Any Muslimah is familiar with Muslim women role models of the past. We have Fatimah and Khadijah (ra). I include ‘Aisha (ra) in this list (for Sunnis at least) but I think that the perception of ‘Aisha by Muslim scholars through the ages has been less clear than the former two. While ‘Aisha is praised for her knowledge of hadeeth and her devotion to the Prophet, she is not praised for other actions such as her leading role in the battle of the camel. Because of actions like this, ‘Aisha has, at times, been associated with fitnah (chaos, confusion) by the ‘ulama. I also think she has been somewhat associated with fitnah because she challenged norms of proper gender roles for women. Despite this, she is still considered a role model by many Muslim women and even Muslim scholars.

All of these women lived over 1400 years ago. I think that unfortunately, there has been little emphasis on modern role models for Muslim women of the present. Many books on written for Muslim women are abundant with information on the women I mentioned above. Books may even have information on Hafsa and Umm Salaama (ra). However, one is often left with the impression that Muslim women haven’t done much since the time of the sahabah. One gets the impression that women had little influence on Islamic societies, especially during the “golden age” of Islamic history and that they continue to have little influence in the present.

Muslims girls and Muslim women need to know that we have always made impacts in our societies, and that we continue to do so. They need to know that we have not just been wives and mothers who are supportive of leaders, but that we have been leaders ourselves. Umm Hani (d. 1466) was a distinguished scholar of Qur’an and hadeeth. Another woman, Khadijah bint ‘Ali (d. 1468) was a scholar of Qur’an and hadeeth as well as a calligrapher. She taught women as well as men. I learned about these women and others not from traditional books for Muslim women but from Women and Gender in Islam, the famous book written by Leila Ahmed. A more controversial figure is Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya, a Sufi mystic who spoke heavily of her love of God and who also did not get married because of her devotion to God. One of my favorite quotes by her is “O my Lord,” she prayed, “if I worship Thee from fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me thence, but if I worship Thee for Thine own sake, then withhold not from me Thine Eternal Beauty.”

There are role models for modern Muslim too. Shirin Ebadi was the first Muslim woman and also the first Iranian to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She won the award for fights for human rights, especially for women and children. Ingrid Mattson is the first woman to ever be President of ISNA (Islamic Society of North America).

Muslim women have always had role models to look up to. The problem though, is that many of these women do not get the attention they deserve. They don’t get the attention they deserve in books written by traditional (I use traditional for lack of a better term) scholars. Muslim women are left looking up to Khadijah, Fatimah, Mary, ‘Aisha and other figures centuries past. Many of us often left wondering if we still have a significant role in the deen outside of mother and wife. By highlighting Muslim women who have made their mark, Muslim women will know that yes, they still do have a significant role in the deen and they will fight for it.