1st Northern California women’s mosque opens in Berkeley

Karen Chow/Staff

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On Friday, community members from a variety of spiritual and religious backgrounds attended the opening of Berkeley’s first women-led mosque at Starr King School for the Ministry.

Rabi’a Keeble, founder of the mosque, wanted a space for absolute academic freedom — a space for women to have candid discussions without fear of shame or censorship. She decided to create Qal’bu Maryam, the first women-led mosque in Northern California and the second in the United States.

“Our goal is to remove false hierarchies and supposed superiorities that separate us all from one another — Sunni over Shia, born Muslim over convert, white over Black, yellow over brown, straight over queer, man over woman and rich over poor,” said Keeble during the mosque’s opening ceremony. “Our intention is to focus on the social justice principles that underpin our faith, that unite all of us together in a spirit of learning.”

The mosque, located at 2441 Le Conte Ave. in North Berkeley, took approximately six months to open. It was originally located at the City of Refuge Church in Oakland before moving to its current location at Starr King, a Unitarian Universalist school.

Keeble said she was contacted by Dr. Gabriella Lettini, the dean of faculty at Starr King, and was invited to use the Fireside Room on the Graduate Theological Union campus of the school.

“It is an honor for Starr King School for the Ministry, and very much in keeping with our Unitarian Universalist values of openness and inclusion,” said the Rev. Rosemary McNatt, president of Starr King, during the mosque’s opening ceremony. “I am grateful that you have placed your trust in us in holding this sacred space for women and for anyone who wishes an open way to pray and to worship.”

Despite controversy in the Islamic world surrounding women-led prayer for congregations composed of both women and men, Keeble said that so far, she has mainly received positive feedback. Kathryn Gilje, a practicing Christian and Oakland resident, said the mosque has been a dream, a vision and a prayer.

There will be no segregation by gender at the mosque, and prayers may be led by men or women, according to the mosque’s press release. Keeble said during the ceremony she hopes the mosque will help women find their calling, as well as maintain powerful religious ties.

“Now more than ever, it’s essential that we embrace all faiths and all backgrounds,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín during the ceremony. “I’m very honored to be here at the opening of the first women’s mosque in Northern California. … Congratulations — of course it’s in Berkeley.”

Many other Berkeley and Oakland residents attended the opening in support, including a representative of Assemblymember Tony Thurmond, feminist historian Max Dashu and Soraya Deen — founder of the Muslim Women Speakers Movement.

“It’s very historic what they’ve done here,” Dashu said. “There’s this move to reinterpret Islam from a woman’s perspective. … Going back to the root and seeing what the actual tradition is without … all the really encrusted doctrines that put males always as the expert, always as the point of reference and to see what the female experience and the female interpretation would look like.”

Contact Shayann Hendricks at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @shayannih.