Canada: Women-led prayer on International Women's Day

The first woman-led mixed prayer was held by Pamela Taylor in Toronto, Canada on 8 March 2007.
Asserting that men and women have equal status under Islam, the first woman-led mixed prayer in honour of International Women's Day was held recently in Toronto. Pamela Taylor, a convert to Islam and the co-founder of Muslims for Progressive Values, based in Los Angeles, led the prayer. Muslims gather on Fridays for their weekly congregational service. The service was organized by the newly formed Canadian Muslim Union.
Herizons interviewed Taylor about the movement for Muslim women's rights.

Herizons: What was the significance of holding the Juma on International Women's Day?

Pamela Taylor: Pamela Taylor: International Women's Day is about bringing into focus problems that women are facing. Holding a mixed-gender, woman-officiated Friday service in honour of International Women's Day places the movement solidly within the context of the greater feminist movement.

It represents a step toward normalizing women-led prayers. My belief is that when women leading prayers, and serving as imams, becomes commonplace, it will have an impact on the way our community views and treats women in general.

Is this Friday prayer about reclaiming sacred mosque space for Muslim women?

Pamela Taylor: Absolutely. The mosque is called the House of God. How can women be excluded from any part of it?

Most mosques don't allow women to pray in the main prayer hall, and often the women's section is overcrowded, the sound system is spotty, children are running wild making it impossible to concentrate. I've been to mosques where I was expected to go around back, down the dark alley, past the dumpsters, to get to the door to the women's section. This is disgraceful! How can we treat women like this in the House of God!

Yes, it is reclaiming, as the Prophet appointed a woman from amongst his followers as a prayer leader for her area. It challenges the idea that we are secondary in the mosque, that our participation is unimportant. You can bet that in a mosque where a woman is imam, women are not going to be relegated to some back room where they can't hear! It is significant that men and women have prayed side by side…sometimes in two separate areas - women on the right, men on the left, and sometimes in integrated rows - but never with women relegated to an inferior place to the men.

What is the reasoning for excluding women from leading prayers?

Pamela Taylor: Many Muslims these days have become totally obsessed with putting limits on male-female interaction. This is one reason for the resurgence of the niqab. It's why so many mosques have separate rooms for women, or have put curtains across the main prayer hall so men and women can't see each other, despite the fact that the Prophet never had that kind of arrangement in his mosque.

What impact do women-led prayers have on non-Muslim communities?

Pamela Taylor: I think it makes them feel much, much more comfortable knowing that there are Muslims dealing with similar issues [as they] deal with. I feel a particularly strong sense of empathy from Catholic women who are going through much of the same struggle within their own faith community.

What did you hope to accomplish by leading this prayer?

Pamela Taylor: There is a need for visible, public events to encourage others to join in the bandwagon, to keep applying some pressure to the community, to establish a normalcy for women-led prayers in the public sphere, not just as some hush-hush, backroom, this-is-what-my group-does, but as a celebration of women's spiritual power, of their contribution to our community as spiritual teachers and leaders.

What were your greatest rewards and fears?

Pamela Taylor: As for fears, I really didn't have any. When women led prayers in 2005, there were some threats the event would be picketed, but nothing ever materialized. In 2006, there were barely any ripples in the community.

Amina Wadud (the first woman to lead a mixed Muslim prayer in New York in 2005) got quite a bit of flak, but I think people who are opposed to it have become resigned to the fact that a group of us are going to be doing this for some time.

A lot of women - and men - said to me, "I didn't want to ever pray at a mosque before because I felt I didn't belong, but at this prayer, I feel I belong."

By: Roxana Olivera