COPENHAGEN//Islam shows its female face with rise of women mosques

by Lin Taylor | @linnytayls | Thomson Reuters Foundation//From Copenhagen to Los Angeles, a handful of female mosques now cater to Muslim women who want their own place of worship, just as men have had through the ages.
COPENHAGEN, (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Relegated to the basement, silenced by the imam and barred from the front door, some Muslim women have had enough of male domination at the mosque and are setting up their own.

From Copenhagen to Los Angeles, a handful of female mosques now cater to Muslim women who want their own place of worship, just as men have had through the ages.”It is possible to change a narrative that has been patriarchal for centuries,” Sherin Khankan, founder of Europe’s first women’s mosque, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Her first-floor mosque – adjacent to a clothes shop – is invisible from the busy Danish shopping street below. But behind its anonymous, grey door, a quiet revolution is brewing.

For the past two years, women have been leading prayers, delivering sermons and running Copenhagen’s Mariam Mosque – though Khankan says she is not challenging the Koran, just rewriting a male-dominated way of worship.

“We can do that by promoting and disseminating new narratives, with a focus on gender equality. It’s not a reform. We’re going back to the essence of Islam,” she said, draping a red floral shawl across her shoulder.

Although men and women are allowed to meet and pray during the week at Mariam Mosque, the mosque’s monthly, collective Friday prayers are for women only, said 43-year-old Khankan.

With a tiny prayer room and simple decor of candles, cushions and rugs, the mosque has about 150 worshippers. It was set up by Khankan with the support of Femimam, a group of female Muslim spiritual leaders in Denmark.

Muslim women’s groups and researchers say there is a lack of female Islamic leaders and dearth of worship spaces for women, since most mosques are gender-segregated and men dominate the main prayer rooms.

So, after 15 years in the making, Mariam Mosque joined a handful of female-friendly mosques, including two in Los Angeles, another in the German city of Berlin – which welcomes men and women to Friday prayers – and a new build slated for the northern English city of Bradford, where there are plans to build Britain’s first women-led mosque by 2020.

Women-only mosques have existed for hundreds of years in China, where women have had a long tradition of leading prayers.

Director of Britain’s Muslim Women’s Council Bana Gora, who is spearheading the Bradford project, said mosques had overlooked women and girls for years.

She said some women have had to pray in basements of mosques, or use back entrances where there are safety concerns such as a lack of lighting or security.

“Where do women congregate to talk about issues in society? You need a dedicated space where women can convene and talk to people who can help them, and we simply do not have those spaces anywhere,” she said in a telephone interview.

“It’s about women claiming their space in a mosque – there’s nothing wrong with that. I can see this catapulting across different faiths as well over time,” said Gora.

The entrance hall of women’s mosque Mariam Mosque in Copenhagen, Denmark, 24 August 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Lin Taylor

Khankan said the presence of fellow women in a mosque, as well as access to female spiritual leaders, meant women might feel comfortable seeking help for sensitive issues like inter-faith marriage or domestic violence.

And for the 200 or so women in Denmark who wear a face veil, their world has grown smaller after a ban on niqab veils and body-length burqas in public spaces, said Khankan.

Denmark’s parliament enacted the ban in May, joining France and some other European Union countries to uphold what some politicians say are secular and democratic values.

The justice ministry said the ban would focus on women forced by their families to wear veils.

“If a woman is isolated and forced to wear a burqa or the niqab, by criminalising it, you will isolate her even more, because she might not be able to go out,” said Khankan, who also runs a domestic violence support group, Exit Circle.

“It’s important to fight for any women’s right to wear the hijab or not, to wear the niqab or not – if it’s her own choice and her own free will,” she said.

Islamic books are seen inside the main prayer room at women’s mosque Mariam Mosque in Copenhagen, Denmark, 24 August 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Lin Taylor

THE FUTURE

Khankan said she hopes to see a new generation of female Islamic scholars and worship leaders, or ‘imam’ – a title normally given to men, which Khankan has proudly claimed.

“We are faced with patriarchal structures which we have normalised for decades. As long as they are alive and they are not challenged, we have a problem,” said Khankan.

“We have to state that women are the future of Islam. We have to make it possible for women to have the same possibilities as men,” she added.

The Koran does not directly address whether women can lead congregational prayer, according to many traditional Islamic scholars.

Some argue the Prophet Mohammad gave permission to women to lead any kind of prayer, while others say that he meant to restrict women to leading prayer at home.

Still, many traditionalists do not believe a man should hear a woman’s voice in prayer.

But Giulia Liberatore, who is researching female Islamic scholars at the University of Edinburgh, said seeing women reach positions of power in Islam will have positive effects.

“If women see other women striving for the highest form of scholarship, they will start seeing themselves as someone who can do that as well,” she said.

Denmark has ridiculed itself by banning burkas, activist tells Euronews

Denmark has ridiculed itself by banning burkas, activist tells Euronews
Denmark has ridiculed itself by banning burkas, activist tells Euronews

Algerian businessman and political activist Rachid Nekkaz says he intends to go to Copenhagen to pay the fines of women that have been caught wearing burkas, which are prohibited in Denmark.

In response, the populist Danish People’s Party has threatened to introduce prison sentence for offenders of the ban.

Nekkaz, speaking to Euronews, said: “I regret that [Denmark], which is an example of freedom, has fallen into this trap and ridiculed itself, like France and Belgium,” he said, referring to the European countries’ own burka bans.

When he was last in Denmark, in March, he said that if the country should go through with the ban, he will come every month to pay the fines.

Denmark approved the ban in May.

Nekkaz has announced he will return to Copenhagen in September to pay the fines. So far, he has received eight requests from women who have been fined. He expects that number to rise by the time he arrives.

Foreign affairs spokesman for the Danish People’s Party, Martin Henriksen, told Euronews he disapproved of the activist’s intention.

“Mr Nekkaz’ plans to pay the fines for the women, who break the law concerning full-face veils, is a blatant attempt to undermine Danish legislation,” he said. “As a legislator I am obviously very critical of Mr Nekkaz’ actions. I believe that we should consider taking steps towards new legislation, which addresses this problem.”

He added that a prison sentence of one-to-two weeks as punishment for breaking the ban “would be appropriate”.

Moreover, the money of the volunteer(s) who pay the fines of those caught will be considered taxable income, Henriksen said. That means that the price paid will ultimately be much costlier than just the fines.

But Nekkaz said he will pay the taxes too. And in the case of imprisonment, he will seek the aid of the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Council.

Nekkaz has also reprimanded the Danish government on his Facebook page.

“The Danish government is losing its nerve and is threatening women wearing niqabs with 14 days in prison,” he wrote.

Since 2010, Nekkaz has been paying the fines of women that both refuse to remove their veil in European countries, and refuse to wear them in Muslim ones.

According to him, he visited Iran in March to free 29 imprisoned women who had refused to wear the veil, and paid a deposit of over €77,000 to release one of them.

“I defend the freedom to wear or not the veil in the street,” Nekkaz said. “The street must remain the universal heritage of freedom.”

In Denmark’s Plan To Rid Country Of ‘Ghettos,’ Some Immigrants Hear ‘Go Home’

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An intersection near Mjolnerparken, a housing project in Copenhagen that is classified as a ghetto by the Danish government.CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times

COPENHAGEN — When Rokhaia Naassan gives birth in the coming days, she and her baby boy will enter a new category in the eyes of Danish law. Because she lives in a low-income immigrant neighborhood described by the government as a “ghetto,” Rokhaia will be what the Danish newspapers call a “ghetto parent” and he will be a “ghetto child.”

Starting at the age of 1, “ghetto children” must be separated from their families for at least 25 hours a week, not including nap time, for mandatory instruction in “Danish values,” including the traditions of Christmas and Easter, and Danish language. Noncompliance could result in a stoppage of welfare payments. Other Danish citizens are free to choose whether to enroll children in preschool up to the age of six.

Denmark’s government is introducing a new set of laws to regulate life in 25 low-income and heavily Muslim enclaves, saying that if families there do not willingly merge into the country’s mainstream, they should be compelled.

For decades, integrating immigrants has posed a thorny challenge to the Danish model, intended to serve a small, homogeneous population. Leaders are focusing their ire on urban neighborhoods where immigrants, some of them placed there by the government, live in dense concentrations with high rates of unemployment and gang violence.

Politicians’ description of the ghettos has become increasingly sinister. In his annual New Year’s speech, Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen warned that ghettos could “reach out their tentacles onto the streets” by spreading violence, and that because of ghettos, “cracks have appeared on the map of Denmark.” Politicians who once used the word “integration” now call frankly for “assimilation.”

That tough approach is embodied in the “ghetto package.” Of 22 proposals presented by the government in early March, most have been agreed upon by a parliamentary majority, and more will be subject to a vote in the fall.

Some are punitive: One measure under consideration would allow courts to double the punishment for certain crimes if they are committed in one of the 25 neighborhoods classified as ghettos, based on residents’ income, employment status, education levels, number of criminal convictions and “non-Western background.” Another would impose a four-year prison sentence on immigrant parents who force their children to make extended visits to their country of origin — described here as “re-education trips” —in that way damaging their “schooling, language and well-being.” Another would allow local authorities to increase their monitoring and surveillance of “ghetto” families.

Some proposals have been rejected as too radical, like one from the far-right Danish People’s Party that would confine “ghetto children” to their homes after 8 p.m. (Challenged on how this would be enforced, Martin Henriksen, the chairman of Parliament’s integration committee, suggested in earnest that young people in these areas could be fitted with electronic ankle bracelets.)

At this summer’s Folkemodet, an annual political gathering on the island of Bornholm, the justice minister, Soren Pape Poulsen, shrugged off the rights-based objection.

“Some will wail and say, ‘We’re not equal before the law in this country,’ and ‘Certain groups are punished harder,’ but that’s nonsense,” he said, adding that the increased penalties would affect only people who break the law.

To those claiming the measures single out Muslims, he said: “That’s nonsense and rubbish. To me this is about, no matter who lives in these areas and who they believe in, they have to profess to the values required to have a good life in Denmark.”

Yildiz Akdogan, a Social Democrat whose parliamentary constituency includes Tingbjerg, which is classified as a ghetto, said Danes had become so desensitized to harsh rhetoric about immigrants that they no longer register the negative connotation of the word “ghetto” and its echoes of Nazi Germany’s separation of Jews.

“We call them ‘ghetto children, ghetto parents,’ it’s so crazy,” Ms. Akdogan said. “It is becoming a mainstream word, which is so dangerous. People who know a little about history, our European not-so-nice period, we know what the word ‘ghetto’ is associated with.”

She pulled out her phone to display a Facebook post from a right-wing politician, railing furiously at a Danish supermarket for selling a cake reading “Eid Mubarak,” for the Muslim holiday of Eid. “Right now, facts don’t matter so much, it’s only feelings,” she said. “This is the dangerous part of it.”

For their part, many residents of Danish “ghettos” say they would move if they could afford to live elsewhere. On a recent afternoon, Ms. Naassan was sitting with her four sisters in Mjolnerparken, a four-story, red brick housing complex that is, by the numbers, one of Denmark’s worst ghettos: forty-three percent of its residents are unemployed, 82 percent come from “non-Western backgrounds,” 53 percent have scant education and 51 percent have relatively low earnings.

The Naassan sisters wondered aloud why they were subject to these new measures. The children of Lebanese refugees, they speak Danish without an accent and converse with their children in Danish; their children, they complain, speak so little Arabic that they can barely communicate with their grandparents. Years ago, growing up in Jutland, in Denmark’s west, they rarely encountered any anti-Muslim feeling, said Sara, 32.

“Maybe this is what they always thought, and now it’s out in the open,” she said. “Danish politics is just about Muslims now. They want us to get more assimilated or get out. I don’t know when they will be satisfied with us.”

Rokhaia, her due date fast approaching, flared with anger at the mandatory preschool program approved by the government last month: Already, she said, her daughter was being taught so much about Christmas in kindergarten that she came home begging for presents from Santa Claus.

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Barwaqo Jama Hussein noted that the government had settled many immigrant families, including her own, in “ghetto neighborhoods.”CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times

“Nobody should tell me whether or how my daughter should go to preschool. Or when,” she said. “I’d rather lose my benefits than submit to force.”

Barwaqo Jama Hussein, 18, a Somali refugee, noted that many immigrant families, including her own, had been settled in “ghetto” neighborhoods by the government. She moved to Denmark when she was 5 and has lived in the Tingbjerg ghetto area since she was 13. She said the politicians’ description of “parallel societies” simply did not fit her, or Tingbjerg.

“It hurts that they don’t see us as equal people,” she said. “We actually live in Danish society. We follow the rules, we go to school. The only thing we don’t do is eat pork.”

About 12 miles south of the city, in the middle-class suburb of Greve, though, voters gushed with approval over the new laws.

“They spend too much Danish money,” said Dorthe Pedersen, a hairdresser, daubing chestnut dye on a client’s hairline. “We pay their rent, their clothing, their food, and then they come in broken Danish and say, ‘We can’t work because we’ve got a pain.’”

Her client, Anni Larsen, told a story about being invited by a Turkish immigrant to their child’s wedding and being scandalized to discover that the guests were separated by gender and seated in different rooms. “I think there were only 10 people from Denmark,” she said, appalled. “If you ask me, I think they shouldn’t have invited us.”

Anette Jacobsen, 64, a retired pharmacist’s assistant, said she so treasured Denmark’s welfare system, which had provided her four children with free education and health care, that she felt a surge of gratitude every time she paid her taxes, more than 50 percent of her yearly income. As for immigrants using the system, she said, “There is always a cat door for someone to sneak in.”

“Morally, they should be grateful to be allowed into our system, which was built over generations,” she said.

Her husband, Jesper, a former merchant sailor whose ship once docked in Lebanon, said he had watched laborers there being shot for laziness and replaced by truckloads of new workers gathered in the countryside.

“I think they are 300 to 400 years behind us,” Jesper said.

“Their culture doesn’t fit here,” Anette said.

The new hard-edge push to force Muslims to integrate struck both of them as positive. “The young people will see what it is to be Danish and they will not be like their parents,” Jesper said.

“The grandmothers will die sometime,” Anette said. “They are the ones resisting change.”

By focusing heavily on the collective cost of supporting refugee and immigrant families, the Danish People’s Party has won many voters away from the center-left Social Democrats, who had long been seen as the defenders of the welfare state. With a general election approaching next year, the Social Democrat party has shifted to the right on immigration, saying tougher measures are necessary to protect the welfare state.

Nearly 87 percent of Denmark’s 5.7 million people are of Danish descent, with immigrants and their descendants accounting for the rest. Two-thirds of the immigrants, around half a million, are from Muslim backgrounds, a group that swelled with the waves of Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian refugees crossing Europe.

Critics would say “the state cannot force children away from their parents in the daytime, that’s disproportionate use of force,” said Rune Lykkeberg, the editor in chief of Dagbladet Information, a left-liberal daily newspaper. “But the Social Democrats say, ‘We give people money, and we want something for this money.’ This is a system of rights and obligations.”

Danes have a high level of trust in the state, including as a central shaper of children’s ideology and beliefs, he said. “The Anglo-Saxon conception is that man is free in nature, and then comes the state” constraining that freedom, he said. “Our conception of freedom is the opposite, that man is only free in society.”

“You could say, of course, parents have the right to bring up their own kids,” he added. “We would say they do not have the right to destroy the future freedom of their children.”

Of course, he added, “There is always a strong sense of authoritarian risk.”

Ms. Hussain, the high school student from Tingbjerg, is accustomed to anti-immigrant talk surging ahead of elections, but says this year it is harsher than she can ever remember.

“If you create new kinds of laws that apply to only one part of society, then you can keep adding to them,” she said. “It will turn into the parallel society they’re so afraid of. They will create it themselves.”