What’s the first image that comes to your mind when you think of a Muslim woman? Is she Arab or South Asian? White or maybe Afghan or Indonesian? Notice that I haven’t mentioned African American (and also Latina). The media depiction of Muslim women usually does not include African American women. Often, Muslim women are depicted as coming from the Middle East or South Asia, and occasionally sub-Saharan Africa. Also, there has been increasing focus on Muslimahs of European descent, especially converts such as Yvonne Ridley and Dr. Ingrid Mattson.

When African American Muslims are depicted in the media, it is usually a male face (Siraj Wahaj, Abdul Hakeem Jackson, Malcolm X, Imam Warithdeen Muhammad, etc.) that is presented to the public. There are exceptions such as Dr. Amina Wadud. However, the overall trend is rather disheartening, considering how much African American Muslimahs do for other black Muslims as well as the whole Muslim community. I have often wondered why the stories, needs and concerns of African American Muslimahs are not focused on and come up with a myriad of possible answers.

One is the sexism that black Muslimahs encounter in their own community. This is probably symptomatic of the sexism that black women as a whole face in the black community. Black Muslimahs still have a long way to go in gaining leadership positions in mosques and national organizations, such as the Muslim Alliance of North America, which focuses heavily on issues affecting African American Muslims. When there are few of us in leadership positions, it is hard for us to become the faces of the community in the media.

There’s also the racism, both covert and overt, that African Americans face in the Muslim community. Often, we’re not on the boards of masajid that aren’t predominately African American and if we are, our numbers are insignificant. African Americans are also not well represented in national organizations like ISNA, ICNA and CAIR. Also, the issues that affect African American Muslimahs are often ignored by organizations like ISNA and ICNA. When these organizations are pushed as the voice of American Muslims but lack significant input from African American Muslimahs, then it is not surprising that representation of African American Muslimahs is seriously lacking in the media.

Lastly, there is the racism of the mainstream media. On MMW, we have often discussed how Muslim women are portrayed as victims and otherized. The face of this woman is usually brown. Fatemeh has a great post about the racialization of Islam up at Racialicious. I think that this racialization of Islam leaves little space for the representation of Western Muslim women and almost no space for the representation of African American Muslim women.

While this post thus far may sound bleak, I do think that there is slow progress in getting African American Muslimahs heard. The blogosphere has provided an outlet for many African American Muslimahs to speak to the world. Not too long ago, NPR did a piece on polygyny among African American women. About four years ago, a great ethnography of African American Muslim women titled Engaged Surrender was published by the University of California press. Additionally, there has been more focus on African American Muslimahs in the entertainment industry as well. So things have been getting better. However, there needs to be more coverage of African American Muslimahs, as well as Latina Muslimahs. We are Muslim women too and we’re not invisible.

Cross posted at Muslimah Media Watch


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.