Tuesday, 15 December 2009
Published Date: 22 November 2009
Scotland on Sunday
I find it quite absurd they wouldn't let me join. I was really shocked
I don't think there is any religious reason why they should not be members
MOST people seem to know Nazia Iqbal as she tears down the corridors of Strathclyde University's student union. Those who don't know her find out soon enough as she zips past posters announcing Ibiza-style foam parties, £1.50 pints and free condoms. Her name and job – "equal opportunities officer" – are stamped on to her burgundy sweatshirt.
"We are high-visibility executives," the 19-year-old explains, only slightly out of breath, as she rushes to her next meeting, adjusting her head scarf as she does so. "We are here to be seen." Iqbal admits she isn't afraid to stick her neck out. And she is about to make a little bit of Scottish history by doing so.
Last week, the third-year pharmacy student formally applied to become a voting member of the country's single biggest place of worship, Glasgow Central Mosque. She, like an unknown number of women before her, was turned down. It was policy, she was told. Women don't get a say.
Iqbal didn't like that. There is nothing in the Koran that says Muslimahs – female Muslims – can't vote. There is nothing in the Mosque's constitution either that stops women from being fully fledged members. It is just that there aren't any, despite women both voting in – and successfully standing for – elections at several mosques in England and the United States.
"I find it quite absurd they wouldn't let me join," Iqbal said yesterday. "I was really shocked when I was knocked back. I just found it downright wrong that a committee – I am guessing a bunch of men – decided that women can't be members."
She and dozens of friends, mostly young Muslim women students, are now organising, through social networking site Facebook and Strathclyde's students' union. They have written to Scotland's charities watchdog claiming that Glasgow Central Mosque is in breach of anti-discrimination laws and, therefore, its charitable status should be in doubt.
Among those who attend the 2,500- capacity, gold-domed mosque – or the Jamiat Ittihad-Ul-Muslimin, to give it its proper name – there are whispers that a group of women in their late teens could be about to overturn decades of tradition. "This will really put the cat among the pigeons," said one Scottish-born male worshipper, who asked not to be named. "These girls have got them, the old guys. They have to got obey the laws of the land on discrimination."
Women have always been able to worship at the Jamiat, which opened in 1983 on its prime site overlooking the Clyde just south of the river. There are special areas set aside for them to pray and to wash (in contrast to a handful of small mosques in rural and suburban Scotland, where there is no room for segregated worshipping). But Glasgow Central Mosque has always been ruled by elderly men, most born in Pakistan, and all steeped in the male-only system of management adopted in the old country.
The move by Iqbal and her friends, through their Campaign for Women's Votes in Our Mosques, suddenly challenges that model like never before. The young women haven't dropped their faith. But they are eager to jettison attitudes to their gender that they believe are cultural, not religious, in origin.
"Women have had the vote for nearly a hundred years in this country," said Iqbal, who appears as comfortable quoting 18th-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft as the Koran. "What is feminism? I think it is the radical notion that women are people. But I am Muslim. I know Islam liberated women when it came 1,400 years ago. I don't know why the mosque is still stuck in the past.
"Having women voting in the mosque – or being voted on to its committee – would make a huge difference, it would be a chance to change the perception a lot of people have about Islam."
Fellow campaigner Nazia Hanif, who jokingly calls herself as "Nazia 2", believes she and her friends are on firm theological ground. "Islam has no space for any kind of discrimination or judgment," she said. "The only way God differentiates between us is by our piety, not our colour, gender, age or anything else.
"Islam has more than liberated us. An example I would give is divorce. A Muslim woman can ask for a divorce at any time and get it. Scottish law doesn't give you that. I think there are an awful lot of misconceptions about women and Islam."
Her solution: to have more women representing the faith. Across Scotland, an older generation of Muslim women is watching with interest, one or two, partly in mirth, calling the youngsters "Muslim Suffragettes".
First-generation female migrants from the Islamic world have had other battles to fight, outside the mosque. One is 48-year-old Farkanda Chaudhry, a justice of the peace and seasoned activist. How did she react to Iqbal and Hanif's move? "It is a generational thing," she said. "The younger women have bigger expectations, one of those expectations is being able to vote. Why is it they can vote in society but not vote in the mosque?
"The important thing to understand is that one of the things giving them their confidence is their faith. Most probably, the young women are quite in tune with their faith. What they are saying is this: 'Hold on a minute, my faith gives me rights, which are God-given, and I don't see them in practice'. They are not demanding anything that wasn't practised at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him."
Chaudhry's view was echoed by Hamira Khan, a 30-year-old Scots Muslim woman who chairs the Conservative Party's community cohesion task force north of the Border. She said: "I believe these young girls are the first to publicly wish to get involved in Glasgow Central Mosque and I think, 'good for them'.
"I know emotions are involved but I just hope this is a misunderstanding and that the ladies find a compromise with the existing committee, which, in turn, needs to understand the role of modern Muslim women in this country. There are a lot of benefits for the mosque in having women on board."
Iqbal, Hanif, Chaudhry and Khan all agree on one other thing: that the mosque is more than a place of worship. It is a place for the Muslim community to gather. Women, they reckon, could help transform the institution, which, despite its size, plays little role in Scottish public life, into a major focus for their faith and community. Iqbal would like to see youth facilities and a creche (prayers at the mosque are regularly disturbed by crying babies brought along by worshippers, she says). Hanif believes it should host a matrimonial introduction service, at least partly run by women, like those seen at similar big mosques in western cities such as London and Washington. Chaudhry reckons the mosque should have a drop-in cafe.
The "Muslim Suffragette" campaign comes just as a dispute threatens to end democracy at the Mosque altogether.
A group of "young reformers", mostly Scottish-born businessmen in their 30s, is in open conflict with the Mosque's ruling committee. Some of the younger generation have become so disillusioned with the old system that they want to abolish elections. One reformer, construction firm owner Saddaqat Khan, 34, summed up their view: Mosque officials, he said, should be chosen on their qualifications for doing the job, not as the result of a "popularity contest". But Khan, even if sceptical about Mosque elections, still wants to see women in positions of power in its administration.
The "Young Reformers" and "Old Guard" will fight it out at an extraordinary general meeting on Boxing Day, when all members will get a vote on the Mosque's future.
The official list of voting members will be closed this Saturday. Iqbal, and dozens of other women who have signed up for her campaign, have just a week to join up if they want to have any say in what is being billed as the most important event in the Mosque's history.
Officially, there seems to be nothing stopping them. Glasgow Central Mosque's president, former Labour councillor and justice of the peace Bashir Maan, 83, yesterday expressed surprise that any women had tried to pay their £10 membership fee and get a vote. "Women have never taken any interest," he said. "I don't think there is any religious reason why they should not be members. It might be a cultural tradition. Religion doesn't make any division between man and woman."
Practically, however, applications from women are being rejected. No mosque official could explain why. Maan is now looking into the issue.
Some leading Muslim men are right behind Iqbal, Hanif and their friends.
They include Osama Saeed, chief executive of the Scottish Government-backed Scottish-Islamic Foundation, who said: "There is no religious reason for the current situation – quite the opposite.
"There are famous cases in Islamic history of women standing up in the mosque and taking religious leaders to account. There is currently a democratic and consultative deficit, which does not help the mosque first and foremost. Because, practically also, the community is missing out on a reservoir of talent. It sounds glib to say women are half the community, but it is true.
I can say firmly that young Muslim women are today more switched on than their male counterparts. The mosque is missing out."
Back on one of the top floors of The Union, the headquarters of the University of Strathclyde Students' Association, Iqbal and Hanif are stressing how much respect they have for the elders who created the Jamiat. But they can't quite agree how to put it. "I want to say Glasgow Central Mosque is our pride," Hanif suggests. Iqbal isn't so sure. "I don't that it is our pride the way it currently is. It should be our pride, but it isn't," she says. Then Hanif finds the words. "We want to improve the mosque because it is our own, it is our honour. We don't want to destroy it. We want to be in it because we love it."
Letter from Egypt
By DANIEL WILLIAMS
New York Times
December 16, 2009
On a side street in the far northeast Cairo suburb of Ain Shams, the door of a five-story former underwear factory is padlocked.
This is, or was supposed to be, the St. Mary and Anba Abraam Coptic Christian Church. The police closed it Nov. 24, 2008, when Muslims rioted against its consecration. Since then local Copts have had to commute to distant churches or worship in hiding at one another’s homes.
While Muslim leaders criticized the Nov. 29 vote in Switzerland that banned construction of minarets, the distinctive spires on mosques that are used for the call to prayer, they don’t support Christians who want to build churches in some Islamic countries. Restrictions in Egypt have exacerbated sectarian violence and discrimination, say Copts, a 2,000-year-old denomination that comprises about 10 percent of the population.
The day after the Swiss vote, Ali Gomaa, one of Egypt’s top Muslim clerics, called the decision “an attempt to insult the feelings of the Muslim community in and outside of Switzerland.” Copts quickly said that neither he nor any other Islamic leader mentioned the Christian situation in Egypt.
“Without the merest attempt to put our house in order, are we in any position to taunt others to put theirs?” Youssef Sidhom, editor in chief of the Cairo-based Egyptian Coptic weekly newspaper El-Watani, said by telephon. “They should be ashamed.” The contrast between criticism of the Swiss and silence about local parallels isn’t limited to Egypt. Censure of Switzerland, where about 5 percent of the population is Muslim, was widespread in Islamic countries where Christians face restrictions on practicing their faith.
“The decision of the Swiss people stood to be interpreted as xenophobic, prejudiced, discriminative and against the universal human rights values,” said the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which represents 57 Muslim-majority nations. Members include Saudi Arabia, where non-Muslims are arrested for worshiping privately; Maldives, the Indian Ocean atoll where citizenship is reserved for Muslims; Libya, which limits churches to one per denomination in cities; and Iran, where conversion from Islam is punished by death, according to a 2009 U.S. State Department report on religious freedom.
“The Copts are a minority. Why do they need more churches?” Harbi Muhammed Ali, a cafe owner in Ain Shams, said in an interview. “There are other churches around. If you have one car, do you need two?” As for Switzerland, “the West is always preaching human rights,” he said. “It’s their problem.”
Requests for interviews with officials of the government and at the state-controlled Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the country’s largest institution of Islamic learning, went unanswered. And requests for interviews at the Islamic conference’s Geneva office, which issued the criticism of the Swiss ban, were rejected because officials were too busy, said a person who answered the telephone there.
In Egypt, local officials oversee permits for church construction and renovation, which must receive endorsement from Muslims in the neighborhood and final approval from President Hosni Mubarak. “Church and human rights leaders complain that many local officials intentionally delay the permit process,” the U.S. State Department report said. “As a result, congregations have experienced lengthy delays, years in many cases, while waiting for new building permits.”
Ain Shams is a sprawling district of narrow lanes and multistory housing with a majority Muslim population. The rioting there began after Copts renovated the factory and said Mass, Muslim and Christian residents said. Rioters carried a banner that read “No to the church,” chanted “There is no god but God” and threw stones at the police who kept them at bay.
Today, only a wrought-iron cross design on the locked front door marks the place as a church. Just down the street, Muslim residents constructed a lime green Mosque of Light at the same time that the Copts were modifying their building.
“Of course, they closed us down, but the mosque is open,” said Hossama Sedik, 30, a Coptic day laborer. There are about 40 Coptic churches in Egyptian cities and scores more in towns and villages, especially in southern Egypt, along with even larger numbers of clandestine prayer houses, said Bishop Thomas, a Coptic priest who operates a retreat outside Cairo.
In October, Muslims hurled stones at Christian workers in Al-Badraman, a village south of the city, because they were going to raise the steeple and add a bell at a church, according to press reports. In 2007, riots erupted in Behma, another southern village, after word spread that Copts were going to build a church without a permit. About 27 Christian-owned houses and shops were torched.
Parallel to these incidents are clashes over such issues as conversion and alleged harassment of Muslim girls by Copts, and Coptic girls by Muslims. “It’s a challenge to hold onto the concept of love and peace,” said Thomas, 52.
After he founded his retreat 10 years ago, Muslims set up four small mosques, complete with minarets, just outside the four corners of the rectangular enclosure. “They make a point that if we are here, the Muslims must be, too,” he said.
Even so, he joined Muslims in denouncing the Swiss ban. “If I want freedom to build in Egypt, I must also want it in Switzerland,” he said.