Many believe it is a violation of Islamic law when a woman leads men in prayer.
During her pilgrimage to Mecca, Asra Nomani was surprised when men and women prayed all together; in her mosque in the United States, women weren't allowed in the same room as men.
That experience fueled her personal jihad, which, she says, is to reclaim the rightful role of women in Islam given by the prophet Mohammed but denied by centuries of cultural tradition.
After years of trying to bring change in the mosque, Nomani and a woman scholar have taken the revolutionary and controversial step in recent weeks of leading the ritual prayer in front of both men and women. That bold action has sent e-mails flying globally, stirred vigorous debate in the United States and brought condemnation by scholars across the Muslim world as a violation of Islam.
"This is a misleading heresy and sedition," responded the Islamic Fiqh Academy of the 55-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference. Sheikh Mohammad Sayed Tantawi of Cairo's Al-Azhar University said women may lead other women in prayer but not a mixed-gender congregation. Muslim organizations in the United States issued similar critiques.
But a few scholars and women's groups argue that it is not that definitive, pointing to a situation in which the prophet Mohammed designated a woman to lead prayer for a group that included men. Whether the men were of her own household or beyond is disputed.
A long road
Some Muslim women have worked for years on women's rights and on encouraging more equitable conditions in mosques.
Only men are required to attend the traditional Friday prayer at the mosque, and in some countries women rarely go. But as U.S. mosques developed as community and educational centers for immigrant families, women participated regularly. Segregation of the sexes remains common, and women are sometimes relegated to cramped or undesirable spaces. Many American mosques now have women on their governing boards. Others do not permit this.
Nomani describes her own journey and her struggles to bring reform to the Morgantown mosque in her new book, "Standing Alone in Mecca."
Some critics charge the prayer events are being staged to promote her book. Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, said both are part of her jihad that flows from the Islamic teaching that one must & quot;stand up for justice."
Salma Kazmi, who attends the Islamic Society of Boston, said this has "sparked a lot of debate and e-mails." But when it comes to worship, "you don't start making changes" to what is a "unifying point in the community," which is important when people come from so many different cultures.
At the same time, the prayer event helped bring about a forum in her mosque last week during which women and some male leaders discussed issues of access and the place of women in the mosque.
Her battle is not only to stand against oppression of women but also against extremism, she said. In fact, it was the beheading in Pakistan of her good friend Daniel Pearl, also a Wall Street Journal correspondent, that sent her on pilgrimage to Mecca to seek the heart of Islam.
"My family taught me the spirit of love in Islam," she said, "but those who murdered Danny had said their prayers before killing him." It was a betrayal of her faith, and she had to find answers. Her book describes how she found them and her conviction Muslims must not be silent.