Muslim-American women seek change from within

Sameera Qureshi, a facilitator with the organization Heart Women and Girls, and Nadiah Mohajir. (Courtesy of Heart Women and Girls)
Sameera Qureshi, a facilitator with the organization Heart Women and Girls, and Nadiah Mohajir. (Courtesy of Heart Women and Girls)

by Christine Schenk

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Several weeks ago I had the privilege of meeting Nadiah Mohajir, a Muslim-American woman who spoke after a Chicago screening of "Radical Grace," a documentary about Catholic sisters working for justice.

For over five years, Nadiah has provided health education programming to over 2,000 Muslim women and girls in the Chicagoland area and cities across the country. She and her colleague, Ayesha Akhtar, co-founded Heart Women and Girls, a non-profit volunteer sexual advocacy organization for Muslim women. They did this after hearing heart-rending stories from Muslim women who had attended a health and wellness day they coordinated in 2009.

A principal from an Islamic school told of a fifth grader who missed three weeks of classes because she had started her period, didn't know what it was, and was too scared to ask anyone, including her mother. Another young woman struggled with denial before being able to name her uncle's unwanted intimate advances as sexual abuse. A newly married woman was experiencing sexual tension with her husband as they were unable to consummate their marriage.

These and similar stories led Nadiah and Ayesah to the conclusion that too many women in their communities "did not have a safe space to obtain health information in a way that was mindful of their religious or cultural upbringing and values." They developed culturally sensitive trainings, workshops, and downloadable toolkits to help Muslim women "negotiate their American identities, while still appreciating and honoring their values."

Nadiah's work has not always been welcomed by the Muslim community. Educating Muslim women about their bodies can make people uncomfortable, and she has found it difficult to get mosques to permit her programs. This was particularly true after she spoke to the media last February about a woman who was sexually abused by a formerly revered Chicago imam, Mohammed Abdullah Saleem.

I was struck that Nadiah's work within Islam resonates strongly with that of many Catholic women who have also chosen to stay within a patriarchal tradition and work for change. So I asked Nadiah for an interview and she graciously accepted.

Christine Schenk: You made a conscious decision to continue to practice Islam and to work for change from within. Why?

Nadiah Mohajir: I never left Islam because of my exposure in my early college years to the type of critical thinking ... and the rich history of diversity and unconditional love Islam has for all communities, not just for the typical 'mainstream' Muslim -- and so I knew that it wasn't the faith that was problematic, but rather the superficial understanding of Islam that some communities have. A scholar, Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-allah, was integral in helping me explore this and the need to contribute to an 'American Islam.' Here is a great paper ["Islam and the Cultural Imperative"] written by Dr. Umar that explores this further.

I grew up in a mosque community, and some of my dearest and closest childhood friends come from that community. However, as I grew to understand life and its complexities around me, I realized that the kinds of experiences, critical thinking, and diversity I want my kids to understand and appreciate were hard to find at the traditional suburban mosque or Sunday school.  ... so we essentially started our own 'alternative' Islamic studies program for the kids on Friday evenings.

What makes attending mosque difficult?

Many mosques, unfortunately, do not have a friendly demeanor toward women, and there is a lot of religious policing that goes on at mosques that I don't find productive. (For example: Your pants are too tight, your shirt isn't long enough, your hair is showing through your scarf, etc.).

How do you practice your faith without attending a mosque?

Going to a mosque regularly is not obligatory for women. In other words, leaving the mosque, or not being affiliated with one specific mosque, is not equivalent to leaving Islam. So while I never left Islam, I do not regularly attend a mosque.  Islam is a very private and personal religion in addition to one of congregation. Women can easily perform their five daily prayers and worship from home. I do attend the Eid prayers (our two holidays), but because I also live very close to a university, I generally attend the prayers on campus and not at a mosque.

You spoke about recent scholarship about early women leaders in Islam. Can you give some examples?

... [T]he examples that stick out for me: the Prophet's [Mohammed] wife Aisha, may God be pleased with her, trained many of the greatest imams in the next generation after his death. She narrated hundreds and hundreds of hadith (prophetic traditions and sayings of the Prophet) and even led and army and issued legal opinions.

[Mohammed's first wife] Khadijah ran a caravan business in Mecca. A wealthy and successful trader, she was also a twice-widowed single mother, 15 years Mohammed's senior, and his boss.

Seventh-century jurist and scholar Ummal-Darda taught jurisprudence in the mosques of Damascus and Jerusalem; her students were men, women and even the caliph.

Fatimah al-Fihri founded the first university in the world, in Fes, Morocco called the Qarawiyyin.

Fourteenth-century scholar Fatimah al-Bataihiyyah taught both men and women in the Prophet's mosque in Madina, and people would travel to learn from her.

Are there examples of present-day oppression of woman in Islam (wearing the burka, female education, etc.) attributed to the Quran/Mohammed that simply aren't true?

Wearing the burka or hijab (scarf) isn't inherently oppressive. In fact, many women find it a way to express their commitment to modesty and their faith. Many women find it very empowering and liberating. Others do it simply because God asked them to.

It's important to note that wearing the scarf is not a measure of how religious one is. Modesty encompasses much more than external dress: Muslims -- both men and women -- are called to be modest with respect to their behavior, language, possessions, even their thoughts. A great article on this is here ["Removing hijab, finding myself"].

Using force to implement hijab or burka is an example of how patriarchy, misogyny, politics have motivated those in leadership positions to move forward their own agendas. Although the women during the Prophet's time dressed modestly (some did wear the entire burka and face veil), they were also extremely empowered women. ...

Other examples of oppressing women:

  • Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia
  • The Taliban do not allow girls to go to school
  • Many girls are subjected to forced marriages or honor killings.

All of these situations are falsely attributed to Islam. [Neither the] Prophet nor the Quran endorsed any of them. Women and girls are granted much independence and rights in Islam, including a right to an education, and free will when it comes to marriage.

Can you talk about the positive understanding of God that Islam brings to our world?

The most emphasized attribute of God in Islam is that of mercy. We begin everything (whether it's our prayers, eating food, driving, taking an exam, etc.) with the following: 'In the name of God, the all merciful, the mercy-giving.' God has many attributes, but above all, he is merciful and his mercy is endless. This is an excellent article ["Mercy: The Stamp of Creation"] that explains this all beautifully. Specifically from the paper:

... In Islam, the All-Merciful (ar-Rahman) and the Mercy-Giving (ar-Rahim) may be said to be the greatest names of God after Allah. Of all his names, they are most descriptive of his relation to the world and emphasize his will in salvation history and throughout eternity to benefit creation and ultimately bring about the triumph of supreme good over evil.

This week Pope Francis launched a yearlong a Jubilee of Mercy.

I wonder if focusing on what Christianity has in common with Islam could help ease sectarian tensions that arise from extremist understandings of a God who seeks neither vengeance nor sacrifice, but rather mercy and justice.

God abhors violence – both the ostensibly "Christian" murders at Planned Parenthood and the ostensibly "Islamist" killings (including Muslims) in San Bernardino.

Women like Nadiah bring God's healing love to women and girls and also enhance the beautiful diversity of our country. Women like Nadiah are perhaps our best defense against jihadist extremism.

Together, we must work with the All-Merciful Allah to "bring about the triumph of supreme good over evil."

[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years. She holds master's degrees in nursing and theology.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Christine Schenk's column, Simply Spirit, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

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