The way the Los Angeles Times reports on a new women's-only mosque, you'd think it was a story on secular feminism in the early 1970s.
Women in authority? Check. Breaking tradition? Check. Bonding with sisters? Check. Shaking loose from males to find themselves? Check.
Women wait for the call to prayer, marking the launch of the nonprofit Women's Mosque of America in downtown L.A. Tradition separates male and female congregants at most mosques; the women's mosque forbids men from attending.
Female-only mosques may exist in China, Chile and India, but Muslim leaders say this could be the first in the U.S.
You can almost picture the fist salute and hear "Right on, sister!"
Sure it sounds interesting: a mosque run by and for women, in a worship service usually dominated by males. (Although it's more daring in a more controlled society like China, as my review last September noted.)
But in telling the story of the new mosque, the Times plunders the western lexicon of social cliches story. Participants "foster bonds of sisterhood." Some call the experience "liberating." They also, of course, feel "empowered":
The call for female empowerment in the Muslim community has been growing for years — a response aimed at combating an often-misguided view of Islam, experts say.
"One of the major ways that Islam is 'othered'— one of the major stereotypes — is how they treat women," said Ruqayya Khan, chairwoman of Islamic studies at Claremont Graduate University. "But there is a rich history of women in Islam, and it's often kind of sidelined or buried."
So eager is the Times to herald this giant leap for womankind that it misses a fair number of basic journalistic elements. One is the rule: "Don’t raise questions that you don’t answer."
In the above quote by Ruqayya Khan, how about a couple of examples of prominent women in Islamic history? And what does Khan mean by Islam being "othered" via stereotypes? Does she mean that women's role in Islam has been ignored by westerners? Because it isn’t much emphasized by male Muslim leaders.
The article quotes the founder of the women's mosque, H. Hasna Maznavi, that the idea "has been embraced around the globe," from men as well as women. Why were none of them quoted?
The Times also has her saying that a "lack of female perspective" isn’t unique to the Muslim community, but it gives no examples. The next sentence goes off on a tangent, saying that some events and classes at the women's mosque will be open to men.
Nor do I see an explanation for why women are usually kept out of the main halls at mosques. I've heard from imams and other Muslim leaders that the separation is meant to leave men undistracted during prayers. That may not satisfy some modern minds, but it's similar to the rationale by traditional Orthodox Jews for keeping women separate in Shabbat services. (Including it would have also supported Maznavi's statement that other communities share that "lack of female perspective.")
The Los Angeles Times likely could have learned that answer by asking someone who's experienced at explaining the faith. Someone like Aisha Musa of Colgate University or Omid Safi of Duke. Or the paper could have called the Islamic Society of North America, which was already cited in the story for a stat.
As a peek at a nascent movement to give women a larger role in Islam, the Times story works OK. But as a thorough look at a facet of the faith, it falls short. Better to explain a Muslim trend in modern Muslim terms than in secular terms from the 1970s.