Sunday, March 20, 2005

Muslim woman leading prayer causes controversy

I still haven't made up my mind on how I feel about this.


With four words, "Praise be to Allah," Amina Wadud struck a blow Friday for Muslim women, breaking a centuries-old taboo against women leading men in prayer.

Wadud, a professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, led about 80 people in prayer at Synod House of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Harlem, in what is believed to be one of the first times a Muslim woman has ever done so in public.

Both men and women bowed toward Mecca as Wadud led them in traditional Friday worship.

The two-hour service was part of the "Progressive Muslim" movement in the United States, which seeks to give women equality with men. The movement has grown in part because children of immigrants view some of the faith's views as old-fashioned.

Several mosques turned down the opportunity to be host to Friday's service; a bomb threat then forced organizers to move the event from a Soho gallery to the cathedral, where police officers screened participants for weapons. Wadud was escorted by two muscular bodyguards, and about a dozen police patrolled outside Synod House, some carrying submachine guns.

"The issue of gender equality is a very important one in Islam," Wadud said during a news conference before the service, "and Muslims have unfortunately used highly restrictive interpretations of history to move backward. With this prayer service we are moving forward.

This single act is symbolic of the possibilities within Islam."

During her prayer and sermon, Wadud referred to God as both male and female. She said she based that on the Koran, which says that Allah is not like humans. The Koran also refers to both men and women in describing moral behavior.

"Allah cannot be limited to being either a he or a she," Wadud said, "because that will make him like us."

She said that Islam initially had treated men and women equally but that men had rewritten the rules "to justify the imprisonment of woman to only be complementary to men as sexual partners."

Imam Ahmed Dewidar of the Islamic Society of Mid-Manhattan said Friday of a woman leading a mixed-gender prayer: "It's New York. Everyone can do whatever she wants, or he wants, but we never heard that the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, allowed, or even his wife, peace be upon her, ever allowed or did it."

He said he told his congregation not to get angry about the service but also said he would have preferred that people would have discussed it as a community.

As the service began Friday, a woman in a head-covering wiped tears from her face. Others hugged daughters tightly.

Asra Q. Nomani, an author and former Wall Street Journal reporter, said she had organized the service so that women would have "the right to enter a mosque, to enter through the front door, and to be greeted as my brother greeted me earlier."

Some critics have accused Nomani of using the event to publicize her new book, "Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam.'' A press release for the book was handed out with a release for the event, but Nomani said she was there out of deep conviction.

"Look around you," she said. "Everybody here is present because of heart."

Arwa Nasser, a teacher who grew up in Jordan and lives in Westchester County, N.Y., said she attended because she was "passionate about the issues of women and Islam."

"Every time I read about it, I am so sad about what's happening to my great faith," she said, referring to such practices as disparities in inheritance. She said her father had sent all his children to college, both boys and girls.

"I find nothing illogical in a woman leading a prayer," she said.

Zarina Nares, 9, attended with her sisters and her mother, Ameena Meer. She said she did not like the idea of women being forbidden from leading men and women in prayer.

"I kind of think it's unfair, because I think everyone has a voice," she said.
Three men tried to interrupt the service before it started. One of them shouted in the lobby as police forced them to leave.

Asif Zamam, the only one of the three who would give his name, said Islam forbade "men and women to pray together." The faithful cannot question such prohibition, he said, because "religion has been unchanged from the start."

Javed Memon, 22, of Philadelphia, attended the service wearing a shirt he sells bearing the slogan "This is what a radical Muslim feminist looks like."

Memon said he viewed the barring of women from leading prayer as part of a spectrum of oppression. He hopes Islam will bring an end to such practices in some countries as forbidding women to go out alone or drive.

"The beginning of that," he said, "is women having a voice."

Speaking of women, Maureen Dowd has an interesting editorial in the NY Times about women being more complex than men:

Men are always telling me not to generalize about them.

But a startling new study shows that science is backing me up here.

Research published last week in the journal Nature reveals that women are genetically more complex than scientists ever imagined, while men remain the simple creatures they appear.

"Alas," said one of the authors of the study, the Duke University genome expert Huntington Willard, "genetically speaking, if you've met one man, you've met them all. We are, I hate to say it, predictable. You can't say that about women. Men and women are farther apart than we ever knew. It's not Mars or Venus. It's Mars or Venus, Pluto, Jupiter and who knows what other planets."

Women are not only more different from men than we knew. Women are more different from each other than we knew - creatures of "infinite variety," as Shakespeare wrote.

"We poor men only have 45 chromosomes to do our work with because our 46th is the pathetic Y that has only a few genes which operate below the waist and above the knees," Dr. Willard observed. "In contrast, we now know that women have the full 46 chromosomes that they're getting work from and the 46th is a second X that is working at levels greater than we knew."

Dr. Willard and his co-author, Laura Carrel, a molecular biologist at the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, think that their discovery may help explain why the behavior and traits of men and women are so different; they may be hard-wired in the brain, in addition to being hormonal or cultural.

So is Lawrence Summers right after all? "Only time will tell," Dr. Willard laughs.

The researchers learned that a whopping 15 percent - 200 to 300 - of the genes on the second X chromosome in women, thought to be submissive and inert, lolling about on an evolutionary Victorian fainting couch, are active, giving women a significant increase in gene expression over men.

As the Times science reporter Nicholas Wade, who is writing a book about human evolution and genetics, explained it to me: "Women are mosaics, one could even say chimeras, in the sense that they are made up of two different kinds of cell. Whereas men are pure and uncomplicated, being made of just a single kind of cell throughout."

This means men's generalizations about women are correct, too. Women are inscrutable, changeable, crafty, idiosyncratic, a different species.

"Women's chromosomes have more complexity, which men view as unpredictability," said David Page, a molecular biologist and expert on sex evolution at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass.

Known as Mr. Y, Dr. P calls himself "the defender of the rotting Y chromosome." He's referring to studies showing that the Y chromosome has been shedding genes willy-nilly for millions of years and is now a fraction of the size of its partner, the X chromosome. "The Y married up," he notes. "The X married down."

Size matters, so some experts have suggested that in 10 million years or even much sooner - 100,000 years - men could disappear, taking Maxim magazine, March Madness and cold pizza in the morning with them.

Dr. Page drolly conjures up a picture of the Y chromosome as "a slovenly beast," sitting in his favorite armchair, surrounded by the litter of old fast food takeout boxes.

"The Y wants to maintain himself but doesn't know how," he said. "He's falling apart, like the guy who can't manage to get a doctor's appointment or can't clean up the house or apartment unless his wife does it.

"I prefer to think of the Y as persevering and noble, not as the Rodney Dangerfield of the human genome."

Dr. Page says the Y - a refuge throughout evolution for any gene that is good for males and/or bad for females - has become "a mirror, a metaphor, a blank slate on which you can write anything you want to think about males." It has inspired cartoon gene maps that show the belching gene, the inability-to-remember-birthdays-and-anniversaries gene, the fascination-with-spiders-and-reptiles gene, the selective-hearing-loss-"Huh" gene, the inability-to-express-affection-on-the-phone gene.

The discovery about women's superior gene expression may answer the age-old question about why men have trouble expressing themselves: because their genes do.