The Globe and Mail, [04/23/2005]
Backyard gathering of Muslims crosses ‘another threshold of conservativism’
SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE
For Raheel Raza, becoming the first Muslim woman in Canada to lead publicly announced prayer was awe-inspiring, a “silent revolution.” And while the gathering of more than 20 men and women yesterday in the backyard of a home in Toronto’s Cabbagetown was small, the importance of the event was not lost on the worshippers.
“This is a landmark event because it crosses yet another threshold of conservatism,” said Tarek Fatah, co-founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress and whose small yard was the venue for the Juma Prayer led by Ms. Raza. “It sets an agenda where you can’t go back from here.”
Back for Mr. Fatah and others is to the belief among many traditional Muslims that women-led prayers are heretical and un-Islamic. Indeed, it was fear of confrontations that caused the traditional Friday afternoon prayer to be moved twice — from the Noor Cultural Centre and from a commercial building in downtown Toronto, after a New York-based Urdu-language newspaper published the leaked secret location — before landing in Mr. Fatah’s yard. The prayer had also been condemned as anti-Islamic.
In her manner of dress, Ms. Raza did not stray from tradition: The black shawl with red embroidery that covered her head also covered her traditional dress of long tunic and pants, resembling a burqa. One of the many reasons for segregation of men and women in prayers is the potential distraction of a woman’s sexuality.
Before addressing the gathering, Ms. Raza — who has led many inter-faith prayers at churches, temples and synagogues — went over the passages she had marked in the Koran she was clutching.
“I am in awe, and I have this responsibility. I don’t want to mispronounce anything,” she said. “This is such a significant day. Firstly, because it’s actually the day of the Prophet’s birthday. And it’s the Juma Prayer, a significant weekly ritual for Muslims. And I have been asked to lead the prayer.”
Starting with a zikr (chanting of a verse), Ms. Raza stood to read her khutba (sermon). The Juma Prayer went off without a hitch.
“It’s a very humbling experience to be asked by my own community to lead them,” she said. “This is my submission to God. This is not for people, it’s not for the media. It’s not that I want to take over the duties of male imams.
“In terms of a movement, I call it a silent revolution. Other women will hear about it and feel empowered. It’s not being equal to men. Because men can’t be equal to women. But it’s about being equal in spirituality.”
Mr. Fatah, whose MCC organized the prayer, added: “There’s a sense of solidarity with women who do feel they need to be in leadership positions, with all respect to those who don’t wish to be. There are many ways of expressing Islam. And I think this is the way the Prophet would have appreciated it, had he been alive today.”
Among those at the prayer was Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter-turned-author based in Morgantown, W. Va. She was in Toronto for the fifth stop on the Muslim Women’s Freedom Tour she launched on March 1 to visit North American cities, promulgating the message of women’s rightful place alongside men in Islam.
The first stop had been New York. On March 18, a mixed-gender Friday congregational prayer was led by Amina Wadud, a female Islamic studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. The prayer made news around the world, and the protests, as well as support, extended from the pavement outside Synod House at the Cathedral of St. John in New York to Malaysia and Egypt.
On Thursday night, hours before attending the prayer led by Ms. Raza, Ms. Nomani read from her book, Standing Alone in Mecca, for an audience at the Noor Cultural Centre. While on a pilgrimage to Mecca, she said, she was inspired by the throngs of men and women praying side by side. She spoke about losing her religion and reclaiming it from the strictures of patriarchy.
“After yesterday’s prayer, Ms. Raza and Ms. Nomani hugged. The gilt of the Arabic calligraphy on Ms. Raza’s Koran glinted in the sun.
“We did it,” Ms. Nomani said. “It was so simple. Just a few people and a woman willing to lead them. But it was so profound.”