U.S. Muslim activist saddened by conflict over Women of the Wall

Soraya Deen was in Israel to take part in anniversary celebrations by Women of the Wall, but was caught up in altercation during their prayer service.

AN ARAB woman walks past a Jewish couple at the Western Wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
AN ARAB woman walks past a Jewish couple at the Western Wall
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Soraya Deen, a Muslim woman from California, was present on March 8 when scuffles broke out between ultra-Orthodox worshippers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and members of a Jewish women’s group who have been seeking the right to pray at the holy site in their own – decidedly non-Orthodox – way.
“When I heard that for 30 years, the Women of the Wall were agitating for this change, it really made me sad because I always looked up to my Jewish reformist community to lead me in a lot of activism,” Deen told The Media Line. “I didn’t know they were stuck here with this deep-rooted unwillingness by the ultra-Orthodox to change.”
The prayer service was part of a regular activity by the Women of the Wall to mark the start of each Hebrew month. It was also part of the organization’s celebration of 30 years since its founding, and Deen, an interfaith activist, had been invited to take part.
“No matter where we live, women’s struggles are the same, and some of these struggles are deeply entrenched in religious dogma,” she said.
Anat Hoffman, who chairs Women of the Wall, told The Media Line that “we are at the top of the agenda of religion and state in Israel. Women wearing tefillin [phylacteries] and tallitot [prayer shawls], and reading from the Torah, is now considered local custom.”
Hoffman was referring to Jewish religious traditions generally practiced only by men.
The women’s group felt moved to lodge a complaint criticizing police for their failure to protect the participants at the Western Wall service.
A founder of the Muslim Women Speakers Movement, Deen, from the Los Angeles area but a native of Sri Lanka (where she has served on the National Women’s Political Caucus), became an interfaith activist after her son was bullied and called a terrorist.
She began speaking at events held by the Muslim community but grew frustrated that she could not speak in her own mosque, so she decided she wanted to be part of an effort to expand Muslim reforms in the U.S.
“There is a kind of apathy in the Muslim community because we are taught that Islam is the last and most perfect religion, and nothing in the Koran needs to be altered,” she told The Media Line. “What we are saying is that we need to change ourselves. We don’t necessarily have to alter the Koran, but let’s adjust the way we think about it.”
Deen particularly wants to change how women are treated within Islam, advocating against polygamy and female genital mutilation (FGM). She also wants women to be able to speak in holy places and lead prayer.
She described going to a Paris mosque with her daughter last year and being forced to cover her hair and dress in a certain way, saying the experience gave her the impression that “there are men leading our mosques that might know something about the text, but they have no understanding of the context.”
At interfaith events, she made Jewish friends who advocated on her behalf, which in turn spurred her to speak out against anti-Semitism.
“It was a personal crusade for me to really educate Muslims that [distrusting the Jewish community] is a value that should not be taught,” she said.
Her efforts have not been without consequences within her community.
“I’m called an Islamophobe and a Zionist, so this is not easy work to do,” she explained.
Deen said that by joining in the anniversary celebrations of the Women of the Wall – and witnessing the disturbances – she learned that women have to demand power.
“No one,” she explained, “will ever come to a woman and say, here, have some power. Do you want it?”
She added that this proved a need for more women in politics, including in Israel.
“If this was the case, [the situation at the Western Wall] wouldn’t be this bad,” she proclaimed.
The Women of the Wall’s 30th anniversary celebrations over the weekend included an awards ceremony. Among those honored were some of the Israeli paratroopers who captured the Wall area and other parts of Jerusalem in 1967.
“We won over the Jordanian Army, but we didn’t liberate the Kotel,” Micah Eshet, one of the paratroopers, told The Media Line, using the Hebrew word for Western Wall. “The Kotel is still in captivity, held by the extreme-right Orthodox under the protection of [Israel’s] Chief Rabbinate and government.”
Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line's Press and Policy Studies.
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