- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Nearly seven months ago in the middle of Ramadan, Asra Nomani shunned tradition by bypassing the women’s balcony of her local mosque and praying on the main floor, right next to the men.

Her simple act of defiance at the Islamic Center in Morgantown has sparked what she hopes will be the first step toward ending sexual discrimination and ushering in Muslim women’s rights at mosques across the nation.

“To deny women access to space is to deny access to participation,” the 38-year-old single mother said. “We want voice, and we want leadership.”

Although there was never an official policy at the Morgantown mosque, it had become custom that women pray in the balcony and enter through a separate door “to protect their privacy,” said Christine Arja, a Fairmont lawyer, who is a spokeswoman for the mosque’s executive committee.

“Many people don’t understand the manner in which Muslims pray,” Miss Arja said. “We pray in a line with our shoulders touching, and our backsides do go up in the air. Many women don’t want to be shoulder-to-shoulder with men.”

Still, earlier this week — and less than a month after a new executive committee was elected, including the mosque’s first woman — leaders clarified that women can pray behind men in the main prayer space. The mosque’s small membership is largely made up of West Virginia University students and staff members.

“Less than a year ago, they told me, ‘Sister, please use the back entrance,’” Miss Nomani said. “Now, they’re talking about greeting us at the door. This is an important victory toward removing the barriers that keep women from full participation.”

Since Miss Nomani started praying in the main hall, along with her mother and 13-year-old niece, only one woman has joined her. Many women, she said, “still feel like they’re breaking the rules.”

And some who supported Miss Nomani in the beginning feel alienated by the spotlight she has put on their once-peaceful mosque.

Miss Nomani, an author and journalist who has written for the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and the New York Times, was born in India, but moved to Morgantown when she was 10. After traveling throughout the world as a reporter, she returned to West Virginia last year to raise her son near family members.

Her father, a retired WVU professor, was one of the founding members of the mosque built 23 years ago. He apologizes to his daughter for not recognizing women’s rights from the beginning, saying he didn’t know better.

Islam teaches there is only one God and Muhammad was his prophet. Muslims place an importance on prayers, charity, fasting, pilgrimage and the act of reading the Koran.

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