A woman leading Friday prayers proves that without patriarchy, Islam can be a progressive religion

Published: February 7, 2018

Jamida Beevi leading the Friday prayers in Malappuram. PHOTO: SCROLL.IN

A few days ago, I came across a headline that piqued my interest. In the Indian state of Kerala, a Muslim woman named Jamida Beevi led the weekly Friday prayers in the predominantly orthodox Muslim town of Malappuram. 

Her decision to do so is remarkable, given the fact that she is in reality a religious and practicing Muslim who also works for a religious organisation. This also marks the first time that an Indian Muslim woman has led prayers and that too in an orthodox setting. In the past, some women have done so in western countries where threats of violent backlash are relatively minute.

In this case, Beevi has taken a huge risk, as violent backlash is a real possibility in India. In fact, after leading the prayer, she has constantly been receiving death threats from fundamentalists. However, Beevi has remained undeterred by the backlash. In a subsequent interview, she stated that she believes in the Holy Quran, which teaches equality between men and women, and emphasised that discrimination against women is manmade and imposed by the male clergy.

I could not help but marvel at her courage and conviction. Here is a devout and a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, who is challenging gender stereotypes and actually using religious justifications to do so. Her actions are not based on some western ideal, but on her interpretation of her religion, Islam.

Of course, there are many who disagree with her. After reading the story, I came across some heated debate on social media on whether this act by a woman is allowed in Islam or not. I also came across some videos, where conservative clerics were heatedly arguing that this act is not allowed in Islam, as it compromised her modesty!

Now, I am by no means a religious scholar, but I would like to point out that there are many practices that leave significant room for debate within the Islamic tradition, and what ultimately really matters is the interpretation of the religion itself.

For instance, there has been some debate on whether a woman can be the head of state in a Muslim country or not. According to some conservative scholars, it is not allowed, whereas some relatively liberal scholars think that it is permissible. Despite the opposition by some hardline elements, we have seen several female heads of state in recent times, including Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan), Sheikh Hasina Wajid (Bangladesh), Khaleda Zia (Bangladesh) and Megawati Sukarnoputri (Indonesia). Eventually, what transpires depends on which interpretation is more acceptable for mainstream Muslims.

Until last year, Saudi clergymen had been using religious arguments against women’s right to drive, but today, the practice has become acceptable. The point I am trying to make is that religious interpretations can vary and always have room to evolve. Since religion is an extremely important aspect of Muslims’ lives and they want to follow the legal code and customs it prescribes, it is thus extremely critical that liberal interpretations become more pervasive amongst the followers.

If this happens, it will bode well for improving human rights and the gender imbalance in Muslim countries. In one of my previous articles, I wrote about gender imbalance being a systemic issue in the Muslim world. One can take the example of the World Economic Forum’s annual gender gap index, which ranks countries with respect to gender parity. In 2016, a total of 144 countries were ranked and not a single Muslim-majority country was in the top 50. Furthermore, the last 15 countries (130 to 144) were all Muslim-majority countries, with Pakistan ranked at 143 and only the war-torn Yemen below it at 144.

Things have hardly improved in 2017, as apart from Bangladesh, which improved its position from 72 to 47 over the year, all other Muslim countries remained ranked at the bottom, with Pakistan retaining its second last position. In fact, the strongest predictor of a country’s place in the aforementioned ranking is whether it is a Muslim country or not. If we take two countries with similar socioeconomic characteristics, but one is Muslim and the other is not, there is a strong probability the former will have much greater gender imbalance. In other words, even if we control other factors, the fact alone that a country is Muslim is seemingly the most significant factor in predicting the prevalence of gender disparity.

What makes Muslim countries so gender imbalanced? In my opinion, it is the prevalence of religious orthodoxy in the legal code as well as the customs, which in turn have led to a situation that is discordant with modern times. Gender balance cannot be improved without fracturing the religious orthodoxy, and for that we need reforms from within the religion. The most significant reformation would undoubtedly take place when religious practices start to change by accommodating women in leading roles, and only when religious practices change can everything else subsequently change as well.

It is in this context that this recent episode of a woman leading a prayer in India becomes important, as it has generated some much needed debate about the role that women can play in Islamic religious rituals. I am happy to see that in India, many women are coming to her defence, passionately arguing that Islam does not forbid a woman from leading the prayers. They are reiterating that Islam is a progressive religion, as it challenged the patriarchal system prevalent in Arab lands by giving women proper inheritance rights and improving their legal status. I fully agree with them, as I believe that Islam has that progressive spirit within. We just need to emphasise on it, so that we can come out of the current situation we are time-trapped in.

I hope that this debate, which has been kicked off by this act of bravery on Beevi’s part, sets a good precedent and continues to take place. Only by debating these issues can we move forward in the right direction. For now, good luck to Jamida Beevi, and all the other valiant women who are supporting her!


Raza Habib Raja

The author is a recent Cornell graduate and currently pursuing his PhD in political science at Maxwell School, Syracuse University. He has also worked for a leading development finance institution in Pakistan. He is a freelance journalist whose works have been published at Huffington Post, Dawn (Pakistan), Express Tribune (Pakistan) and Pak Tea House. He tweets @razaraja (twitter.com/razaraja?lang=en)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • wb

    Try finding a woman leading men in prayer in Pakistan. You might find her grave!!! By the way, it’s the Muslim men who have kept Islam regressive. Women will liberate Muslim men soon.Recommend

  • Rahul

    India is the only country with a substantial Muslim population where Muslims live in freedom.Recommend

  • Abdul Rehman

    Little knowledge is a very dangerous thing indeed!Recommend

  • Fahad Yousuf

    It is actually not permissible for a woman to lead prayers. Like the fact that all prophets were men. Some inline religious points cannot be changed just to improve a nothing balance index with a nothing organization and that organization also has nothing to do with Islam.Recommend

  • Rahul

    Really, and only regressive, misogynist and conceited males have a lock on knowledge. On what basis? That they can thrash or name call any woman who dares to question their self serving knowledge. We do not live in the 14th century any more, everybody has a right to express their opinion in a respectful way and nobody has a lock on how to practice their religion. If men and women want to go and listen to her sermon who are these people to threaten her and call her names.Recommend

  • greywolf

    there are certain rules that are proscribed in every religion, and those are meant to be followed. some of the brightest scholars in Islam have been women (including the Prophet’s own wife Aisha). The prohibition on leading prayers is intact and you can argue against it all you want, it will not change.Recommend

  • greywolf

    some scholars in the past (taymiyya and tabari) argued that it was possible IF: 1) the woman was more qualified than the men attending to lead the prayer 2) if the men were all illiterate and she was literate. these debates have occurred over the years but the general prohibition remains intact.Recommend

  • MJ

    Muslim women are free to lead prayers comprising of only women behind her. What she did though won’t be sanctioned under any school of thought.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Interesting article …. the culprit here is patriarchy and in order to ‘ keep the flag flying high ‘ men have over the centuries been schooled not give an inch. The fight, for the likes of Jamida Beevi is a hard one be it on the religious, political, business or any other front.Recommend

  • casimpk

    People who point objections in Islamic law (unnecessary ones), are mostly not that religious or are atheists, so why bother interfering in other people’s religion? I still don’t get the point of it though, will a woman leading men in prayers bring a drastic change in our society? We aren’t even following the basics of how to live an ethical life and people are talking about some petty xyz issue. Recommend

  • Fair Reforms

    Its heartening to know there are people with functioning brains. Well done author for using your common sense and bravely putting across a fact; though the target crowd is mostly irrational who still live in stone age and delude that their mothers and sisters are low lives and worse than themselvesRecommend

  • Fair Reforms

    Who do you think you are to decide what a woman should or should not do? It is up to them to do what they wantRecommend

  • Fair Reforms

    Didn’t you see men sitting behind her? Educated progressive men from an Indian state with 98% literacy and where Islam existed much before Moguls came to Punjab and Sindh in its original form – Islam came to Kerala during the time of Prophet itself. Probably that mosque was as old as Islam itself. Don’t need you to teach them what is Islam.Recommend

  • Arsalan Rais

    You are right to point out this hidden fact, since India is the only country where genocide like Gujrat goes unpunished….and a fanatic like Modi chairs the top seat in IndiaRecommend

  • ABKhan

    Name call? Who is he name calling? Recommend

  • ABKhan

    India is the only country where people get killed for eating beef. Still living in stone age. Recommend

  • fadi

    It is not up to them or us to decide. It was already decided one thousand four hundred years ago! And we plan to stick to it and not change it.Recommend

  • Asgar

    there are certain rules that are proscribed in every religion, and those are meant to be followed. some of the brightest scholars in Islam have been women (including the Prophet’s own wife Aisha). The prohibition on leading prayers is intact and you can argue against it all you want, it will not change.Recommend

  • Sane

    India is the only country that brutally murders freedom fighters and barehandedly kills Muslims. Recommend

  • Parvez

    Could you substantiate your comment with a reference from a credible source ? …… I am genuinely interested to know if what you have said is correct or simply ‘ your ‘ understanding of the situation.Recommend

  • MOS

    To the best of my knowledge, there is no problem with a woman leading a Prayer, as long as the followers consist of women only.Recommend

  • Shayan Ahmad

    So 10 days of holiday on prayers because nature meets women every month?Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    The general prohibition remains intact. Says who?


  • Parvez

    I appreciate your view….and I have asked this from @fadi above who has not answered, so I’ll ask you as you seem to be quite knowledgeable on these matters….could you provide a credible source to substantiate your view point.Recommend

  • Abdul Rehman

    @Parvez If you are really concerned about it then why haven’t you already done research on its credibility?Recommend

  • A_A KhAn
  • Parvez

    I am asking those who have emphatically voiced their views with authority …… I think I am entitled to ask them for the basis of their views. It would be an educational process for me if they or you enlightened me. If silence is maintained, I can only come to the conclusion that this is ‘ their understanding ‘ of the issue.Recommend

  • MJ

    This is a matter of religion. An educated person with an Engineering degree may not have the knowledge required in Islamic Fiqh or Jurisprudence to make an informed decision. Just because some people or a lot of people do something, does not make it wrong or right. A practice, specially when it comes to religious matters cannot be decided by vote or a show of strength, it has to be backed up by authentic narrations, texts and sources.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Strong and logical comment …… if people like Asgar or Fadi or Abdul Rehman had a credible answer they would have come forward with it by now and I would have welcomed the explanation. Sadly they remain silent and from that I can only infer a lack of proper knowledge coupled with a heavy reliance of accepting the word of others.Recommend

  • MJ

    “If men and women want to go and listen to her sermon”
    Glad you brought up this point. Isn’t sermons the reason Zakir Naik was expelled from India?Recommend

  • T chaudhry

    The term progressive religion is a controversial term. Of course Islam is a religion that is practicable for all times to come. But if progressiveness means to alter the basic rules and principles laid down by God Almighty then this term will not be applied to Islam.Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    There is no hard and fast rule about prayers, you are free to your choice and preference in your community which could differ from others. Ibn Battuta experienced a variety of practices followed by the muslims in the world, all praying in arabic language though most speaking different languages.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Parvez

    Correctly said and yes I am not a scholar, just a rational thinking man….. and all I wanted was for Asgar and Fadi to substantiate their view with some hard evidence.Recommend

  • LS

    One women in ONE masjid does not shatter patriarchy.. Please get over it.. See the comments. There is nothing progressive about it. Also, this can happen ONLY in non-muslim country and NEVER in a muslim country.Recommend

  • LS

    There is nothing that is “meant” to be done a certain way. Do the world a favor and give reference that says only men can lead the prayer. I know I am NOT going to hear from you ever again on this topic.Recommend

  • LS

    Nature does not meet man everyday? He keeps producing gametes at an alarming rate everyday but does not shed blood in the process.Recommend