Sunday, April 28, 2013

Why women shouldn't lead prayer Part II: On rules and rituals.

This is the second post (of 3) on why women shouldn't lead prayer, addressing the following assumptions in this article entitled 'Dr. Amina Wadud and the Progressive Muslims: Some Reflections on Woman-Led Prayerwritten by Zaynab Ansari. (More information behind this post here, or read Part I.)
  1. Prayer is either valid or invalid, according to jurisprudence.
  2. Women's biological conditions (i.e. menstruation, pregnancy, post-partum bleeding) prevent 'complete' prayer.
  3. Women praying next to men does not produce an environment of mutual respect and piety.
These assumptions broadly relate to the rules and rituals behind prayer, and why such a strict idea of prayer prevents women from being imam.
1. Prayer is either valid or invalid, according to jurisprudence.
When we pray, our foremost concern is that our prayers meet all the requirements for validity as laid down by the jurisprudence of Islam.
Mainstream ideas about prayer emphasise its i) validity, and ii) acceptance. This means that prayer must be done according to a set of rules (e.g. certain parts of body must be covered, ablution done preferably with water, must not pass gas during prayer, or even vaginal discharge; clothes must be clean, prayer area must be clean, must face Mecca, no living being must be in front of the prayer mat, and so on). Even then, there is no guarantee that the prayer will be accepted by God, because it depends on your level of khusyu' (mindfulness/concentration).

I find this idea problematic because it implies that God needs our prayers, and that our prayers are a kind of offering. Yet, God does not need anything, let alone demands things from us. (Same argument for animal sacrifice during Eid ul-Adha.)

Why did the scholars go so far as to elaborate on all the different ways that prayer can be done? It must be because there is a deeper purpose to prayer than the mere movements -- it is the connection that you make with God. Omid Safi provides an alternative vision of prayer that emphasises our relationship with God.

In short: Prayer goes beyond in/validity. An alternative conception of prayer is as an act of connection, and not an offering to God.

2. Women's biological conditions prevent 'complete' prayer.
What happens when the female imam is menstruating or experiencing postpartum bleeding? What happens when she is pregnant and not able to perform the complete prayer, in terms of bowing and prostrating? Should the whole congregation be apprised of the fact that the imam is menstruating? Interestingly enough, the Progressives assert that there is nothing prohibiting a woman praying while menstruating!
The author implicitly argues that menstruation is something shameful, because the 'whole congregation' should not have to know that a woman is menstruating. Menstruating women should not even be in sight, many mosques forbid menstruating women from even sitting in the prayer hall. The author also states with surprise that menstruation, a natural bodily phenomenon, is accepted by some Muslims as not being a reason to avoid prayer.

But first let's look at the ways that prayer can be done, in the variety of situations. We are told, in the Quran, that prayer can be shortened temporarily in cases of travel or emergency e.g. war time, when you're afraid that the enemy will strike any time. Fiqh scholars have elaborated on this to include the possibility of combining prayers if you are travelling.

Temporary or permanent conditions may also require different positions in prayer. Older people may sit on a chair if they find bowing and prostrating too difficult. If you have a broken arm, naturally you don't have to do the full takbir, but when your arm is healed, you can. If you sit in a wheelchair, you pray sitting down all the time. If you are sick in the hospital, you may pray lying down -- we are taught that even prayer by the very ill, with only movements of the eyelids, is possible and acceptable. The fact that ablution can be done in situations without water indicates that the intention to pray is more important than the actual washing itself.

Naturally, pregnant women fall under the temporary category. When bowing or prostrating becomes too difficult, they may sit or lie down, according to their individual comfort and conscience. However, because of the special circumstances of travel, war, or illness, prayer does not have to be done in a 'complete' way (i.e. how it is usually done in normal circumstances). Saying that prayer is only 'complete' when done by a healthy person in comfortable circumstances often means that only the prayer by men, and those with no special physical conditions is acceptable.


On a minor note, there is never one man that is the imam for a congregation all the time. If a male imam is ill, another one takes his place, right? The argument that people who bleed or cannot bow or prostrate therefore cannot be imams simply doesn't make sense.

In short: In special circumstances, there are many ways to modify the positions or duration or prayer. Menstruation, pregnancy, and post-partum bleeding are all temporary conditions, like illness, and do not indicate one's ability to be an imam.

3. Women praying next to men does not produce an environment of mutual respect and piety.
How many sisters would like a brother to stand right next to them, touching their bodies with his as they pray? In such a situation, what would prevent a man with a diseased heart from harassing the sister? ...Women experience enough sexual harassment at the hands of men without making the prayer another venue for sexual advances!

Imama Amina Wadud. Source.
Imama Raheel Raza. Source
Imama Laury Silvers. Source.
Imama Amina Wadud. Source.

Look at some photos of mixed-gender congregations led by women. I can observe that i) there are no lecherous or flirtatious looks on the faces of the women and men? ii) there are no men touching the women (or vice versa), and iii) there are no men harassing the women. Wow, Muslims who want to pray really deserve more credit than what is given to them.

Even with a male imam, alternative arrangements to women-in-the-back can consist of women on the left and men on the right, so each group can have access to the front and back -- as some mosques have done. Women and men don't have to touch each other; there can be a gap, a painted line, or a low barrier to demarcate the spaces.

A mixed-gender congregation in Masjid al-Istiqlal, Jakarta. Source.
Masjid al-Istiqlal, Jakarta. Source.
I think many Muslim societies today are obsessed about sex (and not in a good way). They strictly segregate boys and girls, men and women when the situation is 'religious', but think nothing of working alongside each other in 'secular' situations. In a prayer setting, will women and men go wild just because they are in the same room? Nope, and guess why? Some women and men are actually mature beings who are able to concentrate on their prayer, despite their surroundings.

I'm not sure why the author assumes that a mixed gender congregation that does not place women behind men automatically means that it is totally mixed. Some women may prefer to stand with other women, just as men may prefer to stand with men. Some of these congregations leave gaps (you can be sure none of them are going to push the Satan gap theory), or married couples stand beside each other.
Indeed, the Progressives view the way Muslims have always prayed, with men in the front and women in the back, as a form of rigid gender discrimination.
This is also another fallacy, that harks to a romanticised golden age of Islam being practiced perfectly in order to justify today's norms. If the author was right and Muslims have always prayed like this, why do so many mosques designate a separate or closed-off space for women, use a partial or total barrier, and claim this to be 'the way it has always been'? Why do some entire countries (e.g. India) completely disallow women from entering mosques?

Muslims have never prayed, and still do not pray in a uniform way. Not the arrangement of the congregation (here, here, and here), and not even the ritual movements of the prayer (e.g. placement of hands during recitation, in between bowing and prostrating).

In short: Mixed-gender congregations do not cause harassment, harassers do. There are a variety of arrangements possible for mixed-gender congregations, no matter the gender of the imam.


Read the final post, Why women shouldn't lead prayer Part III: On society!

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