Six years ago I was compliant. I would quietly use the side entrance reserved for women to walk into the mosque. I would find an inconspicuous seat in the back row and dutifully listen to the Imam’s sermon, which usually advised that when problems arise in our home or community, we must simply escalate our prayers and these problems will eventually fade away. There was no discussion, no guide as to how to use common sense or creative strategic planning to solve challenges. The Imam did not encourage asking follow-up questions of course, and I understood that as long as I suspended critical thinking, I would continue to feel safe and welcomed at my mosque.
I often wondered, “Gosh, how did I get here?” I was, after all, a lawyer; when a simple brief was presented to me, I investigated and verified the facts and explored all possible angles, yet when I arrived at the mosque for a spiritual experience, I checked my intellect at the door. I would suspend thinking and begin believing. Apparently the two were mutually exclusive and I had to behave.
One of the greatest points missed in the story of Rip Van Winkle is not that he slept for 20 years, but that he slept through a revolution. Muslims today faces unprecedented challenges—much of the world considers us a menace and sees our belief system as incompatible with the West. Even the best of leaders would struggle to navigate the Muslim community out from under this pernicious label, yet our leaders seem to be sleeping through this crisis.
Our mosques are devoid of inclusive, visionary leadership. Our Imams are versed in the text but not the context. They live in the 21st century with a world view of the 7th century, and when they stand at the mimbar, they no longer humbly express their opinions, but claim to know exactly what God and the Prophet want.
Our leadership can no longer afford to miss the glaring fact that the Islam we live and practice must be a part of the political and cultural fabric of today. Mosques and their leadership need to revolutionize their thinking so that they begin to engage and inspire women into leadership and decision making roles within the mosque. They must also provide a safe and trusting environment where our youth can safely question our theology. And in order to tackle these problems, our leaders must rely on prayer and critical thinking, strategic partnerships with those who oppose us and an inclusive, welcoming attitude most definitely towards female leaders.
I would love to walk into a mosque—from the front entrance—and hear the Imam say the following:
1. A WOMAN MUST NOT ACCEPT; SHE MUST CHALLENGE. We live in a world in which many Muslims believe that a mosque must be led exclusively by men. That is not the example of the Prophet (pbuh). His example shows clearly that Muslim men and women are allies and helpers of one another in all spaces, including the mosque.
2. LET’S GO BEYOND KHADIJAH AND AYESHA– We must move beyond the examples of Ayesha and Khadijah. These women will always remain enormous role models for Muslim females, but it’s time to add newer women to the list. Despite cultural barriers, 10 female executives from the Middle East made Forbes World’s 100 most Powerful Women list this year. Let’s showcase these women’s professional success to impress upon our girls that they can lead both in and outside the mosque.
3. OUR COMMUNITIES ARE NOT UNITED –– We practice racism, sexism and misogyny in our own mosques. Let’s put our house in order before we cast a judgmental eye towards non-Muslims. Let’s be careful what we bring into and nourish in our mosques.
4. WHEN YOU ENOUNTER DEFEAT, CHANGE YOUR STRATEGY–Remember the story of the man working feverishly to saw a tree? When his friend asks him how long he has been sawing this tree, he answers, “Oh, for days now.” His friend suggests, “Why don’t you take a break and sharpen the saw?” The man replies, “I am too busy cutting, I don’t have the time to sharpen the saw.”
5. IT’S POSSIBLE, IT’S NECESSARY AND IT’S YOU – It is possible for you to change the course of history. It’s necessary that you do. Take inventory of your talents and gifts and then use them to create change. Malala believed that every girl should receive an education and against all odds she pursued her dream. No one will write your book or lead your movement. It’s must be you. The most common way women give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any. You were put on this earth not to play small.
A vibrant mosque can be powered by creative women. Never once in all my years of attending dozens of mosques in different cities across the globe have I heard an Imam relay these message. And it is not likely that I will, unless my sisters and I insist upon it. My call is to the Muslim woman, you have work to do. Don’t be concerned about whether people will let you, align yourself with people who won’t stop you.
Soraya Deen is a lawyer and the founder of the Muslim Women Speakers Movement. She has written the book “Peace Matters– Raising Peace Conscious Children,” and “SERVE: A Call to Muslims.” She hosts the radio show, “Conversations at the Peacetable.” Her latest book, LEAD: A Call to Imams, will be out in the spring of 2016