Aisha Gawad wrote about the “glass minaret” this week, referring to the difficulty Muslim women have getting into positions of power at the mosque. In her IPS article, she profiles Sara Elghobashy and Asra Nomani—two women with the same aim (women leading prayer and holding equal positions of power and respect at the mosque), but very different methods. Elghobashy’s method is to work within the system to achieve her aims: earn the same qualifications as male imams and Islamic scholars, go through the same schooling and training as they did. Nomani’s method is to go from 0 to 60: Gawad describes Nomani shocking her small community in Virginia when she prayed in the men’s section of her local mosque.
I was disappointed in the article, mainly because it set Elghobashy and Nomani up in a horizontally hostile stereotype. The article pits them against each other ideologically, with seemingly catty and dismissive quotes from both points of view to cement the idea of a rivalry (a female scholar who took the same approach as Elghobashy likens Nomani’s approach to “a teenager rebelling against her parents.” Ouch.).
Notably absent from the article was the opinion of Dr. Amina Wadud. She’s authored several books on gender and Islam. I would have liked to hear from her specifically because she has taken both Elghobashy’s and Nomani’s approaches and rolled them into one: she has several degrees in Islamic studies, has studied the Qur’an in Egypt, and also led highly-controversial mixed-gender prayers in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and other countries.
While I like Nomani’s zeal for change, I agree more with the path taken by Elghobashy. The adage about catching more flies with honey than with gall comes to mind immediately, despite the unflattering comparisons. It seems more realistic: viewpoints usually change gradually and generationally. And in an age of radicalism, a steady approach seems more persuasive than a large, ostentatious one. Despite the poignancy of Nomani’s words (“…you have to work from the outside to some degree. Because who in power wants to give it up?”), the boy’s club mentality of Muslims is something that’s been around for generations, and isn’t going to go away all of a sudden.
Attitudes change with education, with positive community reinforcement, and a non-threatening atmosphere. Women imams who work hard to gain the acceptance of their community will eventually turn the tide against blind conservatism, especially if their numbers are above a tiny minority. Eventually, the boy’s club will disband, not with a bang, but with a whimper.