Soraya Deenf leads the prayer at the Qal'bu Maryam mosque which opened Friday, April 14 in Berkeley, only the second women-run mosque in the country. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Soraya Deenf leads the prayer at the Qal’bu Maryam mosque which opened Friday, April 14 in Berkeley, only the second women-run mosque in the country. Photo: Tracey Taylor

The first women’s mosque in Northern California opened today in Berkeley with a dedication ceremony and prayers at its home at Starr King School for the Ministry, a graduate school and Unitarian Universalist seminary on LeConte Avenue.

Perhaps fittingly for a place of worship that is breaking with tradition, its founder is not a faith leader but an activist.

Rabi’a Keeble, who describes herself as a writer, speaker and poet, as well as an activist, says it is time for Muslim women to step up and challenge the patriarchal norms of the Islam faith.

“Just like Rosa Parks said she couldn’t take one more day on the back of the bus, we need to bring women’s lib to Muslim women,” said Keeble, who lives in Oakland.

Qal’bu Maryam (Maryam’s Heart, or the heart of Mary, Jesus’ mother) is designed to provide Muslim women with “a rich and open Islamic educational environment.” It is the first women’s mosque in Northern California and only the second in the U.S. — the first opened in Los Angeles in 2015.

The women-led mosque will welcome everyone, not just women, according to Keeble: new converts, lifelong Muslims, non-Muslims, people of all genders and of all colors. And unlike at many other mosques, there will be no segregation by gender at Qal’bu Maryam. Women may lead prayers, and everyone prays together.

Rabi'a Keeble, founder of Berkeley's new women's mosque, speaks at its opening dedication on Friday, April 14. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Rabi’a Keeble, founder of Berkeley’s new women’s mosque, speaks at its opening dedication on Friday, April 14. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Keeble, who converted to Islam 13 years ago, said the idea for the new mosque was born from her frustration with the way women are separated from men in most mosques, how they are expected to behave, and how they are patronized by imams, the mosque’s prayer leaders.

“For 13 years I have sat in separate rooms with no windows, often with no means of seeing the imam,” she told Berkeleyside. “I have had enough of the idea that men are God-like and that they make decision about my life as a female Muslim — women are policed and judged and denied certain rights.”

Keeble cites examples of prohibitions such as associating with men, wearing make-up, which she does, and even plucking one’s eyebrows.

She points to the role of a mosque and its leader in supporting the community it serves, but feels that many imams are ill-equipped to play that role.

“Lots of imams come from small villages and are not educated,” she said. “They recite the Quran and can read Arabic, but they don’t necessarily have the skills in dealing with broad aspects of society.”

Some imams won’t even look her in the face, she added, speculating they are afraid.

Some 50 people attended the opening of the new women's mosque at the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley on April 14. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Some 50 people attended the opening of the new women’s mosque at the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley on April 14. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Keeble, a graduate of Starr King and Graduate Theological Union, stresses that she is not against the Islam faith. Indeed she converted after being raised “nominally Christian,” because, she says, Islam appealed to all her senses, spiritually and to her soul.

“It is a beautiful religion,” she said, “And a faith that I can embody.”

Rather, it is a case of making the faith applicable to contemporary life in 2017, she said, and of Muslim men and women worshiping and learning as equals.

At the dedication ceremony, attended by around 50 people, Keeble spoke of women’s central place in the Islam faith and the new mosque’s mission.

“Qal’bu Maryam will recenter and refocus on what our faith already embraces but has been obstructed by patriarchy,” she said. “This is a mosque where women will find their place in the world and worship together.”

Keeble admits that when she first conceived of the women’s mosque, she thought it should be exclusively for women. But she was persuaded that closing it up in that way would be acting just like the exclusionary patriarchy she is challenging.

The entrance to the new women’s mosque at 2441 LeConte Ave. in Berkeley. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Activism will be integral to the new mosque which is slated to focus on social justice and education. “We want to inspire a new generation to take roles as leaders and educators,” Keeble said Friday.

Keeble’s own activist roots include a campaign she led, in 2015, to boycott a Whole Foods in Oakland after a security guard beat up an African-American customer. She also took on the grocery chain over the fact that its security guards carried guns.

Speaking at the opening, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín welcomed the mosque to the city’s spiritual community and said it was particularly good to have such an “all-inclusive” place of worship in the current political climate. (Berkeley is also home to America’s first accredited Muslim institution of higher learning, after the opening of Zaytuna College, in 2010.)

His sentiments were echoed by Soraya Deenf, founder of the Muslim Women Speakers Movement, who delivered the first sermon at the mosque.

She said the opening of Qal’bu Maryam came at “a time in America when Muslims are accused of every act of terrorism and our patriotism is being questioned.”

Deenf, who was born in Sri Lanka, doesn’t read Arabic or wear the hijab, joked about being seen as a “bad Muslim,” and also spoke of her realization at the age of 12 that she was not welcome at a local mosque.

Attendees at the opening dedication of the Qal’bu Maryam mosque greet each other. Photo: Tracey Taylor

“I was told I couldn’t go there because I was a girl and I couldn’t show my hair and I couldn’t speak,” she said. “Now I stand for all the women who have been dismissed and all the men’s voices who have been discarded.”

Deenf said that “women and religion have always collided,” and that it was time to “set a human example, of kindness, community and love.”

“Evil prevails when good people do nothing,” she said, paraphrasing Edmund Burke.

Keeble hopes that the new mosque will draw Muslims from all backgrounds. She describes the mosques where she worships in the East Bay, for example, as having congregations that largely reflect cultural or national roots. While she understands the motivation — shared norms, food and so on — she feels a blending of different heritages and opinions would be more productive.

“A mosque should be a crucible to work out issues around gender and racism and differences,” she said.

In that vein, the group that worked with Keeble on the launch of the new women’s mosque included Jewish women and two men.

Qal’bu Maryam will hold services every Friday at 12:30 p.m. and, Keeble says, she is actively looking to recruit a female imam. Down the line she would also like to be able to declare the new place of worship a sanctuary mosque for people who are being targeted by immigration officials.

“There is no point in having a faith-based institution that doesn’t care about its community,” she said — “making sure they have houses and are fed.”

And, at the opening of the new mosque, Keeble demonstrated her commitment to making everyone feel welcome. When it came time for prayers, she announced that accommodations had been made for anyone — men or women — who wanted to pray separately from each other.

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...