CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 17 . . . . April 28, 2006
As a child, journalist and filmmaker Zarqa Nawaz spent many happy hours at her local masjid or mosque in Toronto. Growing up Muslim was fun and an experience that she fears her own children cannot share. For Nawaz and others, the increasing use of barriers or partitions to physically separate women and children from men in the prayer halls of North American mosques sends a message that they are no longer welcome. In some communities, women are totally banned from the mosque. Between 1994 and 2000, the percent of Canadian mosques that utilized barriers to separate increased from half to two-thirds. In this very personal documentary, Nawaz explores the historical role of women in Islam and the place of women in Islam in North America today with particular emphasis on space for women to pray and participate in their local faith communities.
The documentary contains lots of scenes of Nawaz talking with women from Islamic communities in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, as well as a scenes from the Chicago meeting of the Conference of the Islamic Society of North America. Family members, an architect and community leaders all share observations. Nawaz travels to West Virginia to meet Asra Q. Nomani, journalist and activist who is perhaps the first Muslim woman in America to express in the national press in the United States her frustration with the treatment of Muslim women. One woman from Surrey, BC, visits the separate prayer space for women that is under construction—a space that is elevated and removed from the prayer hall with no visual connection—and candidly observes that, while grateful for the space, the design says “Shut up, you’ve been given your space,” and adds that, “Men may think they know what women need but they don’t.”
Short animation is occasionally used to portray the situation in the time of the Prophet. In the case of one interviewee, subtitles are supplied when the speaker slips into her native non-English tongue. Most of the film consists of dialogues with women and some notable scholars and leaders of both genders. Aminah Assilmi, a convert to Islam and director of the International Union for Muslim Women, blames the situation on ignorance of what the Koran and Hadith (the most important source of knowledge in Islam after the Koran) really say about women, together with cultural practices imported by immigrants. In Canada, more than ninety percent of Muslims were born abroad, and many come from cultures accustomed to barriers in the mosques if not total exclusion of women.
Hadith scholar Sheik Abdullah Adhami explains that there is no evidence of partition in the time of the Prophet. In fact, there is evidence of women imams who taught both women and men, and women held important public roles in their communities. Dr. Tareq Suwaidan, a Kuwaiti scholar also expresses his understanding that those who justify barriers based upon verses from the Koran are misinterpreting passages that applied only to the Prophet’s wives and not to women in general.
The film demonstrates that Muslim women seeking reform in their communities face a difficult struggle, but it does end on an uplifting note. Back in Regina where she lives, the local community has elected a new leader who is more open to inclusion of women in the faith community. Some of her women friends have recently joined some of the mosque’s committees. Her children may have a chance to experience the joys of growing up Muslim that are comparable to their mother’s experience.
This is an important film as it illuminates the quest for North American Muslim women to reclaim or gain for the first time a more egalitarian position in their faith communities.
Val Ken Lem is a catalogue librarian and member of the Collection Services Team at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.