This I believe… that it is not enough to speak up for what is right; one must also take action, even if that action is uncomfortable, or may have negative ramifications to your personal life. A few weeks ago, I was invited by the United Muslim Association of Toronto and the Muslim Canadian Congress to be the first woman to deliver the weekly sermon and lead the congregation in the Friday prayers in a mosque in some 1400 years. Other mixed-gender prayers have happened in recent months, but this was the first time a congregation stepped forward and said, “We want this to happen here, in our mosque.” The previous prayers had to be held in churches, backyards, university classrooms.
I have long advocated for women’s rights. For our equality. For our freedom of choice in career and conscience, whether it be in America, in Muslim countries, in the mosque, or in society at large. I have written essays and poems, given interviews and lectures. But now, I was being asked to live my convictions – to step beyond words and into action.
I knew that this was a controversial move. That there would be protests and criticisms – at times harsh ones – ridicule, perhaps even threats. I worried that some of the publications I was accustomed to write for might no longer be so welcoming. Worst of all, I was surprised to find that I had internalized criticisms of women’s leadership capabilities that are commonly voiced in the Muslim community. I was stricken by doubt in my own ability, despite a master’s degree in theology and a long history of public speaking.
After much thought, it became clear to me that I had I no choice. I had to accept this invitation, even if it cost me venues in which to publish, even if it meant subjecting myself to public disdain by more conservative Muslims, even if I had to endure the pangs of performance anxiety. Especially because I had to endure the pangs performance anxiety. What was the point to all my passionate writing in defense of women’s rights if I refused to exercise those rights when they were offered to me? Why bother asserting women’s competence in all endeavors if I shrank from demonstrating that competence in the very field where I possessed more expertise than most people? How could I expect others to step forward to enact the principles I promote, if I, the advocate, would not?
And so, on July 1st, I stood before a congregation of 220 Muslim men and women, and spoke of Islam’s commitment to the principle that all humans are equal in the sight of God – that every individual, regardless of gender, nationality, race, ethnicity, faith, orientation, or ability, is deserving of the same human rights and civil liberties as every other individual.
Yes, there were criticisms. Some called us pathetic. Others said we were destined for the hellfire. Yes, some in the community have distanced themselves from me and the groups that organized the event. But it has been worth it.
On a personal level, it was an incredible experience – affirming, empowering, humbling – a moment in time I will never forget. As an activist, I feel invigorated, and imbued with a new assurance – I speak now with the added confidence of one who has put herself on the line with regards to what she believes. On a congregational level, the prayers brought together people of all backgrounds, Sunni, Shi’i, Ismaili, people of all races and colors, straight and gay, some of whom had not been to a mosque for years. Judging by the smiles and tears on their faces during and after the service, the experience impacted them much the same way it did me. On a communal level, I believe that it will open doors – now that one mosque has had a woman imam, others will feel free to follow suit. In each case, my belief that action is necessary has been affirmed beyond my wildest expectations.
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