Muslim Women Create a Mosque of Their Own in Los Angeles

The day before the inaugural jumma, Friday congregational prayer, at the Women’s Mosque of America, M. Hasna Maznavi,* who serves as the project’s President, was busy with last minute event planning and logistical details. Her dream to create a mosque that welcomed and empowered women was on the verge of becoming a reality: “I was anxious before but I’m not now; everything is falling into place,” she told me. That optimism was no doubt bolstered by more than 225 RSVPs from prospective attendees as well as the growing media attention that their work was attracting.

Just after 1pm on Friday, January 30, women sat side by side on the cloth-covered floors of the Pico-Union Project—once a synagogue, then a church, and now a multifaith center. All but a few pews remained on the sides of the room, where observers from other religious traditions, reporters, and a few Muslim women were seated.

As Maznavi and Sana Muttalib, the Women’s Mosque’s co-President welcomed the crowd, the women broke into applause when Muttalib noted that “we will not be policing any bodies.”

It was the policing of women’s bodies and limiting of their spaces within mosques that gave Maznavi the final push to transform what she called “her life-long desire to build a mosque” into a specialized religious congregation that made women feel comfortable. After a positive, welcoming experience growing up in the Garden Grove mosque in California, her childhood mosque was renovated and the women’s prayer space was moved upstairs. Maznavi was told not to pray downstairs.

“The architecture slowly trickled down to the culture of the place,” said Maznavi.

After experiencing more welcoming mosques and communities like Ta’leef Collective while living in the Bay Area, she moved back to Los Angeles hoping to find a new spiritual home. During Ramadan in 2014, she sat in the women’s section of a local mosque listening to a talk. The air in the mosque was cold so she took her scarf from her head and wrapped it around her shoulders. “This woman came by and grabbed me by the shoulders,” Maznavi said. “She shook me and yelled at me [to cover my hair]. She wouldn’t stop and I asked her if she wanted me to leave. She said, ‘yes.’”

And so, Maznavi told me: “I got kicked out of the last mosque where I felt safe.”

That religious institutions are the source of spiritual disaffection is a both common refrain and a contributing factor to the growing pool of religious nones—especially among millennials.

Instead of sliding out of the door of congregational and religious life, the organizers behind the Women’s Mosque have channeled their energy into a creative, institution-building endeavor, aimed, in part at stemming that trend. And it seems to have resonated. “I would hope that women who do not go to the mosque or those who don’t feel comfortable when they go, will find [that this is a] place for them to go,” remarked Zaria Horton, who also attends a mosque in nearby Pasadena, CA.

That is what is so strikingly unique about the work that Maznavi, Muttalib, and their collaborators have undertaken. There have been previous efforts to radically push the limits of the American Muslim community, especially around gender-inclusion—most notably Amina Wadud’s and Asra Nomani’s women-led mixed-gender prayer a decade ago. But the Women’s Mosque consciously frames and anchors the project not as groundbreaking, radical, or revolutionary, but as an one squarely within the orthodoxy of Islam, even if that claim is contested. Edina Lekovic, who gave the khutbah (sermon) during the service, noted that there were women’s mosques in ten other countries around the globe.

“It’s been done before,” noted Amal Al Kalla, who also attends the Islamic Center of Southern California. “Women did lead prayer in the time of the Prophet.”

“We respect the orthodoxy and we also want to push it,” Maznavi said.

Los Angeles itself has long been the starting point for movements that challenge orthodox religious teaching, including historic events like the Azusa Street revival, which sparked an American wave of Pentecostalism more than 100 years ago. Today, Los Angeles is home to a large and diverse population of Muslims including recent Latino/a converts, and the children and grandchilden of immigrants and those who found Islam originally through the Nation of Islam. So it is not surprising that the Women’s Mosque was planted in LA’s fertile spiritual soil.

The inauguration of the Women’s Mosque of America is one marker of an important turning point for American Muslims, whose communal efforts have struggled during the post-9/11 cultural climate. Those behind the Women’s Mosque of America are all men and women in their 20s-40s. They have not succumbed to the suspicion or outright hostility of those who question their place in America as Muslims. Nor do they feel the need to proclaim themselves “moderates,” or to engage in self-defensive posturing in reaction to external pressure.

That in and of itself may signal a change in the way this younger American Muslim generation approaches their religion.

While these younger American Muslims are acutely aware of the shortcomings of their own religious institutions, they are not spending their energy to make a project of critiquing the faults of those places. Nor are they patiently waiting for those institutions to awaken to their needs—they are not pleading with traditional holders of authority to lead change from on high.

Instead, they are empowered by self-confidence and a sense of ownership of their identities and their religious tradition—and they are at home in the city they call their own. They are adding to the ingathering of creative energy that is creating what Edina Lekovic and others have called “a renaissance” in American Muslim life.

*Full disclosure: Hasna Maznavi, Edina Lekovic and Sana Muttalib were all participants in a program I advise called the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute. I have been friends and colleagues with Lekovic for a decade.

Photo: Alexa Pilato






  •' Al Newman says:

    Their time would be better spent reading scholarly works on the dubious origins of Judaism/Christianity – from which their religion’s founder blatantly cobbled together his brand of yet another Yahwist religion–not dissimilar to Joseph Smith’s fabrication of the bizarre Mormon religion.
    There is as much evidence for Mormonism being true as there is for Islam.

    In the Middle East – from where these women fled, Islam replaced a much more peaceful/tolerant (but still wacko) religion: Zoroastrianism. There is also a Zoroastrian temple in L.A. – what religion is not in LaLa Land?

  •' Judith Maxfield says:

    When I open RD and see/read about efforts to make religious walls come down, lo and behold, often the first response is one of throwing ice water upon sincere people who seek wisdom. What side of the bed did you wake up on?
    So what? You don’t seem to be interested except to criticize, but you do make yourself appear very self-righteous and dour. Have a happy day.

  •' Al Newman says:

    It is me who is really concerned by encouraging them to seek scholarly information – readily accessible in America – that dismantles outdated Judaic/Christian/Islamic mythology. You want to extend their subjugation to the Dark Ages, reading only the Koran and Romance Novels.

  •' joeyj1220 says:

    The irony of a man telling a bunch of women how to “better spend their time” is lost on Al

  • ic females mosque after 1400 hundred years of history of islam….

  •' Judith Maxfield says:

    Are you kidding me – readily accessible “scholarly information in America? That hasn’t changed anything but now things are actually worse because we can kill easier, faster, all in the name of religion. And please don’t tell me what I want to extend. If you care to explain more what you mean, it might be more enlightening.

  •' Al Newman says:

    Well I have never had trouble accessing/purchasing books on Higher-Criticism of Yahwism’s four big dumb religions -Judaism/Christianity/Islam/Mormonism-
    in America.
    Never been unable to obtain a title I was looking for!

  •' Malik R. Bey says:

    I encourage you to seek scholarly information, as well. If and when you do, you will find that it was the Muslim Moors who brought Europeans out of the dark ages, literally saving them. Bringing sciences, founding universities and cleaning them up. SMH. Sciences that we are beneficiaries of to this day.

  •' Al Newman says:

    Well it takes a long time for a nasty Yahwistic religion to drag people down to the nadir of civil war (Protestant/Catholic) & barbarity (~1300 to 1700 for Christians).

    The derivative Muslim religion has a 600 year lag from its founding which therefore predicts its own civil wars (Sunni/Shia) & barbarity for ~1900 to 2200). Therefore not surprised to see it ramping up right now (it has a long, bloody way to go, if Christianity is any guide).

    So Muslims have been killing scientific progress just like Christians but with a 600 year delay. I hear they teach young-earth creationism in Pakistani universities.

  •' Aravis Tarkheena says:

    What a nasty piece of work you are.

  •' Al Newman says:

    That’s your best contribution to the debate? – the fallacy of ad hominem.

  •' Aravis Tarkheena says:

    Debate? Why would I want to debate some internet-warrior who wants to trash a bunch of harmless women trying to find a more equitable way to participate in their religious tradition?

    You presume that you have said something worth debating. You haven’t. All you’ve done is poop on someone’s stoop.

  •' Al Newman says:

    “Harmless Women” ?

    People who believe they alone are right and aligned with ‘God’ (like the Muslim women’s religion) are not harmless, but potentially dangerous as history proves: Jewish/Protestant/Catholic/Islamic/Mormon murder of hundreds of millions of each other, Jews, ‘infidels’, ‘witches’, and ‘heretics’. The Jews have come off worst (and they, ironically, started the mother religion!)

  •' Judith Maxfield says:

    “Still a man hears what he want to hearing disregards the rest”. From “The Boxer” by Paul Simon.

    Man can be great in the intellect (science, etc) and still woefully short on wisdom. We are a part of evolution and capable of developing wisdom. The enlightenment for that also has a history of screwups, horrible ones as well. Blame of religion can also be a nice way of escaping self responsibility.

    Apparently its in our DNA to ask “Why?” So Al, if you chose not to do that, fine. However, if you are a seeker of meaning, look also at the positive experience brought by the great wisdom teachers. If religion is based only on control and shunning the Other, than stay away. I’m thinking books / scholarship is good but centered in the mind. It seems to me self -examination is good mind/heart medicine.

  •' Aravis Tarkheena says:

    Your conception of potential harmfulness is broad enough to drive a truck through. The fact is that these women haven’t done anything to harm anyone and certainly not you. I find your attitude towards what they are doing ungenerous and mean-spirited. There’s really nothing more to discuss about it than that.

    And I happen to be Jewish myself. My wife, daughter, and I actively participate in our synagogue. My daughter is about to be Bat-Mitsvahed this year. Our religious tradition is a rich, valued part of our lives. That it does nothing for you is, as far as we are concerned, uninteresting and irrelevant.

  •' Judith Maxfield says:

    Just finished reading “Christ Actually” by James Carroll (found in a posting here on RD) It seems in part, the book speaks of some of the responses here. i highly recommend reading it) Religion is no longer understood and relevant for today. Diedrich Bonhoeffer before he was executed by the Nazi’s asked the question of moral failing in the church in light of what was happening to European Jews. I am still thinking that and it bothers me. I’ve tried to understand the moral question, even aside from religion, even after historical research, even after visiting Dachau, Mauthausen, several memorials and the new Jewish History Museum in Berlin.

    As a Christian of the far left variety, (yes it’s possible!) Carroll addresses many theological questions I’ve had since becoming an Episcopalian in 1996. I was amazed that my questions of both history and theology were also those of Carroll.

    My wanting to scrape off the Hellenistic / European view of Jesus and divinity and get to the Jewish Jesus would take me to the original source. This was comfortable for me because I am a serious love of history, anthropology, and theology. (I am also a laity teacher/ mentor in the church.) While Jewish St. Paul is a start, and a difficult one for women, Carrolls’ book appeared on the horizon. Its a complex book with a major question of how the Christian Church will finally address the Holocaust and our failing to honestly take a look at the “New” Testament. Even the name is loaded in negativity coupled with the use of “Old” Testament. I no longer use the latter term. Language use and misunderstandings over unchecked theological terms allowed the horror that was to come. Carroll also feels the Church spent too much time on producing layers of belief dogma and left Jesus actually off the radar. History now had a safe European messiah. Its startling to me that Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin (located at UCBerkeley) apparently is on the same wave length in terms of both Judaism and Christianity being able to come to a better and merciful care in, and at least forgiveness.

    As i try to understand Carroll, the concept of divinity is not a simple construct that Jesus IS God. That has always personally bothered me. There is a separation of hurt still present. War and violence is justified by extreme and self-righteous attitudes wrapped in a blanket of religion. I don’t think it will change until Christianity as a major religion will rethink and learn what is really meant in Christ – actually in attitude as a priori rather than whatever its been in the past.

    This may be a bit long, but I feel its necessary to no longer ignore in view of the justification of all torture and violence.

  •' Judith Maxfield says:

    P.S Christ Actually” in a presentation on Youtube with James Carroll is available.

  •' Al Newman says:

    You have sunstroke from spending too much time in the Crystal Cathedral.

    The Christ Myth – Gospels + Acts of the Apostles – is the greatest Fiction-sold-as-Fact in human history.

  •' Judith Maxfield says:

    Well that was fun.
    Fiction sold as fact. Oops, there s the starting point of your misunderstanding. Try seeing the Christ myth as you call it in the family of philosophy psychology, and poetry.
    I really don’t mind your non whatever. Thats where you are in life.
    I don’t get your wanting to spend time on RD. What a waste of time, and time has a limit for human life.

  •' eliza says:

    Islam also killed many thinkers and destroyed many universities. Muslims would do well to remember the Greek, Phoenician, Egyptian, Roman and Chinese contributions to civilization as well. It’s like they think they invented everything and discovered everything. A great deal of thinking had gone on long before Islam sprang up, and as Omar K says, began to pray and slay.

  •' jjs110 says:

    Edina Lekovic? Are you serious? Check this one out before you go any further: . Will you ever learn?

  •' Serai 1 says:

    Ah yes – here come the men to tell those poor benighted women what would be a better use of their time. *eyeroll*

  •' Serai 1 says:

    So why don’t you take your concern trolling to a soapbox in the local park where it belongs?

  •' Serai 1 says:

    The “debate” is you sneering at Muslim women and proclaiming you know where they should spend their time. Aravis’ response is exactly what you deserve.

  •' Serai 1 says:

    Why do you nasty, bitter atheist trolls insist on hanging around here and haranguing others? You use exactly the same tactics as the people you spit on, yet you think you’re somehow righteous.

  •' Serai 1 says:

    Al’s mind isn’t subtle enough to understand concepts like philosophy, psychology, or poetry. Metaphor also escapes him. He’s one of the brick-headed, STEM-obsessed atheist trolls, who think it’s their job to police everyone else’s beliefs.

  •' Judith Maxfield says:

    That may be true. Actually, I’m wondering what is the background of his thinking and thus I can feel compassion for someone who’s life has maybe been too bitter, (also missing a good education). I don’t mind a difference of opinion, but really mind the lack of critical thinking skills and shear ignorance when it becomes a tool for oppression. A great quote from theologian Marcus Borg, recently deceased, who asked, “What is the antidote for arrogance? Curiosity.”

  •' Al Newman says:

    I notice that when you religious fruitcakes get sick, you seek help from modern secular/atheist Medical Science! Why don’t you go to your priest/Rabbi/Imam and have him apply the cures outlined in the Law of Moses?

  •' Al Newman says:

    “Soapbox in [Hyde] Park”
    . They only do that in silly Muslim London – where you’re from??

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