Opinions differ as Muslim students consider integrated mixed-gender congregation prayer

By Stuart Foster

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Maria Uminski/ Daily Collegian

Maria Uminski/ Daily Collegian

Members of the Muslim Students Association at the University of Massachusetts have reacted differently to proposals to integrate mixed gender prayer during the congregational noon prayer session, known in Arabic as jummah.

Two votes have been held, in which the MSA’s Leadership Board voted 6-0 against implementing mixed gender prayer and in which the Congregation’s Joint Advisory Board voted 21-4 against implementing it.

Syed Ali, a junior finance major and a member of the MSA, introduced the idea to the organization’s president. Ali said that while he understands the MSA’s perspective on the issue, he wanted them to reconsider the implementation of mixed gender prayer in jummah.

Ali said that the most common method of holding jummah prayer is to have an imam preaching in the front with men directly in front of him, with a barrier separating them from the back. The MSA does not have a barrier, but the women are still in the back.

Ali, who said he was attempting to integrate this type of prayer when he was a chair of the organization of Muslim students at Indiana University before he transferred to UMass, said that it was more difficult for women sitting in the back of the room holding jummah to hear and see the imam.

“The disadvantages of sitting in the back are clearly evident,” he said.

Ali also said that he wants to have a vote regarding mixed gender prayer involving the entire MSA.

Other members of the MSA think that this kind of change is unnecessary, however. Elkhansaa Elguenaoui, a senior studying psychology and neuroscience who served as MSA’s president last year, said that she does not view praying as an area in which she should take political stances, but rather as a way to connect with her God.

Elguenaoui explained the separation of genders during jummah as a way to prevent Muslims from becoming distracted by some of the movements in prayer, such as prostrating and bending over.

“Being a woman and the one to pray in the back I have never thought of it as degrading,” Elguenaoui said.

MSA vice president Jawad Awan, a junior studying neuroscience and journalism, disagreed with the idea of introducing mixed gender prayer and said that the practice of gender segregated prayer is taken from the example of texts written about Muslims directly after the time in which Muhammad introduced Islam.

However, he said that he was happy to discuss the topic with the MSA and that the organization should begin reserving the last few rows in the room where jummah is held for women, as a large number of Muslim women have been attending.

“I’ll be the first to criticize our own community,” Awan said. “I do take that as a reflection on us.”

Anam Ali, an undeclared sophomore who is in the MSA, said that she personally supports the implementation of mixed gender prayer, saying that the distractions sometimes mentioned as an argument against mixed-gender prayer should not distract Muslims from praying, and that it could function as even more of a test in connecting with God.

Anam Ali also used the example of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is required to be taken once in a lifetime by Muslims, where she said prayer is performed in mixed congregations.

“If they can have them there then they should have them everywhere,” she said.

Mixed gender prayer is not oppressive to women because they chose to pray behind men, she.

Mona Eltahawy, a Muslim Egyptian-American journalist who frequently writes about feminism and religious topics, told students last Monday that she supports the integration of mixed gender prayer in jummah congregations. Eltahawy spoke to UMass students in the Campus Center about her vision for a sexual revolution in the Middle East through global feminism as a part of a book tour

“Students being students is where revolutionary movements begin,” Eltahawy said. “They will graduate to lead Muslims in the U.S.”

Eltahawy also said that Muslim women often have either very little space or the worst space available in mosques and said it is time to stop the “spatial discrimination of women.”

Women do not have to attend congregational jummah prayer in Islam, while men are supposed to as part of the religion.

Awan said that the Joint Advisory Board is open to any MSA members who want to be more involved in the organization.

Stuart Foster can be reached at a[email protected] and followed on Twitter @Stuart_C_Foster