Taking the Lead: An Interview with the Founder of Mariam Mosque

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 religion.

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.

But most of the time, the work of women leaders in faith communities is harder to see, even as it makes a big impact.

In 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 conversation. 

Ambassador Russell: 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. 

Our 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. 

Russell: Do you think that women Imams bring a different perspective or experience to the table?

Khankan: 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. 

For 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. 

So I 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. 

But 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. 

So, 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. 

Russell: Some 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?

Khankan: 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 khutbaleading 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. 

About the Author: Catherine Russell seves as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry originally appeared on the Hufington Post.

For more information:

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues (second from left) meets with Sherin Khankan (third from left) during a tour of the Mariam mosque in Copenhagen, Denmark, in May 2016.
September 2, 2016


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