Celebrating nearly one year since opening for Friday prayers last August, the Mariam mosque in Denmark counts nearly 100 members. Sherin Khankan is the mosque‘s imam, making her the country’s first and only female imam to lead religious services for this female-only mosque. Though the Mariam mosque is rare, it is not the first of its kind. Women have served as imams since the early 19th century in China, and now lead services from the United States to South Africa.
Ms. Khankan, the daughter of a Syrian refugee and Finnish mother, says the efforts at her mosque could challenge “patriarchal structures” and help counter anti-Muslim sentiment spreading through Europe. According to the Christian Science Monitor, female imams (or “imamas”) like her can help take on the “raging political and cultural debates over everything from burkinis to Islam’s place in Europe.” The imam concurs with this assessment: “It’s very difficult to hold onto the narrative that Muslim women are suppressed, that Islam is a suppressive religion in its essence, when they can see that women are taking the lead and building up their own female-led mosque. This is in itself proof that this anti-Islamic rhetoric is incorrect.”
The Christian Science Monitor reports that the mosque has been criticized on both sides of the political equation. “Traditionalists dismiss it as outside the realm of Islam. Progressives say it doesn’t go far enough. While the mosque is open to men and women, Friday midday prayers – the biggest weekly service – are reserved for women only, making them far less controversial than if women imams were to also preach to men.” Ms. Khankan makes the final point, “When you want to create change you have to do it very slowly.”