By Cathy Russell
Sherin Khankan, a Danish imam who officially opened the first female-led
mosque in Scandinavia
If you search for “Burkini” online, Google
will find more than 34 million results in less than .6 seconds. Try the phrase
“women religious leaders,” and you’ll get a fourth of the results.
While this isn’t exactly gender data analysis
at its finest, it is just one example of how the conversation often focuses on
how religions attempt to influence women, rather than how women influence
Perhaps now more than ever, it’s important to
remember that women of faith work to advance gender equality and improve people’s
lives every day. Some of that work is easy to see, such as last week, when
petitioners in India won their case to give Muslim women full access to the
famous Haji Ali tomb. Next week, Mother Theresa will be made a saint—the
ultimate recognition of her lifelong commitment to the world’s poor.
Never bother about the industrial scale
filth thrown to the rivers and lakes by our industries, water bodies filled by
the real estate mafia, we only complain about the filth near religious
structures. Religion is more closer to nature than any other institution.
Whether its Ayurveda that utilises nature's healing powers, yoga that keeps us
healthy, fasting that keeps us lose excess fat, the values to take care of our
elders, giving charity to poor and downtrodden.
No religions don't allow defacing the earth. More harm has been done to
our nature due to rampant industrialisation than by religion. You need an
industrial tour to know the real place where nature is defaced.
But most of the time, the work of women
leaders in faith communities is harder to see, even as it makes a big impact.
April, I had a chance to meet with Sherin Khankan, a Danish imam who
officially opened the first female-led mosque in Scandinavia last week, when
she joined another female imam in leading Friday prayers at the Mariam mosque.
During our conversation earlier this year, I
asked Imam Khankan why she opened the mosque, how women leaders
contribute to the Muslim community in Denmark, and what effect their leadership
has on perceptions of Islam around the world. Here are edited excerpts from our
Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing here, and why you’re doing it.
Imam Khankan: In
2015 I, together with Hisham and some other people, established the Female Imam
movement in Denmark. Later on, we established the first mosque with female
imams; it’s called the Mariam Mosque. It’s in the heart of Copenhagen.
aim is to spread progressive Islamic ideals, to give rebirth to all the great
female and male scholars within Islamic philosophy, Sufism. Our aim is to strengthen female Muslim
leadership, to challenge patriarchal structures within religious institutions,
and to strengthen the rights of Muslim women.
Do you think that women Imams bring a different perspective or experience to
Yes. I think that as women, we have different experiences. Being a female Imam is not only about leading
the prayer or promoting Islam to the people, it’s mostly about serving the
Muslim community. As a female Imam,
people seek you and they come to you. We
have women seeking us on a weekly basis. They come with all kinds of problems
and challenges and dilemmas.
example, if you’re in the middle of a divorce, if you lost a child, if you have
been subjected to violence, I think many women prefer to speak with a female
Imam instead of male Imam because these are sensitive issues or subjects.
think women have something to offer. But the legitimacy behind female Imams is
of course the same as male Imams. The
one who has knowledge should be able to speak.
The one who’s good in recitation and who knows the rules behind such
should be able to lead the prayer. I
think it’s important to understand that the Quran, our sources, are seeing men
and women as equal spiritual partners.
And there’s nothing in the religious tradition or in the Quran that does
not allow a woman to become an Imam.
Women have the same possibilities as men.
Russell: My job on
behalf of the United States is to encourage countries and institutions to
include more women’s voices in things like peace negotiations, peace-keeping
efforts, or political situations. Our theory is that if women participate, then
institutions, countries, and economies will be stronger.
we certainly face some opposition. Some people object to women participating in
different levels or think they don’t add value. I’m curious about what you
would say would be the ideal situation.
With all the tumult in the world, how can women help on the religious
side in a way that maybe we haven’t seen until this point?
Khankan: Here in
the Mariam Mosque, we have a focus on the Sufi interpretation of the
Quran. I think that within that Sufi
interpretation, there is room for reconciliations between different religions,
and it is possible according to the Sufi approach to value different ideals
about Islam. But at the same time, I feel that female Imams will focus more on
women’s rights, and I think that’s important to have the specific focus on
women’s rights when you give a talk, when you lead the Khutba (Friday sermon),
when you travel around the world promoting Islamic values and Islamic ideals.
focusing on women’s rights, on the Sufi path, on how to reconcile different
religions and people with different values, I think women can bring something
new into that perspective.
people claim that Islam is not really pro-woman, from women who can’t drive in
Saudi Arabia to girls who face cultural barriers. What’s your reaction to that?
Female Imams can challenge the growing Islamophobia in a way that nothing else
can. It’s very difficult to hold onto a
narrative of Muslim women being suppressed when these women are taking the lead
or leading the Khutba, leading the prayer, or promoting Islam in the media and
showing a different interpretation, a different picture of Islam. It would be difficult to hold onto that
narrative of suppressed Muslim women.