"This is one of the more controversial issues in Islam," says Amaney Jamal, an assistant professor at Princeton University. "One group feels it is an established norm that men lead the prayer, and Islam shouldn't be singled out, since in Catholicism and [orthodox] Jewish denominations men also lead.
"Another group believes the segregation of the sexes has moved to the extreme in Islamic theology today," more so than in the time of Muhammad, she adds. "They also feel ... the inequitable treatment of women has misrepresented the religion to the world, and this needs to be addressed so women understand it is not Islam that is oppressing them."
Some Muslim women have worked for years on women's rights and on encouraging more equitable conditions in mosques.
Only men are required to attend the traditional Friday prayer at the mosque, and in some countries women rarely go. But as US mosques developed as community and educational centers for immigrant families, women participated regularly. Segregation of the sexes remains common, and women may be relegated to cramped or undesirable spaces. Many American mosques now have women on their governing boards, but others do not permit this.
Nomani describes her own journey and her struggles to bring reform to the Morgantown mosque in her new book, "Standing Alone in Mecca."
Some critics charge the prayer events are being staged to promote her book. Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, says both are part of her jihad that flows from the Islamic teaching that one must "stand up for justice."
While many women seek change, they may not support the prayer venture. It is "violating a principle of Islamic law - the forms of ritual prayer are fixed by revelation" and can't be changed, says Ingrid Mattson, a professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary. "Yet outside of those obligatory prayers, it is very open," so that women can lead prayer in other settings.
Women can be spiritual leaders in the mosques without leading ritual prayer, or can do so for women, she adds. "In China, women's mosques are part of the larger mosque, and women imams are paid by the community."