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Women can lead, pray next to men in this Berkeley mosque

May 18, 2017

Last year, a mosque in Denmark chose its first female Imam to lead women-only Islamic prayers (News link) but now women can lead even men in prayers in a Berkeley, California, mosque, only second in the United States to allow women to lead prayers (after one in Los Angeles), according to Berkeleyside. However, conservative media such as Iran's Farda News have criticized such a mosque as a violation of Islamic rules.

Qal’bu Maryam (Maryam’s Heart, or the Heart of Mary, Jesus’ Mother) opened last month in Berkeley with a dedication ceremony and prayers at its home at Starr King School for the Ministry, a graduate school and Unitarian Universalist seminary on LeConte Avenue.

Perhaps fittingly for a place of worship that is breaking with tradition, its founder is not a faith leader but an activist. Rabi’a Keeble, who describes herself as a writer, speaker and poet, as well as an activist, says it is time for Muslim women to step up and challenge the patriarchal norms of the Islam faith.

“Just like Rosa Parks said she couldn’t take one more day on the back of the bus, we need to bring women’s lib to Muslim women,” said Keeble, who lives in Oakland.

The women-led mosque will welcome everyone, not just women, according to Keeble: new converts, lifelong Muslims, non-Muslims, people of all genders and of all colors. And unlike at many other mosques, there will be no segregation by gender at Qal’bu Maryam. Women may lead prayers, and everyone prays together.

Keeble, who converted to Islam 13 years ago, said the idea for the new mosque was born from her frustration with the way women are separated from men in most mosques, how they are expected to behave, and how they are patronized by imams, the mosque’s prayer leaders. “Lots of imams come from small villages and are not educated,” Keeble saod. “They recite the Quran and can read Arabic, but they don’t necessarily have the skills in dealing with broad aspects of society.”

Some imams won’t even look her in the face, she added, speculating they are afraid.

Keeble, a graduate of Starr King and Graduate Theological Union, stresses that she is not against the Islam faith. Indeed she converted after being raised “nominally Christian,” because, she says, Islam appealed to all her senses, spiritually and to her soul. “It is a beautiful religion,” she said, “And a faith that I can embody.”

Rather, it is a case of making the faith applicable to contemporary life in 2017, she said, and of Muslim men and women worshiping and learning as equals.

Keeble’s own activist roots include a campaign she led, in 2015, to boycott a Whole Foods in Oakland after a security guard beat up an African-American customer. She also took on the grocery chain over the fact that its security guards carried guns.

Speaking at the opening, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín welcomed the mosque to the city’s spiritual community and said it was particularly good to have such an “all-inclusive” place of worship in the current political climate. (Berkeley is also home to America’s first accredited Muslim institution of higher learning, after the opening of Zaytuna College, in 2010.)

His sentiments were echoed by Soraya Deenf, founder of the Muslim Women Speakers Movement, who delivered the first sermon at the mosque. She said the opening of Qal’bu Maryam came at “a time in America when Muslims are accused of every act of terrorism and our patriotism is being questioned.” Deenf, who was born in Sri Lanka, doesn’t read Arabic or wear the hijab, joked about being seen as a “bad Muslim,” and also spoke of her realization at the age of 12 that she was not welcome at a local mosque. “Evil prevails when good people do nothing,” she said, paraphrasing Edmund Burke.

Qal’bu Maryam will hold services every Friday at 12:30 p.m. and, Keeble says, she is actively looking to recruit a female imam. Down the line she would also like to be able to declare the new place of worship a sanctuary mosque for people who are being targeted by immigration officials.

“There is no point in having a faith-based institution that doesn’t care about its community,” she said — “making sure they have houses and are fed.”

And, at the opening of the new mosque, Keeble demonstrated her commitment to making everyone feel welcome. When it came time for prayers, she announced that accommodations had been made for anyone — men or women — who wanted to pray separately from each other.

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