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2006-08-04,11:24 AM

US Muslims Split on Mosque Separation

The removal of the mosque barrier has split the 400-member congregation of Darussalam mosque in San Francisco. (Courtesy New York Times).

CAIRO — The removal of a wall separating male and female worshipers at San Francisco's largest downtown mosque left its 400-member congregation split down the middle.

"It's one of those cultural things that many immigrants brought from overseas without giving it much thought," Souleiman Ghali, a founding member of the Islamic Society of San Francisco, told The New York Times on Sunday, June 25.

"I am positive there will be an American Islamic identity that is separate from what you see in the Middle East and the rest of the Islamic world," he said.

The debate raged after the slapdash, 8-foot wall across the back of the Darussalam mosque was demolished.

"It's time to get rid of those bad habits," said Ghali, who was the main force behind the wall's removal.

"We can discuss things that would be taboo in different countries," he added.

It is perfectly Islamic to hold meetings of men and women inside the mosque, whether for prayers or for any other Islamic purpose, without separating them with a curtain, partition or wall, Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, former President of the Islamic Society of North America, told IslamOnline.net on June 25.

If there is a concern that the lines of men and women will mix inside the mosque, then there is no harm in putting a lower barrier, only to demarcate the separate area for women, he said.

Siddiqi stressed, however, that women should not be put in a totally separate room in the mosque unless there is a shortage of space and no other proper arrangement can be done for them.

Tea Drinking

The aim of removing the wall was not for the sexes to mingle, but to have comparable access to the imam, according to the The New York Times.

"He (imam) was always addressing the brothers during the Friday sermon," complained Sevim Kalyoncu, a young Turkish-American writer.

"Now we hear 'brothers and sisters' because he can see us."

Women supportive of the wall removal say they had trouble hearing the sermon and often fell out of sync with the prayer movements.

Distracted, some say they gave up praying and instead just gossiped or drank tea.

"Before, I felt very distant, but now it seems that women are part of the group. It's a first step," said Kalyoncu.

In 2001, a survey by the Council on American-Islamic Relations of more than 1,200 mosques found that 66 percent of them required women to pray behind a partition or in a separate room.

Opposition

The wall was replaced with small printed signs reading "Sisters Prayer Area Only Behind This Sign."

Broad green stripes on the red carpet show the faithful where to line up.

However, after its demolition a group of women marched in brandishing a hand-lettered cardboard sign that read "We Want the Wall."

"As a Muslim woman, I was more at peace praying behind the wall," said 50-year-old Zeinab al-Andea.

"As a veiled woman, I don't want to mix with men."

Several men who pray at the mosque are still grumbling, and some of them even decamped for another mosque.

"I don't want to be distracted by ladies in the back when I am praying," said Adel al-Dalali, 40, a Yemeni cab driver.

"Even if it is more culture than religious tradition, we feel it's needed."

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