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Shareda Hosein
Photo: Alonso Nichols

Can Muslim Women Lead?

Chaplain Shareda Hosein explains it all for you

Shareda Hosein, who has spent 27 years in the Army Reserves, including two recent active-duty tours, is not one to shy away from the good fight. She tested the Army a few years ago with a quest—ultimately fruitless—to become its first female Muslim chaplain. She says she may tackle the status quo yet again, either by renewing her bid for the chaplaincy or by challenging the regulation that forbids her from wearing a hijab, the customary Muslim woman’s head covering, while in uniform.

Now she faces another set of strictures. Since September, she has been the Muslim chaplain at Tufts, and, according to Islamic practice, Hosein, as a woman, can lead prayer services only for other women, not for mixed congregations. She must call on a list of imams—male Muslim clerics—to lead the salat, or Friday prayer. Can we expect another good fight, this time over gender equality? Actually, no. When it comes to the role of women in Islamic spiritual life, Hosein takes a nuanced view, one that makes allowances for culture, theology, and what the traffic will bear.

“Women not leading men in prayer is broadly accepted among Muslims,” Hosein says. The Prophet Mohammed had no women leading prayer, and his example is followed today even at so-called liberal mosques that allow much intermingling between the sexes, she says.

But that doesn’t mean women can’t lead in Muslim community or spiritual life, or that Islamic thought is inherently misogynist, Hosein says. Restrictions on women in Muslim countries—the mandatory wearing of burkas or prohibitions on appearing unescorted in public, for example—are intimately tied with America’s image of Islam. Yet, Hosein says, those constraints are more cultural than religious; they are imposed by patriarchal societies and justified by a male-centric interpretation of Islamic doctrine. And extreme practices such as stoning women for adultery, or forcing young girls into marriages with older men, are not accurate interpretations of Islam, she says. “The difference in the status of men and women has arisen more from a cultural paradigm.”

Confusion arises, she says, because political leaders in many Muslim countries interpret Islam differently from the masses. She refers the curious to Leila Ahmed, of Harvard Divinity School, who sums up the difference in the book Women and Gender in Islam:

It is this technical, legalistic establishment version of Islam, a version that largely bypasses the ethical elements in the Islamic message, that continues to be politically powerful today. But for the lay Muslim it is not this legalistic voice but rather the ethical, egalitarian voice of Islam that speaks most clearly and insistently. It is because Muslim women hear this egalitarian voice that they often declare (generally to the astonishment of non-Muslims) that Islam is nonsexist.

So where does that leave female leaders? “Islamically, women are allowed to be leaders of both men and women,” Hosein says. She points to Professor Ingrid Mattson, her adviser during her graduate studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. In 2006, Mattson was elected president of the 30,000-member Islamic Society of North America, the continent’s largest Muslim organization. “This organization is religious-based, and a woman was elected president,” Hosein says. “And there have been women leaders in Pakistan and Bangladesh.”

But that liberal view is not universal. “There is a voice in the Islamic world that says women should not be in leadership roles at all,” she notes. “They use an old hadith”—an account of Mohammed’s words and deeds based on oral tradition—“that says if women lead any organization or nation or so forth, it is doomed to fail. There are no grounds for that in Islam.”

Some women have defied the limitations on female-led prayer. The feminist Muslim scholar Amina Wadud, for example, led coed prayer at the Episcopal cathedral in New York City in 2005. Although she believes Wadud was on less than solid theological ground, Hosein is sympathetic. “Sometimes,” she says, “there need to be people who push the envelope a little bit, to get people thinking in broader terms.”

Which raises the obvious question of whether Hosein hopes to lead coed prayer herself. “At this point in my life, absolutely not,” she replies. “For me, there are greater battles to be fought.” Battles like “helping Muslim students feel fully integrated on campus” and teaching them to challenge “the way Islam is being presented by others, in the media or on campus.”

Besides, she says, the prohibition on leading males in prayer doesn’t hinder her in her duties as chaplain. In fact, now that she has recruited some male Muslim students to cover for her, she sees that prohibition as a gift—“the gift of getting this group of young men motivated to learn to give the Friday prayer.”

Readers interested in forming a Muslim alumni network should contact Shareda Hosein (shareda.hosein@tufts.edu).

HELENE RAGOVIN is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. In her print newspaper days, she was recognized for editorial and column writing by the New Jersey Press Association.

  © 2008 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155