah (sermon) in January of this year. Though the initial response was positive, in May Maznavi felt she needed to take back the narrative, writing in an Op-Ed for the Huffington Post, “Instead of being seen as a celebration of Muslim women, the Women’s Mosque of America was erroneously being framed as a “liberation” from Muslim men. As tempting as it may be to believe that we Muslim women are a monolithically oppressed group of Jasmines waiting to be saved from big bad bearded Muslim men, this couldn’t be further from the truth.”

The Mosque’s intention is to “complement existing mosques, offering opportunities for women to grow, learn, and gain inspiration to spread throughout their respective communities.” The Mosque is funded entirely by donations, and governed by a board of directors, comprising six volunteers. The first Khutbah was given by board member Edina Lekovic, who serves as the Director of Community Outreach, and works as a consultant at the Muslim Public Affairs Council. This Ramadan, Lekovic worked with the mosque to expand its outreach to empower Muslim women as leaders and scholars, challenging existing social structures in the process. Women in the World spoke with Lekovic about launching the women-only mosque.

Women in the World: What are some of the special things The Women’s Mosque of America worked on this Ramadan?

Edina Lekovic: In addition to our regular monthly service, we had our first ever Iftar (break fast) dinner and congregational prayer that was for both men and women, and it was also a fundraiser. We sold out the event with about 160 people in attendance, and a standby list. It showcased how far we’ve come since the inception of the mosque about a year ago, and it also gave a preview of upcoming programs and ways to make those programs become a reality. We are hoping to launch a Qur’an literacy program … and we’re also looking to start a women’s speaker series to expose people to female scholars and experts on issues. Lastly, we want to launch a workshop to empower women with skills they can bring to their co-ed mosques and serve as lay-leaders and even potentially run for a board of directors and that kind of thing.

WITW: A video on the Mosque’s website shows that you gave the first Khutbah in January. What was that experience like?

EL: It was both exhilarating and terrifying, I never imagined myself in that role. I’m a professional activist and communications strategist and I’m passionate about issues related to the American Muslim community. I was the understudy for a female scholar who couldn’t make it at the last minute. I decided to do it when I thought about my mentor, a man who would always remind me when I would say “why me?” His response was, “why not you?” That really rang in my ears and I thought: I may not feel equipped to do this, but I know that I can do this.  The sermon is usually two parts. In the first I focused on how this women’s mosque represents a legacy of the continuation of Muslim women not a departure from it. The second part focused on my own story — how fundamentally each one of us has an obligation that if we want to see change in our communities and the world around us we have to be willing to change. I chose to say yes to this opportunity knowing that my saying yes would pave the path for others to say yes, who may similarly feel ill-equipped. And then, secondly, that we all have to step up because if we look at the mosques around us and want our communities to advance we can’t be looking at other women and thinking: Well, why don’t they? You’ve got to be thinking: What can I do?

One of the statistics I shared in my sermon was that the number of mosques that specifically do not allow a woman to serve on their board of directors has dropped dramatically since 2000. In 2000 that number was 31 percent and by 2011 that number dropped to just 13 percent, which is great news. However, the headline to me is the fact that only half of the mosques that have changed their policies to allow a woman to serve on the board have actually had a woman serve on the board since then. That’s where we have to be ready to take advantage of opportunities … we’ve got to be willing to be the first. It was really one of the most powerful experiences of my life. My daughter was there, who was probably five months old at that time. It was phenomenal to think this is going to be normal in her lifetime, and how different and new it was and for me in my lived experience of Islam vs. my mother’s lived experience of Islam. I actually recently wrote an Op-ed about it.

WITW: Why were women being denied these leadership roles at co-ed Mosques? Did this stem from the Qur’an, or tradition?

EL: There is nothing in the Qur’an that says women cannot lead prayer or that women cannot give the sermon. It’s more tradition than anything else, much like Christianity or Judaism and other faiths where there is patriarchy embedded either explicitly or implicitly. In our tradition, the leaders of prayers have almost always been men, but we know that there have been exceptions. In the lifetime of the prophet Muhammad, he gave permission to a woman to lead her family in prayer and that set a precedent for women leading not just other women in prayer but also women leading men in prayer. Women have been scholars and teachers in the Islamic tradition since the advent of Islam so that is not unusual, but the idea of a woman leading other women in prayer disappeared over the centuries.

WITW: You’ve spent your career as an activist. Are the other board members also activists?

EL: There’s one man on the board and five women, most of them are millennials, and for many of them this is their first real organizing effort within the Muslim community. Hasna has been a comedy writer pursuing her own Hollywood career, Nia Malika Dixon is a filmmaker, and Zaiba Omar works in accounting. Mahin Ibrahim works at YouTube. Logan, the man on our board, works in homeless outreach, so you’ve got people with very different backgrounds, some of them converts, some of them born into Islam. There’s a great diversity of experiences and interests.

WITW: Instead of focusing on the work you do in the community, much of the mainstream media’s focus on American Muslim women is on the hijab, or liberation. What is your response to that?

EL: I’ve found that most portrayals fall into three categories. The first is the most obvious, which is the Muslim woman as oppressed, or subjected to violence — she’s a victim in some way, invisible or silent. The second story is where the Muslim is liberated, she either leaves Islam or takes off her scarf or leaves her culture behind and that’s what liberation represents. The third kind of story is the Muslim woman who defies the stereotype, and that’s the best choice we have available when it comes to most media portrayals. The only positive portrayal of most Muslim women is that we defy the stereotype, so if you are normal and functioning and contributing to society whether you wear a headscarf or not then that gets woven into the story—like “wow look at this shining example — here she is defying the stereotype.” What I’m waiting for is the fourth option that is not really out there — where it’s just a Muslim woman who’s living her life and her “Muslim-ness” is incidental to her contributions, her accomplishments and her sense of self in the world, and that she is taken for the complexity of that package rather than still defined against that stereotype. Rather than defining her as what she’s not, simply defining her as what she is.

Earlier this year, I was invited by Buzzfeed to sit with some women who had volunteered to wear a hijab for a day to see what the experience was like. That couldn’t have happened 10 years ago, or even five years ago. There was a video about Muslim women called “somewhere in America” produced by the group Mipsterz — Muslim Hipsters. It shows Muslim women rocking their headscarves. One woman is in heels, another is on a skateboard. Sure they might be defying the stereotype, but that’s not what their intention is—they’re just showing who they are and telling their own stories and letting people come to their own conclusions. That’s where I see the greatest promise, it’s Muslim women not asking for permission. We are giving ourselves permission to tell our stories and do it with every available platform out there.

WITW: At our summit in April, Hillary Clinton said that in order to advance women and girls in our society “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.” Do you see the mission of the Mosque as in agreement with this?

EL: I think there’s some truth to that, not an absolute truth, but the patriarchy is universal and longstanding and misogyny is widespread. Working for progress is a long slow process and it’s going to be step by step. That requires looking at structural biases, looking at what is the difference between religion and culture and how do they intersect. I think a lot of misogyny and patriarchy in the Muslim community is rooted in old cultural practices. If you don’t have religious literacy, and you don’t know that the Qur’an tells you that men and women are equal and you were taught by your family or your culture that women are different and unequal you would assume the religion and culture are the same. It really goes back to religious literacy. It’s a huge tool in the self-empowerment of Muslim women.

WITW: How are the men in your life, and outside of it, reacting to the mosque?

EL: That’s the great news. The men of the American Muslim community have been widely positive and supportive about the creation of the women’s mosque. Those include scholars, imams and regular men. My husband, for example, really wanted to be there to hear me give my sermon and kept saying he was going to sneak in. We’ve been getting a lot of men saying they want to hide in the balcony and listen, and I think what’s really exciting is that we are coming up at the right moment. The overwhelmingly positive response we’ve gotten is a testament to the timing and the real need that exists out there, and certainly there are naysayers but there always are. I’m proud that we haven’t let the naysayers define the conversation — they are the outliers. The supporters are the dominant voice.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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