Muslim women today are struggling to address the stereotypes and
misconceptions associated with the role of women in Islam. Muslim women occupy
a wide variety of positions in American life: medical doctors, engineers,
lawyers, chemists, housewives, broadcast journalists, professors, clerical
workers, business women, schoolteachers. Some are immigrants, from countries
ranging from sub-Saharan Africa to Indonesia, while many others are
American-born; some American Muslim women were raised in Muslim homes, while
others embraced Islam as adults. Some Muslim women cover their head only during
prayer in the mosque; other Muslim women wear thehijab;
still others may cover their head with a turban or a loosely draped scarf.
The “role of women” in Islam is not easily defined. The Qur’an
and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad seem to recognize the different
functions and mutually supportive roles of men and women, encouraging just and
balanced social and family life. In seventh-century Arabia, the Qur’an extended
to women the right of property ownership and financial independence, prohibited
the practice of female infanticide and other abuses, and significantly modified
marriage and divorce practices. While many Americans consider Islam an
“oppressive religion” with regard to women, Muslim women often comment on the
liberty and dignity they derive from their faith. Many Muslim women explain
that “true” Islam is frequently compromised by oppressive practices that have
their roots in cultural differences or political expediency; general ignorance
and lack of engagement with the diversity inherited within the tradition
contribute to the perpetuation of these practices.
Numerous Islamic organizations in America are working to educate
both the Muslim community and the larger society on this issue, writing
articles, op-ed pieces, and publishing pamphlets such as ICNA’s “Status of
Woman in Islam” and the Institute of Islamic Information and Education’s “The
Question of Hijab: Suppression or Liberation.” The Islamic Center of Southern
California distributes the pamphlet “To Separate Fact from Fiction... Women in
Islam.” Citing the Qur’an, this publication aims to nuance views held by those
outside of the Muslim community, while also pointing to the “regrettable
practices in some Islamic societies where anti-Islamic cultur(al) traditions
have won over Islamic teachings.”
Muslim women in the United States are actively engaged in this
issue on every level, from academia to small grassroots groups. Dr. Azizah
al-Hibri, a professor of Law at the University of Richmond, notes that Islamic
laws about humanity come from a compassionate God. Accordingly, she researches
issues in which Islamic law is being applied to women in what she views as an oppressive
way, in order to find “the legal basis in Islamic jurisprudence for dealing
with these kinds of situations.” Al-Hibri’s organization KARAMAH: Muslim
Lawyers for Human Rights, is one of many outlets through which she works to
understand and promote Islamic civil rights, especially those pertaining to
women. In 2011, President Barack Obama appointed her as a commissioner to the
U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Al-Hibri is one of many
Muslim women in America assuming active leadership roles both within and
outside of the Muslim community.
Ingrid Mattson, a Canadian-born convert to Islam, was the first
woman to have been elected and to serve as vice-president and president of the
Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). She is highly regarded as a scholar of
Islam and as a Muslim scholar. Among many accomplishments, Dr. Mattson founded
the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary, where she is Professor of
Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations, as well as the Director of the
Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.
In 2005, Amina Wadud, a black American female convert to Islam
and a scholar of Islamic studies, led Friday prayers to a congregation of
Muslim men and women in New York, breaking the tradition that reserves that
role exclusively for men, and stirring a controversial debate about gender in
Daisy Khan, an Indian-born American Muslim, is the co-founder
and executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA),
as well as the founder of Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and
Equality (WISE) and she is also actively involved in other projects that focus
on interfaith efforts and dialogue on Islam in the West.
These women are but a few of the many American Muslim female
leaders who are challenging misperceptions about gender equality in Islam.
A December 2010 article in theNew York Times,
“Muslim Women Gain Higher Profile in U.S.,” highlighted this trend of increased
involvement of American Muslim women in the United States, emphasizing the
leadership roles that they have within public and private sectors, as well as
within Muslim communities. The article noted that American Muslim women have
more authoritative positions in society particularly as compared to Muslim
women in other countries, and also compared to American women of other
And yet, gender in Islam remains a frequent debate in America.
The results of a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, “Muslim Americans: No Signs
of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism”, suggest that nearly half of
all American Muslims agreed that men and women should be separated when praying
in a mosque. Data from the survey also shows that over a third of American
Muslim women cover their hair, by wearinghijabor otherwise, when they are in public.
These issues continue to fuel lively and important discussions throughout the
country, particularly as more women express their own voices as community
Muslim women’s groups have been organized across the United
States to discuss issues of the interpretation of scripture and tradition. Many
of these groups also work together to confront issues of prejudice toward women
wearing thehijabin the workplace and public
areas. Muslim women are also actively engaged in interfaith groups, like Women
Transcending Boundaries in Syracuse, New York, or Daughters of Abraham in
Cambridge, MA. Some of these groups are independently organized by ordinary
women trying to better understand their own faith on a practical level, while
others take more academic approaches.
Many American Muslim women are writing their own alternate
discourse. Of course, the Internet is one forum in which women can express
themselves and engage with others, such as through blogs or publishing academic
and/or opinion articles. They are also recording their stories in books.
Through writing, these Muslim women are aiming to express their own
experiences, which are separate from both the religious leaders of their own
communities and from the American mainstream media portrayal of them.
Muslim women are writing about topics that include thehijab, romance, religion, fashion, and
parenting.I Speak for
Myself: American Women on Being MuslimandLiving Islam Out Loud: American
Muslim Women Speakare
two such essay collections. Another isLove, InshAllah(2012), which is a collection
of twenty-five essays on the “secret love-lives of American Muslim women.” This
book amplifies the diversity of perspectives and experiences on relationships
within the Muslim community in America. The co-editors of the book, Nura
Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu, engage with Muslim and non-Muslim readers through an
active web presence that includes regular guest bloggers on the book’s website
(loveinshallah.com), a Facebook page and Twitter handle, as well as with
in-person and online book discussions.
Female Muslim scholars are also writing, many of them examining
the “Muslim world” and comparing Islam in “Western” versus Muslim countries.
Some important voices include Fatima Mernissi, who writes on Qur’anic
scholarship and gender, Saba Mahmood, who writes on Muslim cultural practice
and the agency of women, and Leila Ahmed, who writes on feminism and Islam.
Whether they are formally trained in Islamic scholarship or they
know Islam primarily through practice, women are increasingly entering into
religious, academic, and political dialogue on a variety of issues, including
the issue of gender in Islam.
The number of Muslim women leaders on the American stage has
skyrocketed in recent years. More American Muslim women are asserting
themselves as board members of mosques, participants in interfaith
organizations, as scholars, and as writers. Only time will tell the myriad ways
in which Muslim women will continue to contribute to the vibrant discourse on
religion and gender in America.