A very dear Muslim friend’s younger sister died unexpectedly in June. As American-born Arab Muslims, my friend and her family have preserved many of their customs and as good individuals they follow rules given to them as Islamic.
The women in the family were told by the men in the family that they could not attend the funeral service because it is prohibited for women to attend. My friend asked why and she was told: “Because the imam has said so.”
My friend’s mother told me, “This was the most difficult moment in my life, to lose my young daughter. I am not sure I wanted to see her being buried, but I should make that decision, not the mosque.”
The imam is the man who heads a mosque in a community. This is an appointed position by the board of directors (men) who usually are the founders of the mosque. Here in Buffalo, we have several mosques headed by different imams and followed by members of the community.
Many Americans first learned of this exclusionary practice on Feb. 8, 1999, when Queen Noor of Jordan was prohibited from attending the high-profile funeral ceremony of her husband, King Hussein. For me, just two years after graduation from law school at the University at Buffalo, it was the first time I had heard of this.
This practice is yet another Islamic rule excluding women, this time from the burial services of their own family members.
The custom of excluding women from funeral ceremonies is a cultural tradition garbed in Islamic clothing. It varies from one place to another in such countries as Pakistan and Jordan, which condone the murder of female family members in the disguised name of “honor killings.”
According to a report on gender segregation in public spaces in Israel, written by attorney Ricky Rosenberg, forced gender segregation at funerals discriminates against women and is disrespectful to female mourners. According to the Jewish daily Forward, funerals are under the authority of the Religious Affairs Ministry in Israel.
Again and again, the issue of gender equality lies in the hands of men who abuse their power as religious leaders by incorrectly applying religious laws to restrict women from participation in both the public and private sphere.
Iran, considered one of the most fundamentalist states in the Middle East, does not bar women from attending funeral services, yet the government bars families from holding any kind of funeral service or attending burial services for political prisoners, regardless of their religion. At least Iran is uniformly applying its laws.
During the life of the prophet Muhammad, there was no such restriction placed on women. It is mind-boggling how Islam – as a progressive and “equality for all” religion, as it was practiced during the prophet’s life – is being practiced in a misogynistic style.
Imams must know the religion in order to guide those who still believe in asking them for interpretation. It is vital for women to know Islamic jurisprudence, and not be taken in by interpretations of Islam that are really just cultural traditional practices, and not true tenets of Islam.