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Sacred Steps: Making Space For Women In Mosques

Azad Essa
Middle East Eye
Portrait of Aisha al-Adawiya. Al-Adawiya says she followed Malcolm X to Islam. As part of her decades-long work on behalf of Muslim women, she's been a driving force behind a national campaign to make mosques more inclusive.

From The Spiritual Edge, this is the story of how Malcolm X inspired an outspoken Christian girl from Alabama, and how she went on to inspire a national campaign and a fatwa — a religious legal opinion — aimed at persuading the men who control America’s mosques to share space and power. 

"You're going to your spiritual dwelling, and to have to enter the door in combat mode is really traumatic. But ... you have to go back. You have to stand in the fire."

Women don’t always feel welcome in American mosques. They’re sometimes turned away, sent to basements to pray, or discouraged from serving on the boards of directors. Aisha al-Adawiya has devoted her life to changing that. 

Al-Adawiya says her work is about getting men and women to follow their religion. She urges Muslim women to hold their ground, even when men try to turn them away. 

“You’re going to your spiritual dwelling, and to have to enter the door in combat mode is really traumatic. But it’s important to stay there,” she says. “To just walk away and then expect that something is going to change, it’s not going to change. You have to go back. You have to stand in the fire.”

As a young woman in New York City, al-Adawiya heard Malcolm X’s message of Black pride and saw him define justice as spiritual calling. He inspired her to convert to Islam. In 1992, she created Women in Islam, Inc., the first national women’s organization founded by and on behalf of Muslim women. Al-Adawiya, now 77 years old, works at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, and she speaks widely — and bluntly — about the need for women to participate fully in the nation’s 2,700 mosques. 

She helped drive a national campaign to create “women-friendly mosques,” and she worked behind-the-scenes to get buy-in from a wide variety of Muslims in North America. The campaign urges mosques to invite women, create space for women in main prayer halls, and recruit them to serve on mosque governing boards. 

This is a mosque-by-mosque battle, al-Adawiya says. And while she’s growing weary, generations of her admirers, including educator Hind Makki of Chicago, look to her as a role model and an inspiration. “I think that if she was a man, everyone would know her name,” Makki says.

Listen to the full story by clicking the audio player button above. 

This story is part of a series called "Sacred Steps" produced in collaboration with KALW’s "The Spiritual Edge" and USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.