President Obama's appearance Wednesday at the Islamic Society of Baltimore (ISB) drew a small band of protesters, and their issue might come as a surprise.
A group of Muslim women and their supporters stood "as close [to the mosque] as the Secret Service allows to protest the separate and unequal standards inside and advocate for equal rights."
One of the protesters, writer Ify Okoye, used to pray at the ISB but left after unsuccessfully challenging its treatment of women. She took pictures in 2010, showing women relegated to partitioned, drab prayer spaces compared to the wide open space reserved for men.
In a column published Wednesday morning, Okoye and journalist Asra Nomani explained that at the ISB, "women and girls are usually segregated, unable to see the imam unless they peek over the balcony's edge." Women's prayer space is comparable to a hockey penalty box, they wrote.
The separation starts at a young age, with the women describing "girls and boys as young as about 8 years old" being segregated during classes they observed last weekend. The girls were sent to a "stark gymnasium and found seats on bare red carpet pieces laid out in a corner," while boys "clamored excitedly into the majestic musallah, their feet padded by thick, decorated carpet, the sunlight flooding into the room through spectacular windows engraved with the 99 names of Allah, or God, in Islam."
This unequal treatment is all too common in American mosques, they said, citing their own visits to Islamic centers. Obama's "visit to a mosque that practices such blatant inequity represents a step backwards. While it may be meant to convey a message of religious inclusiveness to American Muslims, the visit demonstrates tacit acceptance of a form of discrimination that amounts to gender apartheid," Okoye and Nomani wrote.
It's a form of discrimination that would not be tolerated against other protected groups, they point out, yet segregated mosques continue to enjoy tax-exempt status.
"We are all God's children. We're all born equal, with inherent dignity," President Obama said at the mosque on Wednesday. He missed the call from Okoye and Nomani to "support this urgent cause by speaking out against gender segregation in American mosques."
Read their full column here.