American Mosque Brings Men and Women Together to Pray

13 May, 2017

Muslim men are usually separated from women during religious services in mosques throughout the world.

But one mosque in northern California has opened up to let men and women pray side-by-side.

The religious center is called Qal'Bu Maryam, which means "Heart of Mary" in Arabic.

Rabi'a Keeble set up the new Qal'Bu Maryam mosque in Berkeley, California. She was a Christian until about 10 years ago, when she accepted Islam.

Rabi'a Keeble established the Qal'Bu Maryam mosque in Berkeley, California, where men and women worship side-by-side.
Rabi'a Keeble established the Qal'Bu Maryam mosque in Berkeley, California, where men and women worship side-by-side.

It has long been a tradition that Muslim men and women pray separately. They sometimes pray in different parts of the same room. In some areas, they meet in different rooms or are divided by a barrier.

As a new Muslim, Rabi'a Keeble says, she could not imagine women praying in the same room with men.

"I think at first - like most new Muslims - I accepted everything because I felt that was my role. I felt that that's what God wanted, was for me to accept what already was happening. But I think as an intelligent thinking person, after a while I began to see that there seemed to be an imbalance in that approach."

Keeble accepted Islam's teachings and customs. But she wanted to see the clergyman during religious services, and not be in a separate room.

She eventually found a way to bring males and females together and give women the chance to see the person leading the service.

Hussam Mousa was born in Egypt. He says he stopped attending religious services after the birth of his daughter 11 years ago. But he likes the idea of the new mosque and wants to bring his daughter.

"Show her a new model that can kind of point out to her, like you can retain your religious heritage and retain your religious culture in a space and environment where you are equal."

Keeble says some people oppose her idea of having men and women in the same room.

"I've had some backlash from Muslim men. But I was determined from the beginning that if I get threats, or if there's language, or something doesn't feel good about it, I would just ignore it."

Some women say the separation of men and women in mosques is an important tradition they never had a problem with.

"That's how I was raised," said Saleemah Jones, a lifelong Muslim. She now attends the Qal'Bu Maryam mosque in Berkeley. Now, for the first time, Jones prays with men and also gets the chance to lead prayers herself.

"I had never been to a mosque where a woman led a prayer so much as where I would ever think that I would actually lead the prayer as well. So it gives you an empowering feeling. You know you can pretty much go out and do anything."

Rabi'a Keeble says her goal is to create a space where all people feel welcome.

"And if someone wants to join me, male or female, Shia, Sunni, whatever you are, whatever color you are, wherever you come from in the world, then you join me here - and that would be very lovely."

The mosque is the second woman-led Islamic religious center in California. The Women's Mosque in Los Angeles opened its doors in 2015. That mosque holds worship services specifically for women and children.

I'm Bryan Lynn.

Michelle Quinn reported on this story for VOA News. Bryan Lynn adapted the report, with additional material from Reuters. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

worship v. to show respect for god by praying or attending religious services

approach - n. way of doing something

retainv. continue to have or use

heritagen. traditions and beliefs that are part of the history of a group or nation

backlash n. strong public reaction to something

determined adj. having strong feelings about doing something

mosque – n. an Islamic religious center