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Reporting from an Eastside mosque

Understanding the role of women in Islam starts from the inside.
A mosque near Northgate.

A mosque near Northgate. Stephen Schwartz

Islamic Center of Eastside (Bellevue Masjid)

Islamic Center of Eastside (Bellevue Masjid) Judy Lightfoot

Karen Lowe and discussion co-leader Leslie Taylor at the Islamic Center Open House on July 14, 2012

Karen Lowe and discussion co-leader Leslie Taylor at the Islamic Center Open House on July 14, 2012 Judy Lightfoot

The annual holy month of Ramadan begins today and will last 28 or 29 days depending on sightings of the coming crescent moon. Ramadan is a period of fasting, spiritual reflection, and worship during which Muslims abstain from food, drink, and sexual relations each day from dawn to sunset. Because the holiday is determined by the lunar calendar, the time shifts every year, so it's merely coincidental that the annual public open house at Bellevue's Eastside Islamic Center was held less than a week ago.

On my arrival at the mosque for last Saturday's presentations and Q&A about Islam in America, which would be followed by a buffet lunch, a smiling man steered me away from the main entrance and gestured toward the rear of the modest white building. The women’s event was separate from the men’s. A path marked by bright yellow arrows printed with the word “Ladies” led to a small porch, where I removed my sandals and climbed the back stairs to the women’s section.

Topics for the day ranged from the Five Pillars of Islam to Sharia Law, Jihad, and Women in Islam. Some questions were more pointed than might have been expected in religious surroundings, but the discussion was infused with the peaceful joy radiating from the Muslim women present – two co-leaders and about ten women seated among 30 or so visitors in the audience.

When I observed that the omission of Men in Islam as an agenda topic might imply that Muslims consider maleness to be the human norm and femaleness to be deviant, discussion co-leader Mualima Bahiyya (wife of the mosque's imam) cheerfully explained that the program separated out feminine issues only because non-Muslims have so many misconceptions about the treatment of Muslim women. Rights and responsibilities under Islam apply to all Muslims equally, Bahiyya said.

"Then how do you justify honor killing?” asked one skeptic. Other visitors brought up the Saudi prohibition against women driving automobiles and the brutal enforcement in some societies of a requirement that women be covered in public.

Co-leader Leslie Taylor, an American-born convert to Islam who, like Bahiyya, wore hijab (a head scarf and a loose gown), replied that those actions do not accord with Islamic traditions; instead they belong to particular cultural and political groups, including some that aren’t Muslim. “Driving a car is not against Islam,” remarked one of the women in the audience who, like the co-leaders, were wearing hijab.

Distinguishing between the religion of Islam and the politics, culture, and legal systems of the places where the religion lives was a recurrent theme. One American in the audience, who had married a Saudi and lived several years in Saudi Arabia, called the government there corrupt and some cultural aspects backward. “These people came out of the desert 50 years ago," she said. "My husband’s father lighted his house with kerosene lamps. His dad owned slaves. Give them a little time!”

On the other hand, the Muslim women present did not see the separation of men and women or wearing hijab as throwbacks to a more primitive era. When a guest with springy salt-and-pepper hair and a peppery voice commented that she had become a Reformed Jew to avoid the separation of the sexes associated with Orthodox Judaism, Taylor explained that gender-separated worship services and social events let Muslims focus undistracted on the meaning of the activity at hand. “I prefer worshiping with my sisters, without sweaty guys or cute guys nearby,” she said.

Islamic law does not force women to wear hijab, Taylor continued. “The motive must come from within.” Bahiyya added that most of the women in her family don’t wear hijab. What's more, Islamic law forbids insulting or assaulting a woman who does not wear a scarf or gown.

So why voluntarily cover themselves? Women want to divert the gaze of men from their bodies, Bahiyya explained. “Islam is sophisticated about human psychology. Men are very visual, as scientific research has shown. It’s just human nature. I cover so they won’t stare at me.” In turn, Islam requires men to show respect toward women by lowering their eyes when the sexes encounter each other, and a Muslim man is taught to treat women, even those who aren’t Muslims, with respect.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Jul 20, 9:47 a.m. Inappropriate

I wonder, did the clitoridectomy topic come up during the event?

Curious that people don't take the same let's-celebrate-our-differences approach when it comes to the controversial aspects of, say, Catholicism. Instead, discussion of Catholics who follow their church's teaching on issues like contraception, abortion, the definition of marriage, and the reservation of priestly ordination to men only, is accompanied by ridicule, scorn, and calls to "climb out of the middle ages."

Judy, you do great work here. For a future article or just for your own edification, you might visit one of the more traditionally-minded Catholic parishes in the Puget Sound region and ask some of the younger people why they are drawn to living the faith in its entirety as opposed to taking the popular buffet-restaurant approach to their religion.

Posted Fri, Jul 20, 11:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Janice Tufte, of HASSANAH Consulting and the Warm For Winter Project, sent this email:

Dear Judy,
I am posting your wonderful story on our Muslim web sites this AM and sent it on to a friend of mine in Saudi who knows both Bahiyaa and Leslie. She will be excited to read your clarifications of concerns many in our communities must reinforce often. For example, two sorry situations in our own community this week:

Tuesday PM 7-17-12 - an Islamic Community Center at 35th and S. Holly in West Seattle (close to High Point) was vandalized to the tune of $3,000. The man apprehended stated that he hates Muslims.

Thursday July 19th 2012 - Around 4 AM a Mosque attendee came into Mosque only to be assaulted and beaten until the man threw a bag at him, stole the victim’s keys and wallet, and started up the victim’s car just when the police arrived. The man drove the car at police, gunshots ensued, and the culprit (an individual with mental health issues, it appears) was arrested.

One important fact about Ramadan that I do not see noted prominently, as it really should be, is that after the nightly Magrib prayers & Iftar, and then after Isha prayers (last required nightly prayers), Muslims read 1/30 of the Quran nightly, with 8 prayer sequences of 2 Rakkahs recited. This recitation with prayers takes about an hour and is called Tarawih http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarawih).

Have a great Ramadan. I hope to see you one day or evening – perhaps August 4th, 8:30 PM, at UW Islamic House, 4625 22nd Ave. Find details about this and other local Iftars (breaking of the fasts) at http://www.islamicfinder.org

Thank you again.

Posted Fri, Jul 20, 12:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks Judy for coverage in detail. I liked that you covered the questions and answers as well, because many times coverage of such events is very vanilla with showing everyone was happy and smiled at each other and that's it.

Your article showed that people do have hard questions and hosts didn't shied away from those. Ordinary person can come to mosque anytime and get to know Islam, Muslims and their views. There are 5 sessions of scheduled prayers everyday, so you can easily find a time when people will be there.

There is another similar event planned at a mosque in Redmond as well:
https://www.facebook.com/events/334140676670239

yon

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