Purdue University Graduate School
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Muslim Women's Authority in Sacred Spaces

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posted on 2022-09-13, 19:20 authored by Naila AlthagafiNaila Althagafi

Muslim women’s efforts to attain religious leadership roles have been central, critical, and controversial topics discussed in American mosques and in academia. Women’s lack of access and leadership in religious institutions is due to the patriarchal interpretations of Qurʾānicscripture, the Hadīth, and Islamic laws leading women to engage in collective action to attain their rights while still affirming their religion (Barlas, 2002). When controversial topics challenge religious traditions and norms, such as women’s roles as khateebahsand Friday prayer imāms(women sermon givers and leading Friday prayers), the discussions often are theological and political, but rarely from a communicative perspective in which the trajectory of change and co-oriented action is authored by participants through considerations of text and interaction. Muslim women in America are opening spaces for dialogue and initiating organizations that empower their Muslim sisters to take on religious roles and other positions that adhere to and broaden understandings of what it means to be Muslim.

The communicative constitution of organizations (CCO) (Belliger & Krieger, 2016; Brummans, Cooren, Robichaud, & Taylor, 2014; Bruscella & Bisel, 2018) has not yet delved into organizing within Muslim institutions. This study contributes to both CCO and to Muslim women’s organizing by showing how the CCO framework is applicable to a unique context that has not previously been investigated. Specifically, this dissertation explains how women’s authoring of process and structure through communication operates as a productive force constituted through linguistic choices, discursive formations, and materialities, as well as how Muslim women constitute agency within a traditional religious space situated in the United States. Consistent with CCO perspectives and especially the Four Flows model (McPhee, 2015; McPhee & Zaug, 2000, 2008), agency is conceptualized as action through or enactment of rules, resources, and routines in the duality of structure, based on Giddens (1984) structuration theory. In examining The Women’s Mosque of America (WMOA), an in-depth case study approach helped to illuminate how women’s empowerment is constructed and legitimized through women’s interactions, engagement, and advocacy. Studying women’s agency and structuring of empowerment through the constitutive approach of communication in organization (CCO) using McPhee’s four flows (McPhee, 2015; McPhee & Zaug, 2000, 2008) links communication, feminist studies, and Muslim religious organizations.

Data for this case study were gathered through site observations and interviews; analyses were conducted through constructivist grounded theory that incorporates personal knowledge about Muslim women to assist interpretation grounded in data (Charmaz, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2017). Throughout the study, attention was paid not only to what the women said but also to their reported and observed social and ritual interactions.

In conclusion, this project not only sheds light on a segment of the Muslim American community that is marginalized but shows that McPhee’s four flows can be used to study how organizations are structured along particular Islamic values and interpretations of text, while also affording agency to individuals as actors within each and across all four flows. In the case of The WMOA, the four flows communicative processes help identify relationships between Islam and organizational members, staff, and other institutional stakeholders within the material conditions of religious observances. Studies such as this project provide insight into how diverse members organize paradoxically for both social change and continuation of sacred traditions.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Communication

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Patrice M. Buzzanell

Additional Committee Member 2

Howard E Sypher

Additional Committee Member 3

Ralph Webb

Additional Committee Member 4

Mona Hassan