Saturday, March 19, 2005

Woman-led Muslim service sparks protest

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A woman has broken with Islamic tradition by leading a prayer service where men and women sat together, sparking protests and calls of blasphemy from fellow Muslims who believe only men should lead prayers.

The Muslim Women's Freedom Tour, a grass-roots organisation, and the Web site sponsored the service.

Islamic women typically sit separately from men in worship services and, in some cases, enter their mosque through a back or side door. Orthodox Jews also segregate men from women during religious services. Roman Catholics do not allow women to hold important leadership roles.

But on Friday, Amina Wadud, an associate professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, led roughly 50 men and women in a Muslim service, a role normally held by a man.

The event, which came amid heavy police security, was held at the Synod House, a small chapel next to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan's Upper West Side. Other locations refused to host the event due to threats.

"I don't want to change Muslim mosques. I want to encourage the hearts of Muslims to believe that they are equal," Wadud said at a crowded news conference before the service, adding she wished to help remove "artificial and inconvenient restrictions" aimed at Muslim women.

About 15 angry protesters gathered outside the chapel.

"That woman does not represent Islam at all. This is blasphemy, and the penalty for blasphemy is death and that is what this woman deserves," said a protester named Nussrah.

Asra Nomani, the lead organiser of the service created an uproar last year by entering her Morgantown, West Virginia mosque through the front door.

"Today, Muslim women are moving from the back of the mosque to the front of the mosque," said Nomani. "This is a historic event."