Protesters demonstrated outside a Muslim centre in North Oxford to object to a woman leading an Islamic prayer meeting.

Today's prayers, at the Muslim Education Centre of Oxford, in Banbury Road, were thought to be the first time a woman has led a mixed congregation of Muslims in this country.

Nine women staged a peaceful protest outside the centre, holding placards saying "True Muslims respect Sharia law" and "Women leading the prayer is against Islamic law".

Two police officers kept watch on the protest.

Maryam Ramzy, who works at Oxford's all-Muslim Iqra School and is married to the school's chairman Hojjat Ramzy, said: "We are practising Muslim women and we believe women should not lead the prayer.

"The main reason is because of the position when we pray, we put our heads on the floor and backside in the air and if there are men behind us it ruins their prayer.

"This is the law, sharia law, and it should not be changed. It makes us feel uncomfortable. Muslims in Oxford feel strongly about this, they are upset."

Muhammed Khan, a founder of two of the city's mosques, also came to the centre — but was there to tell Muslims not to protest but to ignore the meeting.

He said: "I think the people praying are wasting their time and I feel sorry for them, because their prayer will not be valid."

About 20 men and women joined Prof Amina Wadud, an American Islamic scholar, as she delivered an hour-long khutba — sermon — about the importance of salat — prayers — then led the gathering in prayer.

The meeting marked the start of a two-day conference at Wolfson College on Islam and feminism.

Among those taking part was Vakkas Tekin, 67, from Botley. He said: "I decided to come because it was something new and it has never been done before and I wanted to see what she was going to say.

"I think she was very good. She did not say anything about the religion which was against Islam."

Oxford University student Zahra Raja, 21, came to the service but did not join the prayers. She said: "I was very impressed by her. It was very well-researched. I didn't participate, because I wasn't sure if it was the right thing for me to do."

Prof Wadud received death threats when she led prayers in New York in 2005. She said: "The research indicates there is no prohibition and the Prophet even assigned a woman himself to lead the prayer. My own research confirms it is possible.

"I do not know how it went, but I was able to fulfil my salat and that is the most important thing."

Meco chairman Dr Taj Hargey said: "We wanted a peaceful prayer. We may have been small in number but there was a spiritual atmosphere and a relaxed environment. It was the perfect beginning for our conference."