My father helped build a new mosque in my hometown, Morgantown, West Virginia. On the night of its inauguration in 2003, I went to the mosque’s front door carrying my young son. I wore the same flowing white head covering that I had worn when I made my pilgrimage to Mecca. I had experienced full and unfettered access to the holy mosque in Mecca. I was an active and vocal participant in mixed-gender study sessions. I was fully equal.
Yet in Morgantown the president of the mosque board barked at me: "Sister! Take the back door!" Stunned, I proceeded through the front door but didn’t dare go into the main hall. Instead, I climbed the back stairwell into a secluded balcony where women were supposed to pray, shut off from the lectures, prayers, and community meetings held on the main floor below. I felt sick to my stomach.
For the first 10 days of that Ramadan, I wondered if I could overcome my fears and enter the main hall. I was getting messages to be silent from those around me. One mosque leader declared: "A woman’s voice is not to be heard in the mosque." Though I had crossed the globe as an author and staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal and interviewed the Taliban, corporate titans, and political leaders, I didn’t dare peek over the edge of the balcony in my own mosque.