A voice lilts with each phrase of the Qu’ran, pausing on certain words and then suddenly dropping off at the end of a verse. Silent pauses give way to a foreign tongue of Arabic words knit together by a scribe who has spent his life memorizing the book. Bismillahi rahmani rahimi. The unusual sounds taking me back to the chants I heard while sitting in the wooden pews at the Lutheran church of my childhood. The merging of two religions: Christianity and Islam. Each faith with a song attempting to share the words of God.
The Islamic center with its complicated tile mosaics on the walls, floors, and columns echo the melodic chants. I arch my head to gaze at the golden chandelier above the waterless fountain and stand in awe of the stalagmite-like carvings dripping from the white ceiling. Blue light stream from the stain glass windows on the white marble floors. My classmates and I circle around the entrance of this education center. Women in djellaba robes and men wearing babouche slippers walk this ostentatious lobby to study Islamic teachings in Meknes. On Friday, the holiest day in Islam, our feet take the same steps to ask the Imam, the scholar at the mosque, any question about Islam.
Entering the conference room, the importance of this meeting weighs on me as the large leather chairs swallow me. I imagine a United Nations official in a seat such as this, discussing political issues. Yet here we are fourteen curious Americans fidgeting with our personal microphones. A woman in a hijab pours us mint tea and offers us ornate pastries; she is the only Moroccan woman in the room. Our guide and translator sits next to the Imam, who wears a white robe and cap. His two male colleagues on either side of him write on the notepads in front of them. After the reciting of the Qu’ran, they welcome us. “We feel that all should follow a religion; it’s in our nature,” begins the Imam.
We take turns asking our questions. Moments of reflection pass while we wait for the translations of the Imam’s answer. I attempt to interpret his hand movements into ideas. With deep reverence for his religion, he carefully explains the rules of Islam. His face remains pensive with wrinkles barely moving with his words. I press the button to speak into the microphone, my heart racing a little as I speak: “How are women viewed in the Qu’ran and Islam versus men, and can a woman ever become an Imam?” My trepidation arises with reminders of the stereotypes perpetuated in the West; it’s thought that Muslim women do not have rights in Islam.
“Men and women come from the same source of the Sprit. They are created equally. But there are different roles for males and females, so that they may complete each other,” the Imam responds. It’s a respectful answer, maybe even more progressive than some Christians’ view of the creation of men and women. Still, my Western feminist’s gut twists in hearing the next remarks: “A woman cannot be an Imam, but she’s welcome to study. A woman cannot enter the mosque during the time of her period, and she cannot teach men. But women can pray and discuss teachings with other women,” the Imam completes his answer. My blood curdles as the word period is dropped like the dirty rags that fill during that time. Women can’t lead because of a God-given beautiful curse of childbearing miracles.
With a bitter taste in my mouth, I listen to the others’ inquiries: types of religious practices, the complexity of the soul and spirit, and whether there’s space for doubt in Islam. My inner dialogue bounces between a woman who wants equality in all aspects to a woman trying to respect a foreign culture’s ideas. While continuing to mull over the complexities of gender roles, the Imam interrupts my thoughts. “There’s room to ask questions and we encourage it.” In that statement, I felt more respected by him than by some people I’ve encountered in the Church. There’s room for me and my doubt. As I walk out of the daunting room, I cross through tall wooden doors onto a patio lined with stone columns. The mountains caress a purple sky that fades to orange, the sounds of the chants lingering in the cool air. Breathing deeply, my thoughts settle in gratitude for the bridge we created with our words in harmony.