The result of this case was the forced segregation of blacks and whites in all aspects of life. Segregated water fountains, segregated spaces, separate entrances, separate schools and neighborhoods. On paper it didn't sound bad but, in reality, ‘separate’ cultivated a prejudiced mindset that Blacks were of the “other,” sub-human race. As if that weren't enough, discrimination of Blacks was justified by some through the Bible; yes, the same Bible that teaches love for your fellow man. Till today we are still struggling from the residue of this ‘separate but equal’ mindset.
More and more Americans are confronting the issues of racism and prejudice. We have a plethora of civil rights organizations whose job it is to ensure that ‘justice for all’ is a reality for all Americans.
In Muslim-majority countries, we have civil and Islamic based human rights organizations defending basic rights of the oppressed—especially of women. There is a trend of ‘separate but equal’ which permeates the American Muslim communities and it is a result of how as Muslims we have distorted, deformed the teachings of the Quran—that men and women are spiritual equals in the eyes of God.
Here in America, Muslim women excel because they are given a more equal opportunity. The inequality women face in the U.S. is more subtle than that of the women in Muslim-majority countries, but the root of the problem is the same—separate but equal.
Separate is never equal. It is a farce.
As recently as the 1950's, Blacks were forced to sit at the back of the bus, forced to enter through the back door, and treated as second-class citizens. These are the experiences of many women in Sunni Islam today!
In many mosques in America, women enter through the back door, female prayer spaces are inequitable compared to a male's, and, in some cases, unsuitable to pray in. The leadership is always a man, the imam and all religious matters are almost always addressed by men, and it is always the men who give the Friday sermons.
I used to belong to a traditional Muslim community. I attended prayers regularly, volunteered countless hours and even sent my daughter to Sunday school. Every time I set foot in that mosque, I felt short-changed. I had to ask myself, as a mother, do I really want my daughter to be short-changed too? Don’t I want her to experience the ideals of Islam at their fullest?
Progressive Muslims are often accused of “innovating” Islam. The truth is, the way Islam is taught and practiced is what is an innovation. If we Muslims claim Islam is about equality and justice, then why the discrepancy between theology and practice?
On January 6th 2006, I started a progressive Muslim community in Los Angeles which created a space that was an alternative to a mainstream mosque space. My community is governed by equality and equity, and by the Islamic ideals of justice and human dignity. That, after all, is the meaning of the ‘straight path’ in al-Fatihah, a prayer we Muslims say so frequently but meaninglessly.
In my community, we pray like we do in Mecca, families get to pray together! We don’t enforce segregation of the sexes, but it is an option for those who prefer men on one side, and women the other. This is not a new idea but a very old, and one that has died.
My Islam is democratic. We are all spiritual equals. There is no one imam who dominates the religious services. Men and women take turns to do the call for prayer, to lead prayer and to give the Friday sermons. The sermons at our Friday prayers talk about honesty, about mercy toward animals, of feminism in Islam, about adoption of children, about love, about ethics in Islam. The subject matter is as diverse as the participants giving the sermon—men, women, gays, Black, White, Latino, Native American, Asian, and Arab. What binds us all is that we are all inspired by the Quran, and some hadith.
Men and women are equals in the eyes of God. I was raised on that, and now I am finally living it out spiritually. Ameen.
If we choose to, we can all be agents of change. So come on my Muslim ummah, start a progressive prayer space in your community!By Ani Zonneveld, Aslan Media Columnist