Negotiating Gender Lines: Women's Movement across Atlanta Mosques

Atlanta, Georgia
Published May 31, 2010

Jamillah Karim explores gendered mosque spaces and interactions between Atlanta's African American and South Asian Muslims.

Jamillah Karim
Atlanta, Georgia


The city of Atlanta has a reputation of promise and opportunity in the American ummah (the Islamic brotherhood and sisterhood), particularly for African American Muslims. Indeed, many leave cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia to join the Atlanta ummah, known for its African American Muslim professionals, its progressive African American mosque communities, and its Muslim private schools.

The educated class of African American Muslims in Atlanta makes it an interesting and important city to analyze in a study of ethnic relations in the American ummah. Given the popular image of a substantial number of prosperous black Atlantans, we might imagine that African American Muslims are more likely to live in Atlanta than in Chicago in the same neighborhoods or share the same professional networks with affluent South Asian Muslims. To a slight degree, they are. But African American and South Asian Muslims in Atlanta are more segregated than integrated, and much of this is attributed to the city's history of racial residential patterns. As it did decades ago, race more than class still determines where African Americans live in Atlanta.

As Atlanta's black population grew in the 1950s and 1960s, city officials became concerned about "the prospect of a Negro majority in the city."1 In response, they pushed African Americans into concentrated areas and situated roads and highways as barriers to the north neighborhoods into which whites fled. Consequently, Atlanta has since developed into a metropolis of "two separate cities": its north side, predominantly white and thriving with new businesses, and its south side, majority black and struggling for economic gains. Although income does play a role in residential patterns, it is more in terms of dividing poor and middle-class blacks than integrating blacks and whites.2

The widening gap between poor and middle-class blacks reveals the persistence of race and class inequalities in the city. In 2004, Atlanta's poverty rate was 27.8 percent, placing it among the five US cities with the highest poverty rates. Moreover, its child poverty rate was 48.1 percent, leading all other cities. The overwhelming majority of its poor residents are African American; Atlanta's black poverty rate was 35 percent in the 1990s.3 The mismatch between the alarming poverty rates and the perceptions of Atlanta as a thriving city for African Americans reflects what social scientists call the Atlanta paradox: "the poverty of its public housing versus the sprawling riches of its suburbs." Even though African Americans have made major economic advancements in the city, whites as a whole have made far more, and many African Americans have made no gains in education or employment. Black unemployment is more than three times higher than that of whites, with the removal of jobs from African American areas partly contributing to this disparity.4

Increasingly, African Americans in Atlanta live in the suburbs and, in recent years, the north suburbs. In 1980, 82 percent of Atlanta's black population lived on the city's south side or in the black south suburbs, and only 9.4 percent lived in the north suburbs. Then, in the 1990s, Atlanta's residential patterns noticeably shifted. By 1996 the percentage of African Americans living in the north suburbs of Atlanta had risen to 25.2 percent.5 In Atlanta, high-income African Americans have a greater, though still limited, access to residence in traditionally white suburbs. In 2000, Atlanta ranked first of all US metropolises in the percentage (87.2 percent) of African American households with annual incomes above $40,000 living in suburbs.6 Still, the outstanding majority of African American suburbanization in Atlanta occurs in majority-black neighborhoods.

Ethnic Spaces and Flows in the Atlanta Ummah

Atlanta's African American and South Asian Muslims tend to live and worship in separate spaces. But important features of the Atlanta ummah landscape have facilitated some encounters and interactions between the two groups: (1) the close proximity between Atlanta's major immigrant mosque and the city's foremost African American mosques and neighborhoods and (2) the growing number of suburban mosques in neighborhoods in which both African Americans and South Asians live. Mosques stand out as the most vital nodes of Muslim networks in the Atlanta ummah. Mosque communities, both urban and suburban, provide a helpful window into understanding how Atlanta Muslims negotiate ethnic spaces.

Chris Yunker, Al-Farooq Masjid Mosque, Atlanta, Georgia, 2009.

Ethnic spaces in the Atlanta ummah reflect the Atlanta paradox. A substantial number of African American Muslims, perhaps more than 50 percent, are middle income and live in suburbs throughout the city. However, the two oldest African American mosques in Atlanta, the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam and the Community Masjid of Atlanta, are located in the south inner city, in areas known for black poverty. More recently, though, these areas have been experiencing economic growth as a result of urban renewal and gentrification.

The Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam is the city's largest congregation of African American Muslims. My childhood mosque, the Atlanta Masjid, was originally a Nation of Islam temple. In 1974, the Black Muslims bought a funeral home and transformed it into a temple and, a year later, into a WDM-affiliated [W.D. Mohammed] mosque, replacing pews with green carpet. Located southeast of downtown Atlanta, the new mosque stood half a mile from the East Lake Meadows public-housing project, a community so rampant with crime, drugs, and violence that it became known as "Little Vietnam." In the early 1990s, the Atlanta Masjid, determined to help revitalize the area through Muslim community life, purchased and renovated property on an abandoned lot across form East Lake Meadows, moving our mosque site even closer to Little Vietnam. I remember walking during my teen years through the streets of East Lake Meadows with community members, holding signs with slogans against violence and drugs. A few years after we embarked on this project, Tom Cousins, a white local real estate developer and philanthropist, led plans for major urban renewal in the area, which led to the demolition of East Lake Meadows in 1995 and the construction of quality mixed-income town homes, apartments, a YMCA, and a charter school. Urban renewal and gentrification have substantially changed the racial landscape of East Atlanta as more whites move into the area, displacing many of the original residents.

As Atlanta Masjid Muslims find themselves in the midst of a gentrified community after initiating their own efforts to transform the black inner city, so have members of the second oldest African American Atlanta mosque. The Community Masjid of Atlanta, established in 1976, sits southwest of downtown, eight miles west of the Atlanta Masjid, in an area known as the West End. As an upwardly mobile community, West End Muslims also live the paradox of economic growth alongside urban blight in Atlanta. As Nadim Ali, a committed member of the Community Masjid mosque, told me, "We live in the West End because we chose to live there. I could have easily lived somewhere in the suburbs, but it is best to go to the depressed areas to bring Islam."

The way in which a substantial number of middle-income African American Muslims remain connected to mosques in inner-city areas and to the struggles of surrounding neighborhoods reflects the Atlanta paradox of upward mobility against sustained poverty. The persistence of race and class inequalities in Atlanta is evident also in the tendency of South Asian Muslims to have higher incomes than middle-income African Americans.7 The majority of South Asians live in Atlanta's white north suburbs, where African American Muslims have begun to move only since the 1990s. The major South Asian mosque in Atlanta, Al-Farooq Masjid, is located downtown, less than nine miles from both the Atlanta Masjid and the Community Masjid. Although majority South Asian, Al-Farooq mosque officials boast that Muslims from more than fifty countries around the world worship there. The close proximity of all three communities signifies the possibility for African American and immigrant interaction against the backdrop of race and class divisions.

The first majority-immigrant mosque in Atlanta, Al-Farooq Masjid, was established in 1980 in a neighborhood called Home Park, not far from the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology, which a number of Muslim immigrants attended. Many of them lived in the city, near campus, but by the late 1980s, most of these families began moving outside the central city to Atlanta suburbs.8 At the same time, new immigrant families were moving to the Atlanta region, from places such as Chicago and New York, and also buying homes in the suburbs. To keep pace with this suburban growth, various immigrant mosques have been established in the north suburbs since the 1990s. Yet many suburban South Asian Muslims still have strong ties with Al-Farooq as "the first masjid," as one Indian woman described it, and continue to attend there on occasion, particularly for 'eid prayers and to maintain ties with family friends. For others with no mosque in their suburban neighborhood, Al-Farooq remains the closest.9

Library of Congress, View of rooftop from motel adjacent to Techwood Homes, Atlanta, Georgia, date unknown.

Urban Atlanta will remain a major center for suburban South Asian Muslims, owing to Al-Farooq's "New Masjid Project." Since demolishing the original Al-Farooq building in November 2003, builders have begun constructing a grand mosque to cost $5.8 million. The Al-Farooq New Masjid Project is the first Atlanta mosque built on this scale, complete with a main floor, a basement, a mezzanine, a parking deck, a musalla (prayer area), and a library. The grand-scale construction of Al-Farooq comes at the same time that the city of Atlanta has opened one of its finest developments, Atlantic Station, only blocks away from the Al-Farooq site. The finished mosque, with its prominent golden dome and minarets, will fit in perfectly with Atlanta's upscale complex of shops, offices, and townhouses, attracting some of the city's wealthiest residents. Indeed the urban renewal in all three major urban mosque locations indicates the flow of various racial, ethnic, and class groups in and around ummah spaces and represents the continued possibility for an urban ummah across ethnic lines.

Mosques as Ethnic and Gendered Spaces

I interviewed women connected with several Atlanta mosques, but I spent most of my time at the Atlanta Masjid and Masjid Rahmah, a north suburban mosque established in the 1990s.10 During the month of Ramadan, I went to one of these two mosques almost every night for iftar and night prayers. I focused on the Atlanta Masjid because it is the largest African American mosque, and Masjid Rahmah because it is representative of the suburban South Asian mosque experience.

Mosques are not only ethnic spaces, they are also gendered spaces. Men greatly outnumber women in most American mosques because, according to majority fiqh rulings, only men are obligated to attend the Friday congregational prayer (jum'ah). But the jum'ah prayer is only one index of women's mosque attendance.

Mosques also are gendered spaces in the way in which men and women are separated within them. Men and women worship in separate sections to avoid physical contact between male and female bodies, as congregational prayer requires that worshipers stand, bow, and prostrate in tight lines as if they were one unit. Arms, thighs, and feet necessarily touch, a condition of prayer expected to engender a sense of solidarity among worshippers. This symbol of unity, however, could easily cause discomfort if genders were mixed in the prayer lines, women's thighs touching those of male strangers. Many Muslim women and men offer this rationale in their defense of gender separation.

But on the question of how mosques should observe gender segregation, American Muslim perspectives vary, as do those of the mosques that they attend. In some mosques, men and women share the same prayer hall without any partition or curtain dividing them. In this case, women usually pray in a section behind the men. Most hadith reports indicate this as the gender practice that the Prophet Muhammed endorsed in his own mosque in Medina. Many mosque participants support this practice not only because of the reported sunnah but also because they view a separate women's section in the rear as the most logical gender arrangement. Instead of viewing women's position in the rear as a symbol of men's supremacy over women, as many non-Muslim visitors interpret it, many Muslim women prefer this arrangement because it prevents men from gazing at their elevated rear parts when they prostrate.

A second arrangement, however, removes this appearance of gender hierarchy. In this less common setup, men and women pray alongside each other, men on one side of a curtain or divider and women on the other side. Women occupy the front, middle and rear prayer rows on their side, as men do on theirs. Supporters of women's rights increasingly advocate these two possibilities: (1) women worshipping behind men in a shared prayer space or (2) women praying next to men in an adjacent section. A minority supports a third possibility, mixed-gender prayer lines, but none of the women I interviewed expressed a desire for this system.

Makeshift mosques like stores, office spaces, and houses converted into mosques find it especially difficult to accommodate worshipers. The smaller women's presence means that women are relegated to the smaller areas, and in makeshift mosques, this often means small corners or bedrooms. But even in the plans for newly designed mosques, built from the ground up, smaller spaces continue to be set aside for women. On the one hand, it makes sense to allocate less space to women if they are not attending the mosque. On the other, designating less space for women reinforces the expectation that they not attend, marginalizes them so that they will not attend, and perpetuates the excuse that they do not attend.

American Muslim women, however, are making it harder for mosque officials to use the "sisters do not attend" excuse. At the first jum'ah prayer of a newly built mosque in Atlanta, women overfilled their prayer space. It was one-fourth the size of the men's . Women are reclaiming their place in mosques, including times besides jum'ah.11 They attend the mosque not only for worship but also for social networks and "for pedagogy and learning." They serve as "teachers, study group leaders, fund raisers, community leaders, social activists, and active participants in mosque worship."12 By choosing to participate in public worship, women must negotiate both ethnic spaces and the gender practices that often mark mosques as immigrant or African American.

Although women do not dominate either mosque spaces or the board meetings that determine their layout, they have increasingly asserted themselves in mosques, negotiating and transforming gender arrangements and norms. In considering the ways in which Muslim women in Atlanta carry out Islamic feminist practices as they negotiate ethnic spaces, we must continue to keep open our notions of agency, since women assert themselves in the context of multiple speaking positions. As they move and act based on various experiences, desires, and intentions, American Muslim women negotiate several manifestations of gender lines that compromise their full participation in the ummah and not just the mosque partition but also gender norms related to dress, voice, marital roles and responsibilities, divorce, and women's work.

About the Author

Jamillah Karim is associate professor of religious studies at Spelman College in Atlanta. American Muslim Women: Negotiating Race, Class, and Gender within the Ummah (New York University Press, 2009) is her first book. This essay is abridged from chapter five "Negotiating Gender Lines: Women's Movements across Atlanta Mosques". Dr. Karim's current research involves second-generation African American Muslims.

  • 1. In May 1966, "the Atlanta Journal noted that 'civic leaders have registered concern that the non-white population inside city limits is increasing so rapidly that Negroes may constitute a majority within perhaps six years. To civic leaders the prospect of a Negro majority in the city holds serious sociological and political implications.'" See Ronald H. Bayor, Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 87.
  • 2. Larry Keating, Atlanta: Race, Class, and Urban Expansion (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), 8.
  • 3. US Census Bureau, "Places within Unites States: R1701. Percent of People below Poverty Level in the Past 12 Months (For Whom Poverty Status is Determined): 2004," (accessed July 16, 2007); US Census Bureau, "Places within the United States: R1701. Percent of Children under 18 Years Below Poverty Level in the Past 12 Months (For Whom Poverty Status is Determined): 2004," (accessed July 16, 2007); Mark McArdle, "Poverty, Concentrated Poverty, and Urban Areas," National Urban League Policy Institute, May 19, 2006, (accessed July 16, 2007); Patricia J. Mays, "Middle Class Blacks Head to Atlanta," Associated Press, December 7, 1998, (accessed July 16, 2007); David L. Sjoquist, "The Atlanta Paradox: Introduction," in The Atlanta Paradox: A Volume in the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality, ed. David L. Sjoquist (New York: Russell Sage, 2000), 2.
  • 4. Sjoquist, "The Atlanta Paradox," 1; Keating, Atlanta, 40, 34.
  • 5. Truman A. Hartshorn and Keith R. Ihlanfeldt, "Growth and Change in Metropolitan Atlanta," in The Atlanta Paradox: A Volume in the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality, ed. David L. Sjoquist (New York: Russell Sage, 2000), 38–39.
  • 6. Marc V. Levine, "The Two Milwaukees: Separate and Unequal," Center for Economic Development, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, April 2003, (accessed July 18, 2007).
  • 7. In his study of Asian Indian immigrants in Atlanta in the 1980s, John Fenton found that Atlanta Indians reported incomes "much higher" than the avergae ($24,993) for all Indian families in the United States in the 1980s. During a time when the median income for American families was estimated as $19,917 (US Census 1980), 52 percent of the Asian Indians in his survey "reported annual family incomes of $40,000 or more, and 32.8 percent stated their income to be $50,000 or more. Nationally, the Census indicated that only 11.3 percent of Asian Indians earn over $50,000; but in Atlanta 12.4 percent in the survey reported family incomes over $75,000." The author notes that these figures are remarkable, especially given that "almost half had been in America five years or less at the time of the Census." See John Y. Fenton, Transplanting Religious Traditions: Asian Indians in America (New York: Praeger, 1988), 31.
  • 8. "Indians who have been in America for some years tend to change residences from apartments in central Atlanta to homes in suburbia. In 1988 these families typically live in very new homes in new developments outside the interstate perimeter highway." Fenton,Transplanting Religious Traditions, 32.
  • 9. These two trends support the 2000 American mosque survey findings: "Approximately 40% of mosque participants travel more than 15 minutes from their home to get to the mosque." Ihsan Bagby, Paul M. Perl, and Bryan T. Froehle, The Mosque in America: A National Portrait, a Report from the Mosque Study Project (Washington DC: Council on American-Islamic Relations, 2001), 16.
  • 10. Masjid Rahmah is a pseudonym.
  • 11. When we account for women's mosque attendance beyond jum'ah, the percentage of women's participation is higher than the jum'ah percentage. According to the American mosque study, 13 percent ofjum'ah participants in immigrant mosques are women; however, women make up 23 percent of total participants "associated" with the mosque. In WDM mosques, women represent 24 percent of Friday worshippers but 36 percent of participants associated with the mosque. In non-WDM African American mosques, they make up 17 percent of Friday participants but 25 percent of overall mosque participants. Actual women's participation is possibly higher given that criteria for "association and how survey respondents measured it are unclear. Bagby, "A Profile of African-American Masjids," 216.
  • 12. The increase in women's mosque participation is not limited to the United States: "In recent times, Muslim women in a variety of contexts and settings are engaged in redefining their roles and presence in mosque based Islam." Shampa Mazumadar and Sanjoy Mazumadar, "In Mosques and Shrines: Women's Agency in Public Sacred Space." Journal of Ritual Studies 16, no. 2 (2002), 169; also see Saba Mahmood,Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

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