A small group of Muslim women and supporters stood outside the mosque to protest the separate and unequal treatment of women inside the mosque, and advocate for equal rights.
Among the protestors was Ify Okoye. A writer and former member of the ISB, she had to discontinue praying at the mosque after unsuccessfully seeking change to the gender apartheid system still in place. Explaining the reasons for the protest, Okoye and journalist Asra Nomani wrote in a recent New York Times article that women and girls are segregated from the rest of the attendees, and “unable to see the imam unless they peek over the balcony’s edge.”
As President and Michelle Obama argued decades ago in the context of the U.S. civil rights movement, separate is indeed unequal. To Muslim women’s rights activists fighting for equal access to mosques as part of a broader campaign for reform — from equal education for women and girls to freedom from so-called “honor killings” — the president’s visit to a mosque that practices such blatant inequity represents a step backwards. While it may be meant to convey a message of religious inclusiveness to American Muslims, the visit demonstrates tacit acceptance of a form of discrimination that amounts to gender apartheid.
President Obama gave his address from the musallah which women and girls are not permitted to enter. The backdrop for his speech was the 99 windows of the main prayer room, each bearing a different supposed name for Allah in ornate Arabic calligraphy, and all out of sight of the women and girls in their low-ceilinged “female prayer room.”
Perhaps the president did not notice that his audience was entirely male, or thought that such a sex-exclusive audience was perfectly normal. Much as the patrons of a whites-only lunch counter in the Jim Crow South failed to remark anything out-of-place in the absence of people who resemble Barack Obama.