According to Zarqa Nawaz, creator of the CBC sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie, reforms such as these are harder to enact at mosques where the congregants vote for board members, because often the conservative factions of a congregation speak the loudest. At the Winnipeg Grand Mosque, a relatively reformist board of directors has struggled to preserve its authority. The board recently decided to take down a partition in the prayer hall. Some of the male congregants took it upon themselves to build a replacement overnight. In January, a judge who was hired to moderate the dispute reinstated conservative members of the board. Since then, the wall has been replaced. The more reformist congregants are hoping to regain control in an election in November. “If I had a million dollars, I’d open a mosque,” Nawaz says. “And whoever doesn’t like how I run it can leave.”
Another version of this model is the el-Tawhid Juma Circle, a small mosque of straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender worshippers. They gather for afternoon prayers on Friday — the most important day of the week for Muslims — at a private address in downtown Toronto. El-Tawhid has been meeting for about two years now, in a small room covered by a carpet, with an old church pew at one end. People plunk themselves down on cushions wherever there is space; the question of whether to have greater interaction with the wider Muslim community is more important right now than where people sit at prayer time. On this winter afternoon, the room fills up with about twenty people, a mix of born Muslims and converts, academics, and refugees from Muslim countries.
Anyone can sing the call to prayer or lead prayers during the service, and several women have taken regular turns as imam. One is Laury Silvers, a convert from Los Angeles and a professor of religion at the University of Toronto. Other than during el-Tawhid’s services, women have led men in organized prayer only in a few unique circumstances. Silvers has red hair, a cheerful but commanding group leader voice, and a Facebook page full of statements and causes — exactly what you’d expect from a passionate activist.
She calls the group to attention at about 1:15, as a few stragglers are still shaking off their coats. Islamic prayers are to be said at specific times, and she opens by asking everyone to come on time: “If we’re going to be a real mosque, we have to do things by the book.”
After prayers, the group moves to the kitchen for tea and snacks before heading back to work or school. Discussion ranges from academic shop talk to the focused activism expected from a group like this. There is little tolerance here for a go-slow approach. Most aspire to a Muslim culture where chauvinism no longer has a place in the mosque, but Silvers is adamant that el-Tawhid’s approach is one of many and not to be forced on others.
For every feminist frustrated with the pace of change, another is sensitive to the dangers of moving too fast. Little Mosque’s Zarqa Nawaz captured this tension in her 2005 documentary, Me and the Mosque. In it, she sits at her mother’s feet in the women’s section of the Islamic Society of North America mosque in Mississauga, behind a translucent, waist-high divider. The mother says she had not been inside a mosque until she moved to Canada, and likes that she can see the imam behind the small divider. That’s enough for her. But her daughter is not satisfied; she wants vocal support for more.
Frustration and friction seem natural when diverse peoples confront shared taboos. Even though they represent a small group of reformers among Canada’s roughly 600,000 Muslims, many of those pushing for gender equity in mosques today see more differences than similarities among themselves. For instance, when Naseer Ahmad was pondering his approach, the implications of welcoming menstruating women meant more than just a large enough prayer section. He installed coin-operated tampon and pad dispensers in the washrooms. Reactions to this decision underscore the range of preferences and sensitivities: some were pleased, and some felt it a trivial move, or a reminder of how far there is to go. Others did not realize that in some Muslim cultures people think a tampon can deflower a virgin. And some were surprised: “I’ve never even thought to look for that!” said Globe and Mail columnist Sheema Khan.
Though many in Canada’s informal group of mosque reformers are asking pointed questions about one another, they do agree on one thing: it’s remarkable that these issues can be addressed at all. The reforms ongoing in Canada cannot happen in many Muslim countries, because decisions about questions like these are made by the state; even in Turkey, the only Muslim democracy in the Middle East, religion is regulated. Plenty of countries have significant Muslim minorities and a separation of religion and government, allowing Muslims to debate and settle these matters on their own, but most of those countries lack Canada’s diversity. France’s Muslims are overwhelmingly Algerian, so a gender-neutral mosque in France would almost certainly be informed largely by the North African experience. In Germany, Turks are the dominant group; in the United Kingdom, it is South Asians. Canada has sizable populations of Muslims of almost every kind, giving it a diverse set of thinkers who benefit from the intellectual freedom to experiment and compare. There are probably fewer than five countries in the same situation. One is the US, where millions of people aren’t sure whether or not the president is a Muslim, nor whether that matters.
In the US and elsewhere, the most radical and fundamentalist voices often set the national debate about Muslims: radical American clerics issuing fatwas from Yemen, or racist politicians in Europe stoking xenophobic fears in white voters. Those extremists surely exist in Canada, but they aren’t polluting our national debate. And at this point, any public discourse about Islam that does not involve the words “jihad” or “terrorism” feels like progress.