So the other day we were talking about our local mosque. To my surprise, he agreed it's a travesty that women are put behind a barrier (or on another floor), where they can't directly see the imam. There was a problem with the microphone and close circuit TV last Friday, and the women couldn't follow the prayers. We both like to go to IIT, where the prayer hall is a large open hall and the men pray in front of the women, with no dividers. Another time we attended the Sayeda Khadija Centre in Mississauga, where the women pray directly behind the men and again, no divider. The imam listened to the questions posed by the women and answered immediately, without any notes being passed as in our local mosque. Both my father and I agreed that it was a joke that our mosque tried to make women and men exit from separate doors when the mosque was packed (and it was a fire hazard). They allowed men and women to enter from the same doors, so what is the trouble? And if I wanted to attend a lecture in the mosque with my wife, why does she have to sit in another section?
So when I see the legitimate concerns posed by many women frustrated by their treatment in South Asian or Arab dominated mosques, I feel their pain. However, if change is needed, they need to win over the support of people like us, who believe in traditional teachings and yet see room for a lot of improvement within the Islamic framework.
So here is why I think Muslim "feminists" are not taken seriously.
1. They don't present a credible image.
It's hard to take someone speaking about Islamic daleel and fiqh and jurisprudence when they look like this. Like it or not, you have to make yourself presentable and look credible, otherwise no one will listen to what you have to say. Any Muslim will agree that modesty is one defining character of a decent Muslim, men AND women. While no one is arguing everyone has to be dressed in a scarf or niqab to be taken seriously, sleeveless blouses and short skirts give the idea that you have another secret agenda not limited to women's emancipation in mosques.
Think about why the above feminist may not be taken as seriously, as say this next one:
It's about presenting a credible image.
2. They think men and women are the same in Islam.
Strictly speaking, technically this is not true. Islam discriminates against men and favours women. For example, on the Day of Judgement, Allah will not ask a mother why she didn't provide for her child. It will be asked of the child's father. He will be questioned as to why he couldn't impart Islamic teachings to his children. A woman is not asked about Jihad or why she didn't go to the mosque and watched Humsafar instead. We men don't have Paradise under our feet, women do. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) promised Paradise for a father of two daughters. No such promise was made for a man who fathered two sons. And so on.
So when you try to make a woman equal to a man, you have to be aware this was the fight of the Western feminists. For example, this text is from the Catholic Encyclopedia today:
The female sex is in some respects inferior to the male sex, both as regards body and soul.As can be seen, the Old Testament blames women for Adam's fall from Heaven (as a result of which she is "punished" with child birth and menstruation pains). This was the prevailing attitude that Western women had to fight, when they were considered inferior in every way.
In Islam, the battle is different. Women have certain God-given rights, such as access to the mosque, access to the imam, legal rights, decision making rights etc. that have now been taken away from them (hello Saudi Arabia and your stupid driving ban). Those are the fights the feminists need to fight for. There is no need to make women to be equal to men, we need women to exercise their own God-given rights.
3. They pick the wrong fights.
By trying to say a woman can lead a mixed gender prayer, you are picking the wrong fight. A women's position is neither elevated nor her difficulties decreased by making her the imam. Technically speaking the imam is responsible for all the mistakes made during prayer, while those that follow get all the rewards of the prayer. In strict Islamic law, certain responsibilities (and its pitfalls) are for men alone; bringing a women here does her no benefits. Rather, the fight should be as to why she can't see her imam or ask him a question or is being deprived of an Islamic education from a learned scholar.
Similarly some are upset that a brother gets more in inheritance than a sister, from the same dad. The same feminists also acknowledge that when a man gets a property, he can be responsible for supporting his mother, his sisters, his kids, his father, and in some cases, his grandparents and his aunts. When a woman gets a property, she does not have to support anyone. If you want to give a woman equal rights to inheritance, are you prepared to also put on her all those claims of support? So in effect, you are burdening her more than Allah has burdened her, and this is supposed to benefit her?
This is because you have picked the wrong fight. The proper fight is when brothers take over their sister's inheritance, because she "is of feeble mind and cannot manage it". The proper fight is when a wife is not given her due Mahr because her father or brothers "forgave it" from the husband. The proper fight is when a woman is not allowed to own a business or run her monetary affairs without her husband's permission.
Not that she has less financial responsibilities and you want to burden her with more.
This is why feminists in Saudi Arabia (of all places) were spectacularly successful in getting rights for women to work (which they have in Islam but are denied in some Muslim countries) in lingerie shops, because they asked for their rights as women to be respected within Islam.
So, in conclusion:
Provide a modest, credible image.
Be well verses in Islamic knowledge and jurisprudence regarding women.
Pick the right battles.