Images of a woman leading Friday prayers at a Swiss mosque last month have sparked outrage among Muslims on social media, with some cursing the woman and accusing her of heresy.
The incident has brought into focus the issue of women’s religious rights within Islamic society.
According to a report by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), the May 27 Friday prayers at the House of Religions in Bern were led by Halima Gosai Hussain, the British chairperson of the Inclusive Mosque Initiative (IMI), preceded by a call to prayer also performed by a woman.
The images of the mixed prayer service were posted on Facebook and Twitter late last month by Elham Manea, a Yemeni liberal activist residing in Switzerland. Manea herself delivered the Friday sermon.
According to MEMRI, in her sermon, Manea “called upon Muslim men and women to reject the claims of Muslim clerics that a woman may not serve as prayer leader and that men and women may not pray side by side in mosques,” and “urged women not to wait passively for change to come but to demand it and bring it about themselves.”
“The time has come to challenge our assumptions about women’s role in a house of God and in society,” Manea said in her sermon, according to a MEMRI translation.
“Where, how, and when a woman is asked to pray mirror her social status in her community. A mosque in which you only see men praying is a mirror of a patriarchal society where men control the public space… Therefore, a woman demanding to pray in the same space where men are praying is not demanding something trivial. She is demanding a change in that social order, and of her place in it,” she said.
After the online backlash, Manea wrote an article in which she asked what all the fuss was about.
“What have we done? I ask you, both men and women, by Allah, where do all these anger, curses, threats and hurtful words come from? Just what have we done?” she wrote.
By Allah, I love you even though you are cursing me, because I understand that your responses are motivated by [your] fear for our religion. You think that we want to harm our religion. Yes, this is our religion just as it is yours. And that is why I ask you to listen to me, without fear and without doubting my intentions.”
Manea criticized the more strict interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, as practiced in Saudi Arabia, which seems to dominate among followers of the Muslim faith in recent years, and blamed it for the crackdown on women’s rights and women’s place in Islam, and for the exponentially less tolerant approach to religion, culture, sexuality and so on.
“In the 1970s we [Muslims] used to do this in Malaysia, Mali and Switzerland. We used to pray together. But the wave of religious extremism that reached us from the heart of the [Saudi] Al-Najd region wiped out our religious practices and the role music played in them,” she said.
“This is extremism that tells us that a woman is not a human being, but is [the embodiment of] shameful sexuality, merchandise [to be used] for pleasure, and who may be married off at the age of nine. This is extremism that tells us that music, our cultural heritage, the oud and its spirituality, are evil things and part of devil-worship. This is extremism that tells us to hate, exclude [the other] and oppose pluralism in faith. This is an extremism that has turned the archaic approach of religious scholars into an idol that we worship instead of Allah,” she concluded.