I was debating with my extended family once during a family gathering over whether Muslim women and men should be allowed to pray in the same room. I reasoned that on Judgment Day, men and women stand equally before God with no gender preference. My grandfather piped in, “No, men are superior in Islam!” We were in my uncle’s normally quite noisy Suburban, which had now gone silent at my grandfather’s words.

My family members waited a second, and then said things like, “Oh no!” and “You’re in for it now, grandfather!” They were saying all this because, for some odd reason, I am known in my family for responding vehemently to such statements (perhaps because I do). I stayed levelheaded, however, and asked my grandfather, “You mean in the Qur’an?”
“Yes!” he said.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“No, it says it!” he retorted.

After a few minutes of this yes-no business we finally got to the merits of the argument. My grandfather felt that since God’s messengers were all male, men must be superior then in God’s eyes. I countered that a woman, Khadijah, Muhammad’s wife, was the first convert to Islam. Without her faith in Muhammad, no Muslims would exist.

I offered other arguments proving gender equality in Islam, but something told me that my points were falling on deaf ears. I joked that my grandfather must have received the Taliban version of the Qur’an. The Taliban are the Islamic revolutionaries who took over the Afghanistan government and banned women from working because they said that was against their interpretations of the Qur’an. The country came to a near stand-still as half the professional population — doctors, teachers — were not allowed to work. Obviously, the Taliban had to modify some of their policies.

Though I tried to make light of the situation, I was saddened that my own grandfather would say such a thing to me, even if he believed it. Does he really think that I, as a woman, am inferior to my brother, merely because he’s male? I see in my grandfather the effects of South Asian culture, which is patriarchal, on his interpretation of the Qur’an. Sure, there are a few passages in the Qur’an that taken out of context, interpreted from a patriarchal perspective, or not updated for our times (which the Qur’an instructs us to do) imply and suggest women’s inferiority. They are by no means passages to build tenets of Islam on, however. When I asked my grandfather to show me where in the Qur’an it says that women are inferior to men, he replied that it would take him some time to find the passage. As he has still not found it, I presume it doesn’t exist or isn’t clear in its meaning.

But this is what it came to — my own grandfather — a product of his society and prejudices, saying that women are inferior to men. This despite the fact that women outnumber men in his own family. He has five granddaughters and three grandsons — it’s in his interest to see women as equal to men, maybe as superior! It hurts, but I understand that we all have to read the Qur’an and make our own interpretation. This is my jihad with my grandfather. Who knows — maybe someday my grandkids will disagree with me on a belief, emphasized by my American culture, on something similar.

The debate over the status of women in Islam is probably the best example of how culture affects interpretation. Men like my grandfather have taken a few Qur’anic passages and, coupled with a patriarchal culture, have interpreted them in the most literal and self-serving way possible. It happens in all cultures, not just among Muslims, and such chauvinism existed before Islam, perhaps even before organized religion itself. There is no Islamic basis for demeaning women or oppressing them. Culture is the culprit here, and no one really is immune from that.

American culture often favors men and holds women back. Women are paid less than men for similar jobs. We have yet to elect a female president. We’re still arguing over a woman’s right to control her body. Sexual harassment and rape are very difficult to prosecute, if ever reported. Office politics, sometimes on a subliminal level, keep women from rising to top positions. However, no one sees the American woman as severely oppressed as the Muslim woman. Women are oppressed in some countries where the majority of the population is Muslim. Their literacy rates are often quite low among many other disadvantages for advancement.

However, such oppression is not mandated by the Qur’an. It is in fact condemned by it. Furthermore, strong Muslim women are all over the place. Benazir Bhutto became the Prime Minister of Pakistan twice, which is more than we can say for a female politician in the US. My own mother runs the lives of our family as well as being a dynamic volunteer worker and fund-raiser. My dad calls her “the boss.” Here I am writing a book on Islam in America. Do I seem oppressed to you?

The challenge women like my mom and I face is to overcome the cultural baggage that haunts American Muslim women. Though women in Islamic countries are often oppressed, Islam as a philosophy is very pro-woman. However, as with all philosophies, societies and cultures, contradictions occur in the journey from paper (Qur’an) to practice (my grandfather). Because of these contradictions, Muslim women all over the world are being pulled in two different directions: one is to fulfill the traditional expectations of a Muslim woman, like marriage at a young age and raising a family, the other to explore the new roles for women in the modern world by being career women and community activists.

The problems we face — in trying to express our feminism, become activists and be independent — are acute versions of what American women in general are going through. As more American women convert to Islam and more young Muslim women like me grow up, it is in our interest, as a nation, not to be like my grandfather and rely on what we have heard through the grapevine but to encourage American Muslim women, all women in fact, to explore their identities, their strengths and instill in them the belief that they can contribute to our society, our economy, our values as much as men can.


Who is the American-Muslim woman? The Islamic Council of New England Conference (ICNE) on “Women in Islam” said all Muslim women should be knowledgeable about Islam and become mothers.1 Women are also expected to be modest and keep interaction with males to a minimum, making activities outside the home difficult.2 According to Aminah McCloud, these aspects associated with the term “Muslim woman” arrived upon the American Islamic scene with Muslim immigrants in the later part of the twentieth century; these immigrant Muslim women wore strict Islamic dress and were committed to raising children as well as being obedient to their husbands.3

These traditional views are not the only choices, however. Jane Smith, a scholar on Islam, presents a more open view in her essay “Islam” in the book Women in World Religions: “The new Islamic woman. . .is morally and religiously conservative and affirms the absolute value of the true Islamic system for human relationships.” This new Muslim woman disagrees with an interpretation of Islam that oppresses women. She is quite open to educational and professional advancement for herself, though she may think some professions are more appropriate for women than others. Additionally, she does not mind extending sole decision-making power to a male member of her family in certain circumstances in return for security.4

In reality, today’s American Muslim female community is a mix of all these models: educated and uneducated, married and unmarried, liberal and conservative, as diverse a population as American women in general. For example, I am educated, do not wear hijab, expect to have a career, a good marriage (possibly arranged), and kids. You’re probably thinking that those expectations are not all that different from the average American woman you know, with the exception of the hijab and arranged marriage comment.

For many Muslim girls, arranged marriage to an older man is no more odd than dating and marrying one of your older brother’s friends or someone you met at work is for the average non-Muslim. The same is true of hijab. Muslims have been exposed to these traditional aspects of Islam for most of their lives.

American Muslim women are really between two worlds: the old world of traditions, preserved and passed down by immigrant parents or older members of the indigenous community, and the new world, as presented to us by the feminist movement, American emphasis on gender equality and by the Qur’an, in a sense, too.


The idea of a Muslim feminist also strikes Americans as odd. American Muslim women are in the unique and paradoxical position of living in a society where they are free to explore their religion but are stereotyped by the greater population of their country as oppressed women. The West cites its perceptions of arranged marriages, polygamy (actually polygyny, meaning a plurality of wives), veiling and other aspects of Islamic life that are perceived to degrade women as evidence of Islam’s cultural inferiority.5

At the same time as they encounter this criticism, American Muslim women are re-discovering the freedoms Islam gives them. Muslims believe that God revealed to Prophet Muhammad several provisions emphasizing a woman’s independence, provisions which are recorded in the Qur’an. Of particular note is that in the Qur’an, Eve is created independently of Adam, providing no Qur’anic basis for women’s existence as the result of the creation of men.

In the Qur’an, men and women are fully equal before God. Marriage is a contract to be negotiated, even to the woman’s benefit, and, women have the right to divorce, one of many Qur’anic “innovations” that “. . .brought legal advantages for women quite unknown in corresponding areas of the Western Christian world,” says Jane Smith.6 Other innovations include the right to property and the right to inherit money.7 According to Islamic law, a woman can keep her maiden name and her personal income. Islam also grants women the right to participate in political affairs (imagine, if we had all followed the Qur’an, there would have been no need for the suffragette movement), to stand equally with men in the eyes of the law, to receive child support in the event of a divorce, to seek employment and education, to take or turn down a marriage proposal and to live free from spousal abuse.8 Islam also gives women high status as mothers, to be respected and admired by their children. On two occasions the Prophet highlighted the mother’s role, telling one follower to stay with his mother rather than join the military, “. . .for Paradise is at her feet.”9 Muslim women also can draw on a history of strong women, particularly those women who lived in Muhammad’s time.10 Some Muslims even support a woman’s right to abortion because the procedure is believed to have been performed in the Prophet’s time without his dissent.11


However, along with Qur’anic tradition, one is also subject to other traditions that, over centuries of time, have come to be associated with being Muslim, though they may have nothing to do with Islam, like female circumcision (an African tribal custom) and an emphasis on marriage. Furthermore, women bear the brunt of traditional aspects of cultures associated with Islam — like wearing hijab. Algerian lawyer and specialist in Muslim women’s rights for UNESCO, Wassyla Tamzali, told The New York Times, “. . .[W]omen symbolize tradition and cultural identity. It is as if the whole burden of the Islamic tradition rests on their shoulders.”12 Rifaat Hassan, an American Muslim scholar, writes, “Even when a Muslim woman is able to acquire an education and secure a job, she is seldom able to free herself from the burden of traditionalism that confronts her on all sides.”13

This coercive nature of traditional aspects of Islam manifests itself in America with an emphasis on marriage, in my opinion. Young Muslim women are bombarded with messages of not only the importance of marriage but marriage at a young age. Even with parents and families like mine, who show hardly any vestiges of traditionalism or conservatism (grandfathers notwithstanding), the pressure for daughters to marry young is strong. That is a part of American-Muslim culture, for better or for worse. I’d be lying if I said I was being pressured to marry soon by my community. There doesn’t seem to be a really good reason to, other than marriage in our culture is a preferred alternative to dating, as sex outside of marriage is haram (unlawful). Marriage at a young age or marriage at all is not a religious obligation, but the centrality of family in Islamic culture makes marriage very important. In addition, marriage means acceptance into the Muslim social community. For example, Carol Anway, who surveyed American women who converted to Islam and wrote Daughters of Another Path: Experiences of American Women Choosing Islam, found that unmarried respondents sometimes feel uncomfortable among other Muslims because they are not married.14

The importance of marriage in the American Muslim community is exemplified by the myriad ways the community has developed for finding a spouse: personal advertisements in Islamic publications, matrimonial booths at Islamic conferences, enlisting peers in a search or through “word of mouth” and mosque-arranged singles gatherings.15 American Islamic publications run how-to articles on finding a spouse. Marriage is so important that immigrant parents worry about a scarcity of young Muslim men for their daughters; some even wonder if the Islamic law allowing Muslim men to marry Christian or Jewish women should be rescinded in America.16

However, today’s Muslim woman is not necessarily doomed to failure because she marries young, according to traditional values. In many ways, it’s good that the community is taking an active role in pairing off the young ones. As a result of parental flexibility and the perception of a scarcity of Muslims of similar ages, inter-ethnic marriages have become more popular, particularly intermarriage between racial backgrounds. That sounds like the American dream to me: young married people, sometimes of diverse backgrounds, with a stable financial footing and strong family setting.


A more subtle form of oppression against American Muslim women is carried out by American Muslim men who feel threatened by modern American culture. Rifaat Hassan writes, “Nothing perhaps illustrates men’s deep insecurities. . .so well as the sternness and strictness with which they compel their women to cover themselves from head to foot and keep them confined to their houses.”17 Kathleen Gough’s essay, “The Origin of the Family,” says that one of the characteristics of male power is physical confinement and prevention of movement of women; this characteristic is manifested by purdah (the separation of men and women at all gatherings especially during prayer, which has no solid Qur’anic basis but is practiced by most Muslims) and hijab.18 Muslim men, and eventually the females in their community, force hijab and severe forms of modesty on women that result in gender segregation.19 Such behavior is sometimes coerced through community attitudes onto Muslim women and chalked up to the noble purpose of protecting women. These attitudes are reminiscent of how the Christian male group, the Promisekeepers, allegedly protect their women. With both groups, a fine line exists between protection and encouragement versus oppression and suppression.

Enforcing certain standards of behavior on the women of their community probably confirms the worthiness of their efforts to live as Muslims in America (or as Promisekeepers), as if to show visibly that they are succeeding. Some efforts at protecting American Muslim women originate from genuine worries; most do not. Louis Farrakhan seems sincere in A Torchlight for America:

There are sanctuaries for birds.
There are seasons when you
can’t hunt certain animals.
But it’s open season on women
all the time. Women are
constantly bombarded by
sexual advances and negative
messages so much so that
they are often put into vulnerable
positions that bring evil

His sentiment is admirable and speaks to a woman embattled by emphasis on her appearance and sexual harassment at the workplace. However, most male protective efforts seem motivated by paranoid feelings and result in restricting women’s activities. A Muslim Journal article quotes a prominent African-American Muslim man as saying,

“These non-Muslims love
Muslim girls. . .It is no secret
that the young Muslim girls are
virgins and they are chaste and
look beautiful. So we are
victimized and subjected to that
kind of pressure and tension. . .
And it is becoming increasingly
more difficult to deal with that
in this society.”21

His words show how he, and probably others, see the preservation of Muslim girls’ chastity as a barometer of their success as American Muslims. As a result, women are often pressured by their communities to be and act a certain way.

Many Muslim women consent to their own subjugation because they believe “boys will be boys.” A female kindergarten teacher in her mid-twenties said in an interview, “Many people think we’re [NOI and Muslim women] covered just to hide our bodies, but the main reason is that men are still in the beast stage.”22 A parent of one of the converts surveyed by Carol Anway responds, “‘I feel like Islamic men are so afraid of their sexuality that the women have the burden of helping them control it.'”23 I’m not sure that American Muslim men necessarily have American Muslim women’s best interests at heart. It should be up to women to decide how they will conduct themselves.
Opportunities for American Muslim Women: Feminism in the New World

Though the problems Muslim women face seem insurmountable, women can improve their situation by taking advantage of the opportunities a Muslim woman has in America. Living in the US is positively affecting the lives of American Muslim women in two ways: 1) American culture encourages female participation in religious activities and 2) Muslim women are readily able to learn Arabic, read the Qur’an and analyze the Qur’an for themselves.

One of the greatest phenomena occurring in the Muslim world today is Qur’anic exegesis by Muslim feminists. The Qur’an, a book regarded as the divine word for over 1400 years, is being interpreted from a non-male perspective on a large scale for the first time ever. A diverse group of the world’s female Muslims are “. . .fundamentally rework[ing Islam]. . .from a feminist and egalitarian point of view.”24 Their work is controversial because they are trying to prove that the Qur’an does not support oppression of women without undermining or questioning the validity of the Qur’an itself, only certain interpretations. Some credit the Beijing United Nations Conference on women as bringing this intellectual, yet politically charged, dialogue to the surface, and now, the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy and the Council on Foreign Relations are funding projects in this area.25

I say it’s about time. For 1400 years, men like my grandfather have told women like me what the Qur’an says. I’m not saying all those men are wrong. And frankly, the only interpretations I’m really interested in challenging are the ones regarding women’s so-called inferiority. I’m just saying that now that women have an opportunity to be literate, to read the Qur’an in Arabic and tell us if they think God made men superior, let’s have a listen!

The core complaint of these feminist Muslim theologians is that though the Qur’an is clear in its support of women’s rights, men have been interpreting the Qur’an to their own advantage since its revelation. Amina Wadud-Muhsin, Philosophy and Religion Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, says, “[N]ow. . .many women are making the point that. . .men’s interpretation of our religion. . .has limited women’s progress, not our religion itself.” For example, the gender segregation during prayer now suggests inferiority on women’s part when, in actuality, the Prophet initiated the practice so that women would not have to prostrate in front of men.26 Realizing that a male perception of Islam has been used and accepted for centuries, Muslim women are taking back their right to Qur’anic education and interpretation.

The movement is part of an Islamic renaissance worldwide that gave Muslim women the opportunity to study Islam, with a leader of the intellectual debate in America — Muslim theologian and feminist Rifaat Hassan at the University of Louisville. Critics of the movement, orthodox and mainstream Muslims, claim that it is yet another tactic to discredit Islam. Rifaat Hassan, a religion professor, believes that “What we are witnessing today is the beginning of one of Islam’s greatest revolutions, the women’s revolution.” Feminist scholars like Hassan feel they are strengthening Islam against the standard Western criticisms of female oppression.27

For example, American Muslim men are trying their best to explain Surah [Qur’anic chapter] 2:228 and 4:34, passages emphasizing men’s superiority. The dominant translation of 4:34, one handed down over centuries, advocates hitting one’s wife lightly in extreme cases.28 A.J. Arberry’s translation reads, “And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them.”29 Kamran Memon says of this troublesome passage in his article “Wife Abuse in the Muslim Community”:

Tragically, some Muslim men
actually use Islam to “justify”
their abusive behavior. Focusing
on rituals, considering themselves
to be Islamically knowledgeable,
and disregarding the spirit of Islam,
they wrongly use the Qur’anic verse
that says men are the protectors
and maintainers of women to go on
power trips, demand total
obedience, and order their wives
around. They disregard the Islamic
requirement for the head of the
household to consult with other
members of the family when making
decisions. Then, if their wives dare
to speak up or question their orders,
these men misinterpret a Qur’anic
verse that talks about how to treat a
disobedient wife and use it as a license
for abuse.30

Muslim women are re-interpreting the texts for themselves and pointing out alternate, less controversial, and possibly more accurate interpretations. The usual explanation, which Memon cites, of the more offensive translation (including the instructions to beat) is that men, in Islam, have the large burden of keeping their houses in order and must carry out their responsibilities as they see fit.31 Hassan’s analysis gives a different perspective:

The first point to be noted is that it
[the Qur’anic passage that is
interpreted to advocate beating]
is addressed to ar-rijal
(“the men”) and to an-nisaa
(“the women”). In other words, it
is addressed to all men and women
of the Islamic community. . .Here,
it is important to point out that
the Arabic word that is generally
translated as “beating,” when used
in a legal context as it is here, means
“holding in confinement,” according
to the authoritative lexicon
Taj al-‘Arus. . .I have
analyzed sura 4, verse 34 in order
to show how the words of the
Qur’an have been mistranslated in
order to make men the masters and
women the slaves.32

* * * * * * *

Though not all American Muslim women can be scholars like Hassan, they can benefit from the American tradition of women participating in church activities every Sunday. Women participate in and run fundraising activities, and they attend the Sunday service as well as teach Sunday School.

American ideals have influenced Islamic religious practice in those two ways: women are recognized as suitable teachers, and activities are held on the American holy day, Sunday. Immigrant women’s participation in the mosque is definitely greater in the United States than in most of the Islamic world. For both immigrants and American-born women, participating in mosque activities can be empowering when they take the opportunity. If it weren’t for American culture that emphasized Sundays as a gathering day for everyone in the family, American Muslim women may never have gained leadership roles in the mosque. In this case, American culture has trumped chauvinistic immigrant culture.


Just as they’re not waiting for men to start translating the Qur’an for them, Muslim women are also not waiting around for men to solve community problems that affect Muslim women, specifically by opening women’s shelters. The shelters exemplify what American Muslim women can achieve when they work together and how American Muslim women can positively affect American society. These shelters are needed; M. Riaz Khan writes in Islamic Horizons that, “The number of instances of domestic violence in many Muslim communities is steadily rising.”33 Memon writes, “Based on information from Muslim leaders, socials workers, and activists in North America, the North American Council for Muslim Women says that approximately 10 percent of Muslim women are abused emotionally, physically, and sexually by their Muslim husbands.”34

Two women’s shelters in America cater to Muslim women, Apna Ghar and Niswa. Because they receive government funds, they are both open to all needy women. The two shelters also are financed by private donations. Apna Ghar, which means “our house” in Hindi, is the older of the two shelters. Apna Ghar, located in Chicago, Illinois, “. . .is the result of cooperative efforts initiated by Asian ethnic minority and immigrant communities,” including Muslims of South Asian descent. Their primary goal is to house temporarily women and children seeking shelter from domestic violence in order to “. . .enhance their sense of dignity and self respect. . .” Responding to reports of increasing violence in Asian-American households, Apna Ghar opened in 1989, the first shelter of its kind. Highlights of the services provided from July 1996 to June 1997 are 368 hours of advocacy on issues ranging from housing and literacy to child care, 2,668 hours of counseling, handling of 1,344 hotline calls, assistance in obtaining jobs for 133 individuals, 754 hours of legal advocacy, and providing shelter for 136 women and children among other services.35

The second shelter is run by an organization called Niswa, which stands for the National Islamic Society of Women of America, a group founded in 1990 that “. . .seeks to provide aid to needy Muslim families, single mothers and children, and victims of war and other disasters.”36 Their name also means “women” in Arabic. In September 1996, Niswa opened the Amina Adaya shelter, named after its benefactor, for women victimized by domestic abuse. “Niswa is uniquely equipped to serve those. . .of Middle Eastern and South Asian background, with special cultural and language needs.” The Niswashelter offers services similar to Apna Ghar’s: a 24-hour hotline, counseling, legal advocacy, and services for children among others.37

The women who founded and run these shelters are impressive and an example for all Muslims to follow. Shahmim Ibrahim, a Muslim of South Asian descent, founded Niswa. She emigrated to the United States in the 70s and is a trained psychotherapist. She says,

. . .[T]here were no social
service organizations in
our community here.
There were many, many
mosques. . .Their hands are
full with lectures, weddings,
Juma [Friday]
prayers. . .we needed this
organization so we can meet
the social welfare needs of
the community. . .I got two
or three women together,
and I told them about the idea,
that it’s about time that we
did something.

After becoming incorporated as a non-profit organization, their workload increased, defining their activities: “We never dreamed when we formed that we would be opening a shelter. . .[T]he needs kept arising.”38

Ibrahim’s counterpart at Apna Ghar, Najma Adam, has a similarly activist attitude. Like Ibrahim, the Executive Director of Apna Ghar at the time of my research is of South Asian descent and Muslim; she was born in Uganda, however, and moved to the United States as a young child. She has a Master of Arts in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago and, since I conducted my research, has left Apna Ghar to seek full-time a doctorate from the Jane Addams School of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She worries about how a Muslim woman’s accusations of abuse are downplayed in the Islamic community by male religious leaders:

I appreciate Islam, but give
me a break. Islam does not
say. . .use force. . .[W]hen. . .
[a] woman sits in my office. . .
crying. . .and she’s got scars
everywhere to show for
[the abuse]. . .I. . .want to. . .
say. . .[w]here in the Qur’an does
it [advocate abuse]? A man
should not do that and. . .
religious figures will always be
biased. . .towards the man.39

Adam’s assessment is serious and definitely controversial in the American Muslim and Islamic world. The abuse, however, appears to be indisputable and must be dealt with.

Memon agrees with Adam the abuse is often overlooked, especially verbal abuse:

Although it’s completely
contrary to the example
of Prophet Muhammad,
peace be upon him, the Muslim
community nonetheless tends
to dismiss the seriousness
of mental abuse, rationalizing
it as a petty argument between
husband and wife, and saying
it’s not serious unless he hits
her. In reality, mental abuse
does severe psychological
harm to many Muslim women.40

Memon continues to say that, though domestic abuse is totally unacceptable in Islam, “For cultural reasons, some Muslim men accept the idea that it’s normal for a man to hit his wife and that she is no more than a piece of his property.”41 Imams are little help either says Memon. They advise abused women to pray for the abuse to end and to be patient. Some even accuse the woman of being responsible for brining on the abuse and make them feel guilty and send them back home to their abuser. Some imams misinterpret Islam’s emphasis on family privacy and tell women to keep family matters to themselves. “The imams’s [sic] reactions stem from ignorance, cowardice, or friend-ship or blood relationship with the abusive husbands. Relatively few imams have had the wisdom and courage to tackle the problem head-on.” As a result of this, many abused women don’t bother turning to imams for help.42

Women like Adam and Ibrahim are there to help another Muslim woman face the problem without feeling ashamed. Adam says, “It helps that I’m Muslim so I can say to her, ‘I’m Muslim too.'”43 It is common sense that counseling to deal with these issues would be better performed by fellow Muslims because they would be aware understand Islamic culture, attitudes and family life.

Apna Ghar has many success stories. Apna Ghar and Niswa have fought hard to re-build the lives of women and children who are abused physically and emotionally, a difficult task considering both shelters’ aim is to keep families together peacefully. Both Ibrahim and Adam emphasize that what their shelter needs most though is money to pay for legal services, improvements to the overutilized shelters and employing additional staff to handle an increasing workload.44 Memon says that currently, the American Muslim community only covers about a quarter of community needs in this area.45 It’s people like Ibrahim and Adam, though they are immigrant Muslim women, who are truly living the American spirit of civic duty.

In the US, where women are encouraged to become involved in their communities by serving on the school board and other activities, it is easier for Muslim women like Ibrahim and Adam to heed the call to civic duty. Muslim women will increasingly become involved in improving their communities, acting primarily and initially as mothers, but really affecting their towns as good citizens. Add that work to the continued interest among American Muslim women in social services for Muslim women such as shelters, and you have a group that’s working hard to fix some of America’s problems. The American culture of activism causes Muslim women to challenge themselves to live beyond traditional expectations, re-discover the aspects of Islam that support women’s liberation, and, overall, go for it!


Speaking generally, opportunities for American Muslim women to unify as a group are happening today. With more young Muslim women attending college, they will interact with a variety of Muslim women (and men) and perhaps learn to function as a group of American Muslim women and not as representatives of their culture only.

In addition, as the shortage of men within a particular ethnic group continues, a fact true for both Palestinians and African-Americans, young women with their mothers’ blessings will sacrifice a shared heritage with their spouse for shared religion with their spouse, as it should be in America.46 Ethnic groups will be less clannish as more inter-ethnic marriages take place, leading to inter-ethnic unity and support among Muslim women.

Already, American Muslim women born to immigrant families call themselves feminists, and their families do not reject, in fact, accept them for their views.47 Perhaps someday, mothers may even see higher education as more than bait for a suitable husband but as a means of empowerment and improvement for their daughters.

A small minority of American Muslims say Americanization and the mixing of the sexes among American Muslims will come to an end, that the progress Muslim women have made will cease as American Muslims become even more conservative. That view is incorrect.

The Islamic principles of ethnic and gender equality are being tested in America, and the combination of American activism and women’s liberation according to the Qur’an will continue to bring American Muslim women together. From the emotionally and intellectually charged debate over hijab (see Close-Up) to a suburban Muslim family contemplating a proposal of arranged marriage, the choices of American Muslim women will serve as a barometer of Islam’s future in America, and the signs are, in many respects, highly promising.

1 “Women in Islam,” Islamic Council of New England Conference. Durham, New Hampshire, 5 Oct. 1996.

2 Jane I. Smith, “Islam,” Women in World Religions, ed. Arvind Sharma (Albany: SUNY P, 1987) 247.

3 McCloud, African-American Islam 147.

4 Smith, “Islam” 249.

5 Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Contemporary Islam and the Challenge of History (Albany: SUNY P, 1982) 54.

6 Smith, “Islam” 238, 239, 236.

7 A Muslim woman could only inherit half as much money as a man could because a man was expected to contribute at least half of his inheritance to family needs. A woman’s money was her own and was therefore not expected to be used toward family expenses.

8 Jamal Badawi. Gender Equity in Islam: Basic Principles. Plainfield, IN: American Trust Publications (1995).

9 Saleem Kayani. Status of Woman in Islam. Jamaica, NY: Islamic Circle of North America, 1996.

10 See Marcia K. Hermansen, “The Female Hero in the Islamic Religious Tradition,” The Annual Review of Women in World Religions II (1992): 111-143.

11 Zehra Panjvani, “Women in Islam,” Islamic Council of New England Conference. Durham, New Hampshire, 5 Oct. 1996.

12 Marlise Simons, “Cry of Muslim Women for Equal Rights is Rising,” New York Times 9 Mar. 1998: A1.

13 Rifaat Hassan, “Women in the Context of Change and Confrontation within Muslim Communities,” Women of Faith in Dialogue, ed. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott (New York: Crossroad, 1987) 98.

14 Carol L. Anway, Daughters of Another Path (Lee’s Summit, MO: Yawna Publications, 1996) 7.

15 Anway, Daughters of Another Path 116. McCloud, African-American Islam 98.

16 Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Adair T. Lummis, Islamic Values in the United States: A Comparative Study (New York: Oxford UP, 1987) 147.

17 Hassan, “Women in the Context of Change and Confrontation within Muslim Communities” 108.

18 Kathleen Gough, “The Origin of Family,” Toward an Anthropology of Women ed. Rayna Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975) 69-70.

19 Marianne Ferguson, Women and Religion (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995) 113.

20 Louis Farrakhan, A Torchlight for America (Chicago: FCN Publishing, 1993) 59.

21 Richard Abdus-Saboor, “America’s impact on the Muslim family,” Muslim Journal 19 Jan. 1990: 9.

22 “Voices of the Faithful” 18.

23 Anway, Daughters of Another Path 99.

24 Barbara Crossette, “Women’s Rights Gaining Attention Within Islam,” New York Times 12 May 1996: A3.

25 Crossette, “Women’s Rights Gaining Attention Within Islam” A3.

26 Diego Ribadeneira, “Questions on the Koran: Some Islamic women challenge interpretations they say have hurt their gender,” Boston Globe 15 Jan. 1997: A1. Ribadeneira’s article is an excellent overview of the Islamic feminist dialogue.

27 Ribadeneira, “Questions on the Koran” A12.

28 See Athar, Reflections of an American Muslim 32. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, “Issues and Questions,” Pakistan Link 8 Nov. 1996: A17.

29 The Koran Interpreted, trans. A. J. Arberry (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1955) 106.

30 Kamran Memon, “Wife Abuse in the Muslim Community,” Islamic Horizons Mar./Apr. 1993: 14.

31 Smith, “Islam” 236.

32 Hassan, “Women in the Context of Change and Confrontation within Muslim Communities” 98, 102, 104, 105.

33 M. Riaz Khan, “Domestic Violence: American Muslim Families Not Immune,” Islamic Horizons Jul./Aug. 1995: 29.

34 Memon, “Wife Abuse in the Muslim Community” 12.

35 Apna Ghar, Program for Tapestries in the Looms of Time (Chicago: Apna Ghar, 1997).

36 Niswa Association, Niswa Association Pamphlet (Lomita, CA: Niswa Association, 1997).

37 Niswa Association, Niswa Association Mission Statement (Lomita, CA: Niswa Association, 1996).

38 Shahmim Ibrahim, personal interview, 14 Aug. 1996.

39 Najma Adam, personal interview, 21 Sep. 1996.

40 Memon, “Wife Abuse in the Muslim Community” 12.

41 Memon, “Wife Abuse in the Muslim Community” 14.

42 Memon, “Wife Abuse in the Muslim Community” 16.

43 Najma Adam, personal interview.

44 Shahmim Ibrahim, personal interview. Najma Adam, personal interview.

45 Memon, “Wife Abuse in the Muslim Community” 16.

46 Louise Cainkar, “Palestinian Women in American Society: The Interaction of Social Class, Culture and Politics,” The Development of Arab-American Identity. ed. Ernest McCarus (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994) 100. Beverly Thomas McCloud, “African-American Muslim Women,” The Muslims of America, ed. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad (New York: Oxford UP, 1991) 182.

47 Anway, Daughters of Another Path 85-86. Da Ponte, “A matter of faith” 14.