Monday, March 1, 2010

Gender Discrimination and Islam - A Violation of Free Exercise

The separation of Church and State is an interesting idea to think about. While the first amendment outlines our right to exercise religion freely and restricts the state from establishing an official church, there have been countless instances where these ideals have been questioned. One issue that we have discussed recently in class is the state’s ability to intervene in religious affairs – i.e. determining the validity or sincerity of one’s religious beliefs, or taking action when those beliefs conflict with civil law. These are some of the issues I wish to discuss in this post.

In her article, posted on, Asra Q. Nomani tells of the recent controversy in a Washington D.C. mosque that has gained some public notoriety and a national following. She explains that a few weekends ago, Fatima Thompson and a number of other women defiantly prayed in the male-only section of The Islamic Center of Washington even though this practice went against many age-old gender rules of the Islamic faith. Normally, women are sequestered to an area apart from the men when praying, which is notoriously known as “The Penalty Box” to a growing number of Muslim women So, when a mosque official scolded the women and told them to move, they remained there in protest, as Nomani compared to the efforts of Rosa Parks during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Eventually the mosque called the police, and Officer Barry Goodman told the women they must leave. An excerpt from Nomani’s article sheds light on the Officer’s interaction with the women. The article reads:

‘“I’m not a Muslim. I’m just here to do my job” he said politely. “Ladies, this is how it works. You have to obey the rules of the church here… I’m sorry. The church or temple. However you want to call it. You have to obey the rules.” He continued: “If they ask you to leave. You have to leave.” Failure to leave, he pointed out, would be grounds for arrest for unlawful entry. He said: “I don’t want to do that.”’

I think that this situation raises a number of important questions pertaining to free exercise and state intervention. First, the fact that a church or mosque (or pretty much any other organization for that matter) can no longer discriminate against anyone because of their race, color, religious beliefs, and so on. Yet, within the confines of their religious sphere, these mosques are still allowed to shun women to a segregated area to pray because of gender-based religious precedents. So, here we have the question as to whether religious principles can overrule civil laws. I think this is a difficult question to answer, as there are a few different dynamics to think about. In contrast to some other situations where one’s free exercise of religion has been violated by a group or party (private or state) on the basis of their religious beliefs (i.e. Religious groups discriminating when choosing their leaders, Polygamy laws, etc.), this involves violations on the free exercise of religion for these women by their religious group itself. Is that okay? These women are being discriminated against by not being afforded the same (gender) rights, but also by not being able to pray how they wish. Some may say that this is a private religious organization that should be able to make their own rules, decide who takes on a leadership role, and who sits where when they pray. I am honestly not sure where I stand on this issue. Women’s rights within the Islamic faith have been a hot-button issue around the world, particularly in certain areas of the Middle East where women are clearly not viewed as equals to men. In the United States, however, these practices are illegal. I know that this may be more of a gender issue than a religious one on the surface, but I submit that this gender discrimination leads to a violation of their free exercise. The question now moves from whether these practices are a violation of the women’s rights to pray freely to what can be done by the state?

While this first idea carries a lot of weight, I think it is equally as important to examine the state’s role in the situation. If we cannot decide whether the mosque has the right to separate men and women, how then can we decide if the police should be brought into the situation? And then, if they are brought in, as they were here, the police will inevitably have to take a side, either allowing the women to stay or kicking them out. Then, I foresee an establishment claim, where the state is giving preference to one religious ideal (segregation or non-segregation) over the other.


Alicia_W said...

This is an extremely interesting article because it embodies all the questions we have been discussing in class but it also adds another element of discrimination. In the Islamic religion, as seen in this article, there are old traditions of male and female segregation that are continuing to be upheld. As an American woman born into the 20th century, I cannot imagine not being allowed to do the same things as my male counterparts. I cannot say I’m educated within the Islamic discipline by any means but I feel that while practicing religious traditions in America, anti-discrimination laws need to be upheld and followed. Women throughout the history of America have been fighting for the right of equality and we have become a modern society that respects the individual. I disagree with the police officer’s statement and actions. The women who were expressing their individual rights should not have been punished for something that they are guaranteed on American soil, even if their religious traditions deem it unacceptable. Traditions are not laws but habits that sometimes need to be adjusted with the changing times, such as equality for all.

Abby P said...

This article was certainly one that raised a number of important questions. This particular case seems to be even more complicated than the ones we have discussed in class, because it also deals with gender discrimination within a particular religion. As has been discussed in class it is difficult to determine the verity of one's religious beliefs. It seems that in this case both the Islamic men and the Islamic women felt as if they were abiding by their religious beliefs; however, these beliefs came into conflict with one another. Then the state stepped in and offered a remedy; but while implementing the remedy the state was forced to choose which group's religious beliefs were accurate and which were not. Once again the question of whether or not it was the state's duty to intervene arises. This is a particularly difficult case; and one in which I am having diffculty coming to a conclusion on. Personally I do not think that the women should have been ostracized into the "penalty box." However, who is to say that the men in this case were not acting based on true religious convictions?

Loga'Abdullah said...

Have you seen this commentary on Asra's book?

Interested to hear your thoughts.

Lauren P said...

I think that women’s civil rights should take precedent over those of religious beliefs. In this country, we have worked hard to reduce discrimination based on race, gender, and religion and in our post-modern world discrimination on these bases is illegal. However, our country was also founded on the idea of religious freedom and a citizen’s right to exercise his or her religion freely. Therefore, I cannot say with absolute certainty, where I stand on this matter.
Additionally, I am perplexed by the police officers’ involvement. I do not think that the police should have had a hand in this situation at all. Why are the police, or any public authority, enforcing what is considered a religious rule? It does not appear to me that these women were breaking a civil law, but rather a religious one. If that is the case then I think that this is an example in which the “wall of separation” was not upheld.

Jessica B said...

I think this article is great because it brings up issues we’ve been discussing in, what I see as, a new way. I believe what made this a violation of free exercise was the involvement of the police. This issue reminds me of another article we discussed where a religious test was needed to hold a position in a certain organization; a certain private, Christian organization. How non-Muslims feel about the segregated prayer rules are irrelevant, it is an issue between these women and their religion. If they don’t like it, they should pray somewhere else. The women were in prayer on the grounds of their church, the actions taken place there were not under the law of the United States (the Constitution) but of the law of that house of worship and its long honored traditions. The other members of the mosque should have made a bigger deal of their defiance instead of calling in unauthorized government officials.

Kerry S said...

I think this is a very interesting article because it gives an example of an instance where the legitimacy of religious convictions are being questioned. While I don't necessarily agree with the idea of separate prayer spaces, that doesn't necessarily make it wrong. What I do think is certainly wrong in this instance is the police involvement. The mosque should not have involved civil officials in the matter, as they are entangling the civil law with religion. Since there seemed to be a good number of Muslim women outraged over the "Penalty box", I think this is an instance where the members of the mosque need to come together to decide how they are going to move forward and if they are willing to change their traditions.