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September 18, 2005

Taking on an Extremist World

Text by Rukhmini Punoose. Photograph by Josette Youssef

It goes beyond being a mere documentation of two poignant events. Writer, Asra Nomani’s latest book, Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam, has proved both a personal and social turning point, creating no mean furore among fundamentalist Islamist circles. Verve meets the former Wall Street Journal reporter in New York.

Author, Asra Nomani, stands amid a pile of accoutrements in a park under New York’s majestic Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a grey day, an overcast sky threatening to burst into sheets of rain. The photographer and I have just spent the last half hour watching in sheer astonishment as petite Nomani, a former writer with the Wall Street Journal, enthusiastically tries on scarf after scarf, tossing rejects energetically on a dew-drenched bench. She holds up a mirror, painting on her make-up gingerly for the shoot with girlish glee. Fashion experiment done, she drags us excitedly to various scenic spots and shares that she used to dream of writing her book lying on the grass, staring up at the vast expanse of steel against a backdrop of azure sky.

It’s hard to believe that this 40-year-old, five-foot-nothing writer, she of the translucent skin and delicate demeanour, has managed to tick off – and take on – the extremist Islamic world. That she constantly receives death threats, that stalkers mark her and send abusive emails daily, that her life is in danger…we gawk, trying to reconcile these aspects of her life with the feminine delight she exults in right now.

‘Asra Nomani is worse than Osama bin Laden,’ the headline on a Google blog screamed a few nights ago when I was researching her. The Internet is littered with reams of similar anti-Nomani literature. This backlash has been in response to her last book, Standing Alone in Mecca, a moving personal story recounting two pivotal moments that shook her faith: the death of her best friend, fellow Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl and the refusal of her Pakistani lover to be present at their son’s birth because he was born out of wedlock. When the book hit the stands, it generated uproar over what was perceived as Nomani’s brazen flouting of Islamic laws that denounce premarital sex.

Raised in a family originally from Hyderabad but living in West Virginia, Nomani had a conservative upbringing. Her father, a professor of nutrition, and entrepreneur mother, were devastated by her decision to have a child out of wedlock but nevertheless decided to support her. She was in Pakistan at the time, on a sabbatical from the Wall Street Journal to write her book Tantrika. At this difficult enough time, Pearl and his pregnant wife, Mariane, came to Karachi in the midst of her break-up. Pearl was interviewing a Muslim cleric with terrorist connections and the couple stayed in her home. When Pearl disappeared after the interview, Nomani and Mariane panicked and called the police. The ensuing nightmare of tracing him culminated in the horror of finding the video that showed Pearl’s throat being slit by Al Qaeda militants.

The dual shock proved a spiritual turning point. “The men who kidnapped and killed my friend did so in the name of Islam.” Shaken by the barbaric nature of the killing and the fact that the extremists could justify it as jihad, or religious war, Nomani believed her boyfriend perpetuated a similar sham in the name of religion. “The man who fathered my baby went to the mosque for his Friday prayers but did not stand beside me when I brought Shibli into the world. He considered our relationship illegitimate in the eyes of Islam because, while in love, we weren’t married when we conceived my baby.”

Challenged by these events, Nomani found herself questioning Islam. Instead of turning from her religion, though, she decided to learn more about it. She embarked on a journey that took her to Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. There, she uncovered the hidden secrets of the strength of Muslim women from early Islamic history. “Among others, I heard stories of Hajar, the single mother abandoned in the desert, who taught me about courage. I learned about Khadijah, the trailblazer for Muslim women’s right to self-determination.” What Nomani came to realise was that stories of valiant Islamic women had been suppressed by the practice of patriarchal traditions that followed.

Praying beside her parents in the holiest of Muslim shrines, she made peace with herself and her baby. Enriched and satisfied, Nomani returned to the US – only to discover that she had a new war on her hands. Later that month, attempting to enter her local mosque in West Virginia through the front door to pray as she had in Mecca, Nomani was treated like a pariah and driven away. The men in her mosque, as in several mosques in America, do not allow women to enter through the front door or pray in the main hall. They must use the back entrance and pray in a tiny room where the preacher’s sermon is barely audible.

Her simple act of refusing to use the back door generated enough censure for a tribunal formed to ban her from entering the mosque. Men refused to pray with her present, claiming the presence of women was sexually too arousing and distracting, that it weakened them. Incensed by such insular prejudice, Nomani declares, “I wasn’t about to take responsibility – imposed on women over the centuries – for men’s sexuality.”

Nomani has since made it her life’s mission to resolve the conflict of the respect the ancient Islamic texts accord to women, with the space women currently occupy. “Since September 11, I’ve seen that if moderate Muslims don’t assert themselves, we’re relinquishing our religion to be defined by those who speak the loudest and act the toughest.” Nomani is now campaigning for a more inclusive Islam. “It is wrong that women are prevented from attending some mosques in the US, yet allowed to pray together at Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca.” She has mobilised moderate Muslims, writing fiery editorials in The New York Times and The Washington Post, urging them to come forward in support.

The pint-sized dynamo’s battle has already resulted in several changes. Her mosque’s leaders quietly reversed their policy, allowing women to pray behind the men in the main hall. Nomani also started a “Freedom Tour”, which comprises a group of women Islamic scholars that travel across the country conducting prayer meetings. When the prayer tour reached New York in March, earlier this year, hundreds of women flocked to the Manhattan mosque, eager to be led in prayer by a woman. As the preacher pronounced her final blessings, Nomani turned to an activist friend standing beside her and exclaimed, “We did it!”

She hasn’t been able to stop smiling since.

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