This article was originally published by Al-Ahram Weekly (4 – 10 March 2010).
It was a bright winter Saturday in Washington with a strong sun bouncing light off the high piles of snow lining the streets after the recent blizzards. I was in high spirits as I made my way to the mosque on Massachusetts Avenue, sometimes called the “national mosque”, sitting proudly on Embassy Row. I entered by the front door and as I was early I sat down to wait on a chair at the back of the main hall. A few men arrived — one passing within inches of me as he deposited offerings in the box next to me — and went about saying their prayers in scattered parts of the hall appearing intent only upon their devotions. Soon several women came through the door. I assumed that they were part of the group that was going to pray together in the mosque’s main hall rather than behind the physical partition standing out like a scar against the beauty of the Iznik faience lining the pillars and walls. All that the women wanted to do was to pray in the main hall behind the men where they could see and hear the imam.
As the women sat down on the carpet toward the back of the hall, a man approached me. He pointed to the barricades said: “Tell the women to go there.” I asked if he spoke Arabic and he replied yes. I looked him straight in the eye and said: “I cannot tell people where to go.” With no further word he turned and left me alone. When the prayers began the women went to the front of the mosque forming a row behind the two rows of men. All in all there were very few people who had come to the mosque to pray. From my vantage point on a chair in the back I noticed a woman who had tried unsuccessfully to get the women to retreat behind the barrier, now after the communal prayers had begun, dashing about busy on her cell phone. The next thing I observed was two Washington police officers standing around her and noticed frenetic comings and goings. When the midday prayer ended the women returned to the rear of the mosque and once again sat down on the carpet. The cops honed in and hovered over them. A man who had been bustling about with disdain written on his face identified himself as the mosque administrator and the woman obsessed with her white cell phone as his assistant. The administrator levelled a barrage of questions at the seated women. He asked them if they had come to pray or to protest. Suddenly he turned to me, looked at me square in the face, and asked: “Did you pray?” I retorted: “This is not a question for you to ask. It is a question for God to ask.” He turned his head.
The women were told on no uncertain terms they could not remain in the mosque and the DC cops ordered us to leave or be ushered out. As the police were beginning to show muscle and tension was building an Egyptian male sympathizer with us suggested we leave to avoid arrest. As the cops continued to step up the pressure, doing the bidding of the mosque administrator and his assistant, it became clear we had no choice but to exit. I thought here we are in a mosque in the United States, and in the nation’s capital no less, and the mosque authorities, as self-identified, call in municipal security forces to eject a bunch of women just because they wanted to pray in the main congregational space. Absurd. Is this where our tax dollars should go? To defend gender segregation? I had thought the days of segregation were long gone in this country. And here it is on display in the nation’s showcase mosque which boasts tens of thousand visitors each year. Do they include the story of gender segregation in their script for the visitors?
As the scenario with the women and cops and mosque authorities was playing out suddenly from out of the blue I caught sight of a large number of men, women, and children enter the mosque. I heard later that they had arrived by bus. Bussed in did the cops and mosque segregation vigilantes think? It turned out to be a group of mainly South Asians, it seemed, from Maryland. There were also other visitors who appeared. No sooner did the visitors enter the mosque, after the prayers had ended, than the whole lot, men, women, and children, were unceremoniously tossed out along with the unwanted women. As we were dispatched beyond the wrought iron gates, our numbers having now swollen, a male visitor in evident pain shouted back through the wrought iron fence to the officious mosque administrator and his gloating female assistant standing inside the mosque courtyard: “What a terrible way to treat women. What are you teaching our children?”
Out in the street I turned to one of the cops, who like the other policeman, was African-American, and said: “You know about race and gender in this country. How did you feel about throwing women out? Did you ever think in your job you would be called upon to do such a thing?” All he said was: “That’s why I didn’t arrest you.” He repeated what the other cop had said: “The mosque is a private place and they have the right to eject out if you do not play by their rules.” This cop did not say as the other one had done menacingly: “We are the police and we can throw you out.” All I could say to my compatriot, the “good cop,” was: “The lunch counter was also private.” What if the young men sitting down there had played by the rules? Whose rules? As I picked my way back to my car parked up against a towering bank of snow, the 1960s came flooding back: anti-war, civil rights, women’s liberation. Is the tape rolling backward? And who’s rolling it and why? Where is it all coming from? I asked myself: Who owns God’s house anyway? The sun was still shining bright on our Washington afternoon but the day had suddenly turned terribly dark.
POSTSCRIPT: I dedicate this piece to the memory of Malak Hifni Nasif who 100 years ago in Cairo in a set of demands presented to the Egyptian Nationalist Congress meeting in Heliopolis asked that women be allowed into mosques for congregational prayer.
The writer is currently holding the Reza Khatib and Georgianna Khatib Chair in Comparative Religion at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn.