A Muslim woman in the southern Indian state of Kerala has received death threats after leading prayers for a mixed congregation in an act of defiance against established Islamic practice.
Jamida Beevi is thought to be the first woman to lead Friday prayers in India for both male and female worshippers, doing so at Wandoor Cherukod village in Malappuram last week. She also delivered a sermon on gender justice.
“I believe in the Qur’an and the Qur’an teaches equality between the sexes. All this discrimination against women is manmade, imposed by the male clergy and I want to change it,” said Beevi, 34, speaking to the Guardian by phone on Tuesday.
Traditionally a male imam leads prayers, except when the congregation is all female.
Beevi said she believed the Qur’an contains no injunction that says only men can lead prayers. She belongs to a small sect called the Qur’an Sunnat Society; it believes only in the Qur’an, not in the hadith – the statements made by the prophet on a variety of subjects and written down by his followers after his death. Most orthodox Muslims believe in both the Qur’an and the hadith.
“The Qur’an says all human beings are equal and anyone can lead prayers. The Qur’an is the basis of Islam, not the hadith, which were created by men after the prophet’s death. For 1,400 years, men have decided things, only men have made decisions. It is time for all that to change now,” said Beevi, who is divorced and a mother of two children.
She led the prayers not in a mosque, but in the office of the Qur’an Sunnat Society, where she works full time. Her act has provoked a backlash, with local media reporting that members of Muslim organisations have threatened to kill her.
“These are extremists who cannot tolerate any reform. I have had threats on WhatsApp, on YouTube, on Facebook, but I am not scared,” she says.
Abdul Rahman, the secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, which manages about 500 mosques in Kerala, said Beevi’s action was an “arranged drama”, and a “gimmick to acquire cheap popularity” while distracting the Muslim community from real issues.
“By tradition, men lead the prayers because women are busy in the household and have their limitations,” said Rahman. “This division of duties between men and women is not discrimination, it’s a question of what best suits men and what best suits women.”