July 11, 2011; Source: USA Today | Sometimes the most courageous actions by ordinary people involve doing what most of us would think is simply normal, but in certain contexts, exposes people to virulent, vocal attacks. USA Today published a very moving op-ed by a former Wall Street Journal reporter who, with Muslim women friends of hers, attempted to enter the Islamic Center in Washington D.C. to pray like any other Muslim — rather like any other male Muslim. Women are not allowed to enter the Islamic Center through the central front door like male worshipers. Woman are supposed to enter through a side door and go into a basement area separated from the main area designated for men. 

One of the women, Fatima Thompson, has been leading a “Pray In” campaign to convince Washington-area mosques to give women the same rights they had in the 7th century when the prophet Mohammad allowed women to pray in the same main hall — the musallah — of a mosque just like male worshipers without being hidden by partitions. During previous Pray-ins, police charged the women with trespassing and threw them out.  At this Pray-in at the Islamic Center, the women weren’t thrown out, but their prayers were accompanied by “shouts and insults” from male worshipers. 

These women are challenging the practice of many mosques that “relegate women to small, dingy, secluded, airless and segregated quarters with their children” or even “prevent women from entering,” as described in a 2005 study.  Don’t take this as a critique of mosques. This writer remembers during his youth attending Orthodox synagogues that segregated women in cramped balconies separate from and barely visible to male worshipers. 

Despite the focus of these Pray-ins on mosques, the issue isn’t tied to a specific religion. Thompson and her companions are really raising a question of gender rights at places of worship.   

While gender rights are protected in many kinds of tax exempt organizations, they are not protected in places of worship. According to Marc Owens, the former director of the tax exempt organizations division of the Internal Revenue Service, when it comes to gender rights in mosques, “Muslim women are essentially in the same place as Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s and 1960s when the courts hadn’t yet established public policy against racial discrimination.”

Is gender discrimination in tax-exempt religious institutions an issue for legislation and regulation because of their use of tax deductible charitable resources? Or is it that charitable contributions or not, the rights that religious institutions give or deny women are matters of religious doctrine and not governmental intrusion? How would NPQ Newswire readers react if “gender” was replaced with the word “racial?”

One of the most striking parts of this article involved a moment of shock the author, Asra Q. Nomani, had when the group of women Pray-in activists were stopped at the Islamic Center. She realized that her eight-year-old son who had accompanied her had more right to enter the musallah than she did. Should federal law, empowered by churches’ use of charitable deductions and possession of tax exemptions, be called on to break down the barriers of gender apartheid in Christian, Muslim, and Jewish halls of prayer?—Rick Cohen