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Founder of Denmark’s first mosque for women: ‘I will not listen to naysayers’
By Heba Habib August 30
A little mosque in the Danish capital of Copenhagen joined a quiet revolution last week by hosting its first Friday prayer led by a woman.
Traditionally, Friday prayers are limited to and led by men, and women are encouraged to pray at home. Some mosques have women’s sections, but those areas tend to be cramped and accessible only from a side or back entrance.
The Mariam mosque in Copenhagen, one of the few worldwide run by women, is striving to change that by limiting Friday prayers to women and generally maintaining the mosque as a space for women. The mosque opened in February informally for ceremonies, but more imams had to be recruited before it officially opened last Friday.
The prayer was presided over by Sherin Khankan, the founder of the mosque, who sang the call to prayer, or the adhan. Saliha Marie Fetteh delivered the sermon, or khutbah, which was about “women and Islam in the modern world.”
About 70 women of various religious backgrounds attended the service in solidarity.
Ozlem Cekic, a Danish politician and one of the attendees, praised the venture on her official Facebook page: “Imam Fetteh said ‘when a woman can drive buses, construct buildings and fight against ISIL [the Islamic State], they can also be imams’ I couldn’t agree more.”
Khankan, 41, the daughter of a Syrian father and a Finnish mother, came up with the idea to create the Mariam mosque 15 years ago “to attract a new generation of Muslim women who felt like they had no home in traditional mosques.” But the project was delayed amid a tide of anti-Islamic sentiment that swept the Western world after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. She ended up spending most of her time defending Islam.
But after overcoming hurdles and “starting completely from scratch,” the mosque is now officially open and has joined what Khankan called “a new global community.”
The world’s oldest surviving women’s mosque has been around since 1820 in China, and South Africa has had one since 1995. Amina Wadud, a renowned Muslim feminist scholar, led prayers in 2008 in Oxford, and the Women’s Mosque of America opened to worshipers in Los Angeles last year.
The Mariam mosque has also hosted five weddings, including interfaith ceremonies.
Khankan told The Washington Post that there will be monthly Friday prayers at the mosque until she can recruit enough “imamahs” to conduct prayers every Friday. In September, an Islamic academy will open to train both aspiring imamahs and also to teach others about the religion.
“Our mosque is inspired by many things and one of them is the Islamic feminism movement of the 1970s. We do not want to delegitimize other mosques but to create a new community. What we are doing is actually not that controversial, it is based on knowledge even the wife of Prophet Aisha led women in prayer.”
The mosque has received widespread support, Khankan said. But it has also been criticized by more conservative members of the Muslim community.
Imam Waseem Hussein, who heads one of Copenhagen’s biggest mosques, questioned the project: “Should we also make a mosque only for men? Then there would certainly be an outcry among the Danish population,” he said to the Danish daily newspaper Politiken.
In response to the criticism, Khankan said: “When challenging patriarchal structures, one will face opposition. I will not listen to naysayers.”
Saliha Maria Fetteh, center, who delivered the sermon, and Sherin Khankan, right, the founder of the mosque, with Ozlem Cekic, a Danish politician who attend the Friday prayer. (Photo by Ozlem Cekic)
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