New York, New York - African American Muslim women are a rare gift in that we have a unique perspective on what it means to be Muslim in the United States. Our historical references as women are specifically honed and readily available to address issues of oppression and struggle for liberation as well as opportunity and success.
We have experience communicating with those different from us in faith and culture; we have the stamina needed for a sustained struggle in the interest of social justice. Our lives are intertwined with those who oppress and those who seek to liberate.
Most of us were not raised by Muslim parents; we grew up in predominantly Christian households and were schooled in ethics, community service and self-reliance. But we were looking for a new spirituality. We wanted a new way of life that would speak to our current existence while taking into consideration our exigent past. Islam was the answer.
When we adopted Islam, the teachings that were already ingrained in us – such as the respect of parents and elders, responsibility to family, kin and neighbours, a strong work ethic and commitment to self-improvement – became even more pronounced. Our new religion provided us with a structure for the lessons we'd been taught throughout our lives.
Many African American Muslim women actively sought out new avenues of spiritual enlightenment through research and interaction with other Muslims, especially in more urban environments, while others embraced Islam after meeting and marrying Muslims from other countries. Of all the reasons we chose Islam, one of the most compelling was the religion's emphasis on family.
Still others chose Islam for the status afforded to Muslim women, as in my case. We saw in Islam the opportunity to re-create ourselves as women. Many of us even changed our names. We were not seeking to assimilate into the society – indeed we were already well assimilated. We knew that we could be powerful because of our spirituality – not in spite of it.
We continue to be nourished by the daily practice of Islam. We lay claim to the strong women who surrounded the Prophet Muhammad, such as his wife Khadija, as our role models. They forged a clear path for us since they were among the first Muslims and, like us, had embraced Islam while living in a predominantly non-Muslim society.
Many Muslim women struggle against cultural oppression within their societies. But while immigrant Muslim women struggle as new minorities in the dominant culture, the African American Muslim woman has a knack for understanding the terrain that must be scaled due to our historical knowledge of how oppression manifests itself.
We carry the scars of centuries of enslavement and the residual effects that persist to this day. We have lost – and continue to lose – our children and loved ones to pernicious institutional racism manifested through policies of abuse and neglect, such as economic deprivation, criminalisation of our youth, substandard health care, and inferior education. Based on these experiences, we can offer lessons learned to Muslim immigrants struggling to realise the promises America makes to new arrivals. At the country's doorstep, Ellis Island, we say to them, "Give me your tired, your poor huddled masses yearning to be free".
Many of us have come to feel that Islam has been a vehicle of empowerment for African Americans, and African American women specifically. We can thus speak concretely about the vast potential the religion offers not only to women, but all humanity, in the realm of personal spirituality, community, equality and justice.
Given our unique perspective on history, we are prepared to engage in struggles for social justice both within the Muslim community as well as for all Americans, and indeed, every global citizen. But we cannot call for constructive change in the larger society and not address the social ills within our own ranks.
Issues such as honour killings and domestic violence must be addressed and resolved. We must help break down the cultural barriers that prevent all Muslim women from seeking education, attending mosque, and participating in Islamic organisations and civic projects. Failing to do so would be in direct contradiction to the examples of those very women we have taken as our mentors.
At the same time, we also seek opportunities to build coalitions with others across racial, religious, ethnic and socio-economic lines to bring about equality, equity and harmony not only for ourselves but also our neighbours. The historical experiences of African Americans, combined with those of Muslim women, have taught us the value of collective effort for peace and social justice.
* Aisha H.L. al-Adawiya is the founder and executive director of Women in Islam, Inc., an organisation of Muslim women that focuses on human rights and social justice. This article is part of a series on African American Muslims written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
Source: Common Ground News Service, 3 June 2008, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
The women of Tunisia have a decisive role to play in shaping Tunisia's future. Fatma Ben Saïdane reminds women of the power of their vote and the importance of civic engagement.
"CGNews is the most successful service I know of when it comes to placing timely,
important and thought-provoking opinion-pieces that illuminate intra-Muslim and
so-called 'Muslim-Western' debates in important print media outlets. The ability to do so consistently and over as broad an
array of media outlets across geographical, linguistic, and ideological editorial barriers is what makes CGNews stand out. Keep the articles coming."
- Shamil Idriss, Former Acting Director of the Secretariat for the UN Alliance of Civilizations
It takes 200+ hours a week to produce CGNews. We rely on readers like you to make it happen. If you find our stories informative or inspiring, help us share these underreported perspectives with audiences around the world.