Islamic Women’s Organizations in North America
Islamic Women’s Organizations in North America
- Samaneh Oladi GhadikolaeiSamaneh Oladi GhadikolaeiSchool of World Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University
Muslim women are an integral part of North American society. However, these women face challenges as they expand on their identities independent from the ones delineated by Western and Muslim communities. Muslim women across North America face multiple tiers of discrimination rooted in patriarchy, Orientalism, and challenges associated with migration. On the one hand, they are confronted with neo-Orientalist portrayals of Muslim women that reduce their identities to submissive subjects and their religion to violence and extremism. On the other hand, these women encounter different intersections of oppression, including sexism and racism, both within and outside of their religious communities. Muslim women have responded to these challenges by actively participating in North American civic and religious discourses. It is crucial to acknowledge that Muslim women’s civic participation is not merely a reaction to the challenges posed by Orientalism, sexism, or racism, but it is also driven by their religious beliefs and values. Muslim women actively participate in civic affairs as a means of fulfilling their faith commitments, and they are active agents of change, motivated by their faith commitments to create a more just and equitable society.
The current article examines women-led Islamic organizations in North America that provide services and support Muslim women in the region in different capacities. These women face unique challenges that are not adequately addressed by Muslim and non-Muslim civil rights advocacy groups and women’s rights organizations in North America. By establishing such organizations, women-led Islamic organizations are attempting to fill this gap and offer interventions in support of Muslim women that disrupt the popular discourse of representation and interpretation of Islam in North America. The services offered by these female-led organizations range from battling sexism in their communities to supporting domestic and sexual abuse survivors to offering Islamic education to Muslim women regarding their rights with the aim of advancing gender justice.
The rise in Muslim women’s activism is redefining and paving the way for the emergence of new identities that bring aspects of these women’s Western and Muslim identities into conversation. While women have contributed to their communities in a myriad of ways without necessarily adopting a reformist agenda, there is a visible increase in activism and involvement in civil society organization that can be interpreted as an emerging impetus for reform in traditionally male-dominated spaces of leadership. Considering that Islamic scholarship and leadership has traditionally been governed by men, women’s activism unsettles normative assumptions about gender hierarchy and marginalization of women in Islamic organizations and communities. By actively engaging in the formation and restructuring of these organizations, Muslim women advance gender justice, both intentionally and inadvertently, in the Islamic tradition and their communities. In a departure from the approach adopted by secular organizations that support women, Islamic women’s organizations regard religion as a means to empower women and an alternative frame of reference for understanding and addressing their unique needs. By addressing women’s issues within an Islamic framework and tackling the central causes of women’s disempowerment and grievances, women’s organizations informed by Islamic principles empower Muslim women to actively participate in constructing their identities and meaningfully contributing to society. Muslim women’s activism and their exercise of authority as leaders of organizations and interpreters of religious knowledge have left a mark on the civic, religious, and political landscape of North America. A steady surge in women’s involvement in Islamic organizations is taking place organically, and women’s contributions to Islamic knowledge carry important implications for societal development and gender relations.
- Islamic Studies
- Religion in America
Muslim Women in North America: Identity Negotiation
Muslim women across North America embody intersectional identities, including immigrants, first- and second-generation Muslims, converts, and native-born women who come from various socioeconomic, ideological, sectarian, and political backgrounds.1 It is essential to acknowledge from the outset that the notion of a monolithic, unitary “Muslim woman” who can represent the diverse breadth of experiences and grievances of women who identify as Muslim is a fallacy. Consequently, women who work in Islamic organizations come from different educational, sociopolitical, and ideological backgrounds as well. Some demonstrate their activism and scholarship through a reformist agenda, while others are committed to promoting a conventional agenda. The reformists advocate for a more progressive and inclusive interpretation of Islamic scripture that promotes universal principles such as human rights, gender equality, and social justice. This is while some activists take a more traditional approach and promote gender roles that conform to conventional norms.
Considering the diversity of women’s organizations, the term gender justice refers to their activism as it encompasses aspects of both equity and equality. It is important to note that in some Muslim communities the term equality can be controversial because it may be perceived as promoting gender sameness and associated with secular feminism, which views religion as oppressive. To address this concern, a more-inclusive concept called gender justice is used, which not only includes Islamic principles underlying gender relations but also advances a symbiotic relationship between genders, instead of promoting sameness.
As Muslim women navigate various aspects of their identities, they have engaged in different forms of critical resistance that trace the complex ways in which they have embraced their social and spiritual identities. Such resistance is exemplified by women’s participation in Islamic organizations that extend beyond the rigid and impoverished binaries informing Muslim women’s identity formation and identity restructuring. Concurrently, the depiction of Islam and Muslims has changed throughout the centuries. In his book A History of Islam in America, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri demonstrates how Muslimness and American identities can intersect, yet at other times are inadvertently, purposefully, or artificially forced apart.2 American Muslim women are similarly challenging the binary construction of Islam versus the West, and through their activism they provide a more fluid representation of the relationship between their religion and the West.
Muslim women’s activism in the United States boasts a rich history, dating back to the early 20th century. Female activists have played a significant role by advocating for the rights and well-being of Muslim women, offering support, and fostering a sense of community. Muslim women’s activism potentially dates back to the era of the transatlantic slave trade. Scholars like Sylviane Diouf argue that despite the harsh conditions of enslavement, Muslims managed to navigate the complexities of maintaining their faith and identity. Similarly, enslaved Muslim women, together with their male counterparts, confronted the brutal reality of slavery and struggled to maintain their faith and cultural identity.3 They, too, actively participated in preserving Islamic practices and values within their communities, passing down their knowledge and traditions to future generations. Women played a crucial role in preserving and transmitting religious and cultural heritage within their families and the larger community, even while grappling with the severe hardships of slavery.
As history progressed, Muslim women’s activism in America has been influenced by the broader women’s rights and civil rights movements of the 1960s. While women-led Islamic organizations focus on the unique needs and challenges faced by Muslim women in American society, they share common goals with other movements, such as promoting gender equality, social justice, and the empowerment of marginalized communities. By adapting to the unique experiences and challenges faced by their community, they create a more inclusive and representative platform for advocacy and empowerment.
The civil rights movement, in particular, has had a lasting impact on various marginalized communities, including Muslim Americans. Increasingly, Muslim women’s organizations in America have been inspired by the civil rights movement to work for social justice, challenge discrimination, and promote inclusivity. While these organizations focus on the unique needs and challenges faced by Muslim women in American society, some of them share common goals with other movements, such as promoting gender equality, social justice, and the empowerment of marginalized communities.
Situated within the intellectual milieu of the feminist movement of 1960, some Muslim women’s organizations in America align with the broader goals of this movement, advocating for gender equality, women’s rights, and the empowerment of women. However, others distance themselves from secular-feminist movements and prioritize their faith and tradition. Given that the term feminism is often associated with secularism, a number of Muslim women’s organizations have chosen not to use the term for their activism. Instead, they seek gender justice through alternative frameworks that more closely align with their religious and cultural contexts. The varied approaches to activism highlight the multifaceted nature of women’s organizations and the diverse strategies they utilize to navigate the complexities of advocating for Muslim women in North America.
Since the 1960s, the Islamic women’s organizations that have emerged in the United States have striven to address the unique needs and challenges faced by Muslim women in American society. These organizations have focused on various dimensions, including education, community service, leadership development, and advocacy for social justice and gender equality. One notable example of these organizations is the prominent grassroots Muslim organization Sisters’ Wing for the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), which was established in the 1970s. The ICNA Sisters’ Wing is an influential organization within the Muslim community in the United States and has a significant impact on Muslim women in North America through its various programs and initiatives. The organization’s funding relies on a combination of donations, fundraising events, and grants, all of which contribute to supporting its diverse range of programs and initiatives. The organization aims to promote the spiritual, educational, and social development of Muslim women in the United States through events, workshops, and conferences that encourage sisterhood, Islamic education, and community service. ICNA has shown allyship with various groups and causes by actively participating in interfaith dialogue, social justice initiatives, humanitarian relief efforts, and community service projects. Members of the organization have demonstrated a commitment to working alongside diverse communities to create a more just and equitable society.
While the landscape of Muslim women’s organizations in the United States was comparatively less extensive during the 1960s through 1990s than it is now, these organizations and initiatives paved the way for the growth of more diverse and specialized Muslim women’s organizations in the following years. The early efforts of these organizations laid the foundation for a stronger and more vibrant Muslim women’s movement in North America. In the current landscape, Muslim women’s organizations often address issues related to gender, racial, and religious discrimination, while also advocating for policies and practices that promote equal treatment and opportunities for all. These organizations further work to combat Islamophobia, which disproportionately affects Muslim women.
Building on this foundation, the ethnic and historical positioning of US-born Muslims who are engaging in leadership and activism has impacted the organizational and leadership culture in Muslim-led organizations working with and supporting women. Additionally, the experiences of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism in the post-9/11 political climate led to new allyships and unities, directly resulting in Muslim women’s increased involvement in leadership and organizational roles. Specifically, the Muslim community and Muslim organizations like the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council have actively sought to include women, ethnic minorities, and non-Sunni Muslims in their organizations. The external pressures in tandem with internal drivers for development have led to more gender-inclusive and egalitarian models of management as these organizations gradually shared the platform with women and other minorities in their communities.
Despite a monolith depiction of Muslim women in North America, women who identify as Muslim—from immigrants to American and Canadian born—embody diverse ways of expressing their religiosity and identities. Miriam Cooke argues that the term Muslim women is usually used to imply a monolithic religious and gendered identity that undermines women’s different ethnocultural, sociopolitical, and philosophical diversities. This reductive identification, which became popularized with the rise of Islamophobia, has cemented the outsider/insider status for Muslim women within society.4 This is while Muslim women are challenging the binary construction of their identity as either victimized by their religious tradition or in need of liberation by Westerners.
Among the most active Muslim women communities are African Americans, who advocate for allyship and solidarity, relying on a long history of activism in the civil rights movement. Some African American Muslims apply a social justice framework to address women’s issues in different contexts, taking into account the racism and segregation they face within Muslim and non-Muslim communities.5 It is essential to recognize that not all African American Muslims associate themselves with social justice frameworks and left-leaning organizations. For instance, individuals like Nuriddeen Knight, who focuses on issues related to Islam, gender, and spirituality, are known for taking a traditional stance and critiquing feminist politics. These women do not necessarily share the same views as leftist politicians and civil rights activists who support secular liberal agendas.
Meanwhile, immigrant-background Muslims who have experienced heightened Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism since 9/11 are raising awareness and articulating their discontent of Western neo-colonial endeavors in their native countries under the guise of promoting democracy.6 This is done in the name of what Gayatri Spivak calls “saving the brown woman from the brown man,” implicitly suggesting rescue from an uncivilized culture and religion. It is important to note that despite different ideological and ethnocultural backgrounds and experiences, Muslim women from various communities and locations do share intersected and symbiotic histories and aspirations.7
Muslim Women’s Agency and Activism
Muslim women in North America often navigate a delicate balance between adhering to their religious beliefs and accommodating the secular expectations placed upon them. This intricate negotiation involves reconciling their faith-based values and practices with the secular norms and requirements that they encounter in various aspects of their lives. By doing so, Muslim women strive to maintain their religious identity while also participating in and contributing to the secular society they live in. This balancing act can be challenging, as it often requires navigating diverse cultural expectations, confronting stereotypes, and addressing misunderstandings related to their faith.
Nonetheless, Muslim women living in diaspora have demonstrated resilience and creativity in adapting to new environments and finding innovative ways to thrive. As part of this process, their understanding of Islam is continuously being reformulated in an ongoing dialogue with other members of society. Through engagement in sociopolitical and religious discourses, these women are able to balance their commitment to their faith with the demands of a secular society. Although some immigrant Muslims have attempted to remain loyal to their “cultural Islam,” new understandings of Islam are arising out of “Western” ways of being Muslim.8 As Muna Ali argues, some immigrant Muslims’ embodiment of Islam is impacted by their cultural backgrounds and norms. These cultural Muslims usually consider their practice and understanding of Islam as authentic and may consider Western expression of Islam as inauthentic. This is while some Western Muslims are attempting to expand the practice and perception of what is considered as authentic in Islam. In doing so, they make an effort to embrace Western cultural and ethical norms by selectively adopting elements from both sides.9 These women skillfully integrate Islamic principles of social justice with the Western tradition of social activism. By drawing from the strengths of both traditions, these activists create a unique approach to advocating for change that reflects their dual heritage and addresses the complexities of their diverse experiences.
Nevertheless, Muslim women’s activism has met with resistance, and their religiosity has been viewed as a sign of indoctrination that threatens secularism.10 What is often overlooked is these women’s ardent belief that their religion informs their sense of agency and is a source of empowerment. However, the secularity of women’s agency has become central to the liberal feminist discourse and research, informing the binary that often excludes voices from racialized women who do not fully adhere to secular values. Women-led Islamic organizations challenge binary narratives that present Muslim women as either indoctrinated or liberated from a restrictive religion. The majority of the women collaborating in Islamic organizations at times actively struggle against patriarchal and restrictive frameworks while also cultivating a distinctively feminine hermeneutic that challenges both Western secularism and religious orthodoxy. There are also women’s organizations that embrace Islamic orthodoxy and do not necessarily challenge patriarchal and conventional norms.
As anthropologist Saba Mahmood posits, because Western feminism is a central part of the liberal polity, it is assumed that all feminism must be secular. Within the secular liberal feminist discourse, agency is defined as the ability to assert one’s own interests against the forces of society, religion, and other factors that can potentially limit individual liberty.11 Rooted in these assumptions, Mahmood argues that women’s agency can only exist within the confines of secularism. The secular-liberal understanding of women’s agency precludes a more nuanced understanding of religious societies where, for instance, a liberated woman may choose to willingly follow conventional models of female religiosity and agency.12 Given the diversity of religious movements and the challenges faced by contemporary Muslims, there is a perplexing array of labels ascribed to female activists. One of the more common descriptors attributed to Muslim women’s religious movements is feminist. However, as historian Margot Badran points out, within the new generation of Muslim women’s rights activists, there is great ambivalence toward the term feminism. Women from this rising generation, who are the beneficiaries of their feminist predecessors, seek to distance themselves from the concept of feminism, which they associate with Western cultural hegemony and neo-colonialism.13
The term feminism has often been associated with the hegemony of liberal feminism, which is primarily rooted in Western thought and values. As a result, certain Muslim women’s organizations avoid using the term feminism to describe their activism and instead advocate for gender justice through alternative frameworks that are more consistent with their religious and cultural traditions. Liberal feminism has been criticized for prioritizing individual autonomy, secularism, and gender equality in a manner that may not align with the values and beliefs of some Muslim women. Additionally, it has been argued that liberal feminism may overlook or dismiss the diverse cultural and religious contexts within which women’s experiences are situated, potentially leading to a Eurocentric and ethnocentric understanding of women’s rights and empowerment.
It is also important to point out that feminism and women’s faith-based activism are not static categories; rather, they inform one another and change in the course of their interactions. In her study of feminism in Islam, Zakia Salime describes this fluidity as the feminization of Islamic organizations and “Islamization” of feminist groups. The common thread in the philosophical dispositions of feminism and Islamic activism draws attention to the reductive and prejudiced outlook of liberal feminist theory of Muslim women.14 To move beyond the narrow duality of Islamic and secular frameworks, it is essential to understand the complex dynamics in women-centered Islamic organizations; from progressive to faith-based to Islamic-feminist movements. Organizations such as the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD) have a progressive feminist agenda, while others like Musawah are Islamic-feminist organizations that adhere to principles of their faith and feminist ideals. There are also faith-based organizations like the Rahma Foundation that place Islam at the center of their agenda and mission. The diversity of these organizations illustrates the diversity among Muslim women in North America.
While Muslim women in North America seek to advance gender justice, they face pressure from both secular feminists who discourage them from using religion as a vehicle for justice and from conservative Muslims such as Salafi-oriented organization and mosques who discourage these women from actively taking part in the public discourse.15 As several studies have indicated, the majority of important decisions in Muslim communities have been generally made by men who are in leadership positions and hold privileged roles in American Muslim organizations.16 Women’s participation in mosques is essential to disrupting this status quo as they contribute to the cultural and social cohesion of these communities by taking charge of tasks such as organizing events and activists. Female activities help bring people together and foster a sense of unity while also highlighting the importance of women’s involvement in the religious setting. However, it is worth noting that their roles are often limited to these supportive tasks and that often they are not given equal opportunity to assume leadership positions within the mosque.
While women’s representation in leadership positions has not been optimal, with a few notable exceptions including Daisy Khan and Ingrid Mattson, increasingly Muslim women are being nominated and serving in leadership positions in American Muslim communities.17 The election of Ingrid Mattson to the ISNA presidency in 2006 was a historic milestone, as it marked the first time a woman led one of the largest and most influential Islamic organizations in North America. Her presidency broke gender barriers, empowered Muslim women, and promoted inclusivity and pluralism within the Muslim community. Mattson’s leadership not only demonstrated the important role women could play in shaping the direction of Muslim representation and inclusion in North America but also served as a powerful example for other Muslim women to pursue leadership roles within religious and social organizations. By fostering dialogue and cooperation among different Muslim groups and between Muslims and non-Muslims. Mattson’s presidency contributed to a more inclusive and diverse understanding of Islam in North America.
In recent years, an increasing number of Muslim women across North America have been demanding equal access to all parts of the mosque and serving on advisory boards. However, it is important to recognize that not all Muslim women demand equal access to all parts of sacred spaces such as mosques. Considering the diversity of thought among Muslim women, some are content with the segregation that exists between men and women in these spaces. Although there have been efforts to better integrate women in mosques and include them in governance boards, the majority of these demands have gone unnoticed or have been dismissed.18 Online platforms such as Side Entrance, which showcases women’s prayer space in mosques around the globe, juxtapose women’s sacred spaces in relation to men’s spaces. While some of the mosques in Muslim-majority countries are inclusive, a number of mosques do not permit women to enter these sacred spaces.
In response to the lack of inclusive spaces, a number of Muslim women activists and organizations have started to establish women’s mosques and initiate women-led prayers. In 2005, Amina Wadud, an African American convert and scholar of Islam, led a mixed-gender Friday prayer service in New York City. Doing so, Julianne Hammer asserts, significantly “focused and changed” existing discussions on larger issues, “ranging from women’s interpretation of the Qur’an, leadership, mosque space, and religious authority to gender activism and media representations.”19 Wadud’s action elicited a range of reactions from the Muslim community, varying from encouragement to retribution, with some Muslim women also expressing their disapproval of her approach.
The leadership and scholarship of women like Amina Wadud and Ingrid Mattson has nevertheless inspired other women to demand equal representation and rights within the Muslim community in North America. Wadud and Mattson have each made significant contributions to the discourse on Muslim women’s roles in religious communities. However, Mattson’s impact tends to be more widespread and mainstream as compared to Wadud’s. Although Wadud’s influence is undoubtedly important, her practical reach in effecting changes to ritual practices may be more pronounced within academic circles. Wadud’s work might resonate more strongly with scholars and academics, whereas Mattson’s ideas have a broader appeal, reflecting the everyday experiences of Muslims in various settings. Both scholars bring unique perspectives and contributions to the conversation, and their combined efforts enrich the ongoing discourse around Muslim women’s roles in sacred spaces.
Inspired by these female leaders, Muslim women founded the Women’s Mosque of America in Los Angeles in 2015, and subsequently in other locations such as the Women’s Mosque of Canada. The Women’s Mosque of America, founded by Hasna Maznavi and Sana Muttalib, conducts weekly Friday prayers led by female preachers. This groundbreaking initiative offers Muslim women a public platform to discuss religious topics and share their perspectives. As a non-profit organization, the Women’s Mosque of America strives to create a safe, inclusive, and empowering environment for Muslim women to worship, learn, and engage in community-building activities. With a strong online presence, the organization has attracted over 7,000 members. Weekly prayer services typically see the participation of more than eighty individuals. However, it is important to note that membership numbers are dynamic, as people may join and leave over time.
Although the number of their members may fluctuate, the Women’s Mosque of America has gained attention on both national and international levels. While the actions of all these female activists have created ruptures in a traditionally male-dominated domain, the scope of their influence remains limited to small communities and particular geographical locations.
Considering the ideological, educational, and sociopolitical diversity of Muslim women, a number of activists working toward gender justice have problematized Wadud’s visions of gender equality and female imams. Yasmin Mogahed, who is an instructor at Al-Maghrib institute and specializes in spirituality and psychology, has forcefully disagreed with Wadud’s decision to lead a mixed congregation in prayer and has offered an alternative vision of gender relations that highlights the unique complementary role between men and women, as opposed to absolute equality. Mogahed forcefully argues, “What we so often forget is that God has honored women by giving them value in relation to God not in relation to men. But as Western feminism erases God from the scene, there is no standard left but men. God dignifies both men and women in their distinctiveness, not their sameness.”20 Considering the broad range of opinions among rights activists that focus on Muslim women’s issues, these differing perspectives can be understood as variations on universalist versus relativist positions.
Muslim Women’s Organization: Diversity and Advocacy
Muslim women in North America recognize that in order to reclaim their identity as empowered individuals and advocate for gender justice it is essential to participate in sociopolitical and religious circles. While a number of women may have no qualms with male leadership and male religious authority in Muslim institutions, others have come to the realization that to meet the needs of Muslim women it is imperative to have women in leadership roles in Islamic organizations. The first two decades of the 21st century have witnessed the growth of Muslim women’s organizations, which consists of both immigrant and native-born women striving to address issues of concern for Muslim women.21 Despite differences in their mission and reach, these organizations’ advocacy for women’s issues is firmly grounded in the Islamic tradition.
National and Transnational Organizations
The scope of Islamic women’s organizations ranges from transnational organizations, which have various sister organizations in North America and Muslim-majority nations, and national organizations based in North America. Musawah, an organization established in 2009, has its headquarters in Malaysia and maintains a global presence with representatives in North America and other regions around the world. Musawah has its roots in Sisters in Islam, an organization that challenges the injustices Malaysian women face under Islamic law. Musawah, meaning equality, signifies the organization’s ethos, as its members engage in hermeneutic projects and advocate for women’s equality and gender egalitarianism within Islamic family law.
Musawah consists of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), activists, legal scholars, and policymakers from around the world. Some of the prominent activists and scholars involved in this organization include Zainah Anwar, the former head of Sisters in Islam, Amina Wadud, a distinguished African American scholar and activist, and legal anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini, who advocates for Islamic feminism. By collaborations with scholars and activists globally, Musawah is making Islamic knowledge more accessible to women and offering inclusive interpretations of Islamic family law. Their aim is to cultivate an understanding of Islam that recognizes equality and justice, arguing that reform to eliminate discrimination against women in Muslim family laws and practices is achievable. The organization facilitates access to existing knowledge within the Musawah Framework for Action, supports international human rights mechanisms and NGOs, and works to build global networks to act as catalysts for change at the local level. Musawah receives financial support from a variety of funders, including Oxfam Novib, the Ford Foundation, the Global Fund for Women, the Sigrid Rausing Trust, Hivos, the Canadian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, and the United Nations Population Fund. These sponsors contribute to Musawah’s mission of promoting equality and justice for Muslim women around the world.
This organization views gender equality as intrinsic to Islam and challenges patriarchal interpretations of sacred scripture. In a recent statement, Musawah denounced the Taliban’s attempt to restrict women from pursuing higher education at universities in Afghanistan. Musawah contends that such actions contradict the teachings of the Quran and Sharia and disregard the history of Muslim women’s contributions to Islamic tradition. Through involvement in hermeneutic projects and expanding their constituencies, Musawah aims to empower activists, decisionmakers, and rights groups at both national and international levels. Their goal is to promote an understanding of Islam that upholds equality and justice while at the same time critiquing discriminatory policies enacted in the name of Islam.
Al Huda International, based in Pakistan and North America, is another transnational organization. The organization was founded in 1994, and its mission is to teach and inform women about the Qur’an and Sunnah. Al Huda International also offers social welfare programs to assist the needy. Al-Huda’s founder, Farhat Hashimi, who has a PhD in Hadith Sciences from the University of Glasgow, identifies as Salafi and advocates a conventional understanding of gender roles. The objective of this foundation is to educate and train students in Islamic sciences while also instilling moral values and fostering character building. To support its educational and religious mission, this organization primarily relies on private donations, student contributions, and Zakat and Sadaqah (Islamic charitable giving) from the Muslim community. Initially, Al Huda had a strong following among Salafi South Asian women in Pakistan. Over the years, the organization has expanded its operations beyond Pakistan and now has branches in countries such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates. This expansion has allowed the organization to reach a wider audience and influence more people across various cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
The transnational Sufi Women’s Organizations (SWOs) is also active in North America. This organization, founded in 1993 by Nahid Angha, provides a forum for Sufi women to address women’s rights issues under the auspices of the International Association of Sufism. The mission of this organization is to empower women through advocating for spirituality, education, and awareness building.22 The SWO celebrates the diversity of Sufi women from different orders and facilitates discussion and communication among them. The SWO has a transnational outreach program and actively collaborates with interfaith organizations and international NGOs.
The SWO is the only Sufi organization affiliated with the United Nations Non-Government Organizations / Department of Public Information. This non-governmental organization contributes to other international organizations through its own grantmaking initiative such as the Women’s Wisdom: Women in Action program. The SWO is not among the largest religious or spiritual organizations, but it has a meaningful impact within the Sufi community and in promoting women’s empowerment. Although determining the precise size of the SWO in terms of membership is challenging, the organization boasts a global reach, with members and supporters hailing from numerous countries. The SWO’s funding generally comes from a combination of donations from members and supporters, allowing the SWO to maintain its operations, support its members, and continue its mission of empowering women through spirituality, education, and social and economic development.
Women involved in the SWO come from diverse backgrounds, including scholars like Leili First, clinical psychologist Arife Hammerle, as well as physicians, social workers, and activists. The SWO is attempting to empower women by incorporating the leadership of Sufi women into traditional Sufi gatherings. Despite the progressive nature of this organization, women in Western Sufi movements have different understandings of their roles in the order. Similar to other Muslim groups, some attempt to challenge and reform conventional notions of gender, whereas others embrace the concept of complementary gender roles.23
While some of the women-led Islamic groups are transnational, others like the American Muslim and Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council (AMMWEC) are based in North America and respond to the immediate needs of Muslims living in the United States and Canada. The majority of women involved in AMMWEC are professionals, whose occupations range from authors and politicians to religious scholars. The founding leaders of this organizations include professional South Asian Muslim women who faced challenges in the aftermath of post-9/11. These women believe that their voices and concerns were not being adequately represented by the male-dominated Muslim leaders speaking on their behalf. The women affiliated with AMMWEC are taking on leadership positions and using their expertise to serve Muslim women across North America.
Regardless of their philosophical leaning and religious affiliations, these women recognize that by participating in public life they can have a voice in reshaping Western perspective toward Muslims and also impact policies toward them.24 In response to challenges such as police profiling, extremism, and women’s lack of representation in leadership positions, AMMWEC initiated a partnership with law enforcement to provide internship opportunities for Muslim women in the police force. Furthermore, due to an increased demand of women facing domestic abuse, AMMWEC offers an informal community helpline and support to women in need of assistance.
This non-profit organization also focuses on empowering women of diverse faith backgrounds and promoting interfaith dialogue, understanding, and cooperation. AMMWEC’s focus includes education, advocacy, community building, and collaboration with other organizations. In 2022, AMMWEC participated in a historic peacemaking trip to Israel and the United Arab Emirates with prominent Pakistani Americans and South Asian Americans. The delegation’s objective was to foster a positive understanding, facilitate Pakistan-Israel relations, and advance the Abraham Accords. Despite facing criticism from several notable American Muslims, the initiative was defended as an illustration of AMMWEC’s dedication to promoting peace, dialogue, and cooperation among individuals from diverse faiths and backgrounds. AMMWEC has collaborated with a wide range of civic organizations and government agencies in their community outreach efforts.
Another organization that serves the North American population is the North American Shia Ithna-Asheri Muslim Communities (NASIMCO), founded in 1980. NASIMCO’s mission is to empower and unite North American Shia communities, promoting collaboration and enhancing their collective voice. In 2018, NASIMCO launched its Women in Islam campaign on the birth anniversary of Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, which coincided with International Women’s Day. This online initiative recognizes the achievements and contributions of Muslim women in the Shia community and beyond.25 In 2019, NASIMCO established a Ladies and Seniors Desk which offers a platform to Shia women across North America to create a network and gather for various religious, social, and recreational activities.26 The women active in this organization generally come from traditional backgrounds and adhere to traditional feminine roles.
In December 2020, NASIMCO demonstrated their commitment to supporting a range of projects and initiatives within the Shia Ithna-Asheri community by providing grants to various organizations, including Comfort Aid International, Shia Ithna Asheri Jamaat of New York, and the Imam Hussain Islamic Center. NASIMCO’s funding comes from several sources, including community contributions, religious obligations like Khums and Zakat, and sponsorships. NASIMCO and its affiliated organizations hold significant influence within the Shia community and play an important role in religious, educational, and social spheres. They provide services and support such as establishing and maintaining mosques and community centers, organizing religious events and programs, facilitating religious education, offering social services, and promoting interfaith dialogue and cooperation. NASIMCO’s influence is evident through its ability to meet the community’s religious, educational, and social needs, while also making contributions to the broader community.
National and transnational Muslim women’s organizations have played a significant role in shaping women’s activism and their involvement in religious and civic dialogues. With the widespread use of technology and social media, these organizations have been able to extend their reach beyond local boundaries, connecting with and inspiring a global audience. The exploration of Muslim women’s organizations reveals how they leverage online platforms to share knowledge, resources, and experiences, creating a global network of support and collaboration among Muslim women. This interconnectedness allows for the exchange of ideas and the development of shared strategies to address important issues related to gender equality, religious leadership, and women’s rights within the Muslim community.
Digital Sisterhood: Online Women’s Organization and Magazines
An important way Muslim women in North America are gaining ground in the public sphere and advocating for women’s rights is through publications and online activism. In the digital age, Muslim women are leveraging the power of online platforms and magazines to share their stories and resources and to address Muslim women’s issues as they reshape the narrative around their community and foster a global network of support and collaboration among Muslim women. One such magazine is Azizah founded in 2000 by the late Tayyibah Taylor (d. 2014) and Marlina Soerakoesoema. Azizah is widely recognized as a respected voice in the Muslim community and has gained a loyal following since its inception. The magazine covers a range of topics, including spirituality, health, fashion, and politics, and it offers a unique perspective on issues related to Muslim women. Azizah also aims to counter prejudice toward Muslims women in North America by highlighting their accomplishments and potential. To sustain its operations, the privately owned magazine relies on a variety of funding resources, including subscription fees, advertising revenue, and private donations. Azizah has also been recognized with numerous awards, including the 2010 and 2013 Folio Eddie Award for Best Full Issue, and has been featured in various media outlets such as the New York Times, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and National Public Radio (NPR).
Another example of a contemporary online platform is MuslimGirl—an online journal founded in 2009 by millennial Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, an American author, activist, and tech entrepreneur. MuslimGirl aims to create a space for young Muslim women, particularly millennials, to express themselves, share experiences, and discuss topics relevant to their lives. The platform has gained significant traction and has become an influential voice for Muslim women, fostering a sense of community and empowerment among its readers. This online journal attempts to provide a platform for Muslim American women to problematize gender dynamics in Muslim communities and challenge American foreign and domestic policy in the Middle East. By using its online platform since its inception, MuslimGirl is reclaiming the narrative on Muslim women by highlighting their voices and raising their place in North American society. This online platform speaks to the need of young American Muslims seeking an alternative platform to express themselves.
MuslimGirl has received financial support from a variety of sources over the years. The organization has raised money through crowdfunding campaigns and has received donations from different individuals and organizations. It has also partnered with several brands and companies for sponsored content and collaborations. MuslimGirl has been featured in various media outlets and recognized with several awards, including the 2017 Shorty Award for Best in Activism and the 2018 Glamour Women of the Year Award. Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, the founder of MuslimGirl, has also become a well-known public figure and has been featured in different media outlets as a spokesperson for Muslim women’s issues. MuslimGirl has used its platform to advocate for the rights and representation of Muslim women and has been involved in various social justice initiatives.
The Feminist Islamic Troublemakers of North America (FITNA) is another women’s organization that tackles patriarchy within the Muslim community. FITNA was established in 2016 as an online and offline collaborative platform for Muslim feminists to raise awareness about gender discrimination. FITNA is a collaborative space that brings together Muslim feminists and allies working toward promoting gender-just interpretations of Islam. The platform aims to redefine the Arabic term fitna as constructive disruption around gender issues within the Muslim community. It currently has over 1,300 members active on its online platform. The founders of FITNA, Shehnaz Zindabad and Zahra Khan, are both academics and activists and work in collaboration with interested academics, activists, scholars, professionals, and community members to advance their mission of promoting gender justice within the Muslim community. This organization emphasizes the inclusive nature of Islamic theology and attempts to distinguish it from patriarchal cultural practices. FITNA’s ScholarChat series, led by experts on Islam and gender, aims to encourage nonpatriarchal interpretations of Islam, covering topics such as female prophets, same-sex relations, and female leadership. FITNA aims to provide an accessible online platform featuring well-known scholars, with the goal of empowering Muslims to gain knowledge about Islam from a gender justice perspective. The organization also strives to educate allies on important topics about Islam and gender to facilitate coalition building for feminist activism.
Muslim women’s online and offline activism has played a critical role in inspiring a new generation of Muslims to become engaged in social and political issues. This engagement has been further fueled by movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM), which has sparked important conversations about anti-Black discrimination not only on a national level but also within prominent immigrant Muslim communities throughout North America. As a result of this increased awareness, there has been a rise in educational resources such as podcasts, webinars, and online training sessions that confront these issues directly. Organizations like the Islamophobia Studies Center and Muslim American Society-Public Affairs and Civic Engagement have been instrumental in addressing these issues within academia and educational spaces.
The growing recognition of the need to involve women in leadership positions has promoted several national Muslim organizations, including numerous Muslim student associations, to adopt more inclusive practices.27 American Muslim civil rights and advocacy groups and other Islamic organizations, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, are demanding an end to discriminatory practices and violence against racial minorities.28 Over forty Muslim organizations, including women’s Islamic organizations, issued a joint statement online showing their support for Black Lives Matter (BLM) while acknowledging that non-Black Muslims have also been marginalized and overlooked. These organizations are united and committed to working together to eradicate anti-Black racism and reforming discriminatory policies and practices in Muslim communities and beyond.
Domestic and Sexual Violence, Sexual Health, and LBGTQ+ Rights
In North America, a number of Muslim women’s organizations place focus on contentious topics such as domestic and sexual violence, sexual health, and LBGTQ+ rights. Among them is the Chicago-based HEART Women and Girls organization, which provides support and resources to prevent sexual violence and to nurture healthy sexuality and sexual expression. This organization was founded in 2009 by Nadiah Mohajir and Ayesha Akhtar. Since 2010, HEART has provided sex education, training, and sexual assault advocacy to over 10,000 individuals, organizations, and campuses across America. HEART has emerged as a leading voice in promoting sexual health education and resources for Muslim communities in the United States, having actively participated in various advocacy efforts to increase awareness and access to such resources.
By developing culturally sensitive and responsive sexual health information, HEART is encouraging young Muslims to make the right decisions about their sexual health. They further provide financial aid and resources to survivors of sexual abuse. HEART has provided training and workshops to mosques, schools, and community centers to promote healthy sexuality and sexual expression and prevent sexual violence. In partnership with the Bayan Institute, they have offered training to over forty imams, chaplains, and community advocates on issues pertaining to gender-based violence. HEART relies on individual donations, grants, and partnerships with other organizations to support its programs and services. In addition to their fundraising efforts, HEART has been successful in securing grants from both the federal government and other organizations that advocate for the rights of women and minorities. The funding obtained through these grants has helped to support their work in promoting sexual health education and resources for Muslim communities.
Other organizations such as the Peaceful Families Project (PFP) offer family violence awareness programs. PFP is a Muslim organization that provides educational resources about domestic violence. PFP was founded by the late Sharifa Alkhateeb in the year 2000. PFP’s team of trainers includes specialists who have expertise in issues pertaining to mental health, marriage, divorce, domestic violence, and sexual abuse. PFP has diligently engaged with various stakeholders and has successfully raised awareness about domestic violence, as well as the importance of promoting healthy relationships within Muslim families. By offering training programs to imams, community leaders, mental health professionals, and social service providers, PFP has managed to amplify its impact. Through training and collaboration with community leaders, the activists at PFP advocate a holistic approach to addressing domestic violence. While their influence may vary depending on the region and community, these activists have undoubtedly played a crucial role in addressing the issue of domestic violence within the Muslim community in the United States.
As part of this broader movement, Muslim youth are increasingly collaborating with other organizations to tackle pressing issues such as rape, alcoholism, and drug abuse. In particular, young Muslim girls are joining forces with organizations like Girls for a Change to address institutional racism and sexism and bring about social change in marginalized communities. Girls for a Change is an NGO specifically designed to empower disadvantaged, marginalized, and underrepresented girls, with a particular emphasis on supporting Black girls. By partnering with such organizations, Muslim youth are not only broadening their understanding of the challenges faced by different communities but also actively participating in efforts to create positive change. These collaborations not only demonstrate the growing commitment of Muslim youth to social justice but also their eagerness to work alongside other organizations in pursuit of common goals.
As well, organizations like Facing Abuse in Community Environments (FACE), a survivor-centered community, have been offering support to women in need of assistance and counseling. FACE was formed in 2017 to create a framework to address the leadership accountability gap in the Muslim community in the United States and Canada. Alia Salem, the founder and executive director of FACE, has been serving Muslim and other marginalized communities in different capacities. The mission of this organization is to assist survivors of abuse and promote a culture of transparency within the Muslim community where authorities and influential leaders are held accountable for violation of trust as well as sexual, spiritual, and physical abuse. By providing educational resources and investigative services, this NGO is providing a platform where perpetrators of abuse are held accountable outside the criminal legal system.29
FACE does not charge fees for its services to survivors. However, the organization may charge fees for some workshops or training sessions, depending on the context and the audience. FACE has been featured in media outlets such as HuffPost, the Globe and Mail, NPR, and Religion News. FACE was founded in response to growing awareness of abuse by high-profile religious figures, coinciding with the emergence of a new generation of Muslim women courageously addressing controversial and taboo topics within the Muslim community. In 2017, several women came forward with accusations against prominent Muslim leaders, alleging spiritual and sexual abuse. The victims of spiritual abuse were manipulated, controlled, and intimidated, often under the guise of religious beliefs, principles, or supposed spiritual authority. During that time, the #MeToo movement had also gained momentum, empowering women to share their stories of abuse and harassment, which contributed to increased awareness of these issues within religious communities. Consequently, topics such as LGBTQI+ rights, sexual abuse, and holding authorities accountable are now being addressed openly and unapologetically.
Over the years, the allyships between Muslim organizations and progressive left-leaning organizations have evolved and strengthened, reflecting the changing dynamics in addressing sensitive issues. Prior to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, alliances between Muslim groups and progressive organizations were less visible and prominent in the United States. However, the post-9/11 era marked a significant turning point in the relationship between Muslim groups and progressive organizations. As Islamophobia, discrimination, and hate crimes against Muslims increased, the need for alliances and support from other communities became more pronounced. Consequently, Muslim youth, women’s groups, and left-leaning organizations started working together to address these issues. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), founded in 1994, is one such example that gained greater prominence and visibility in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
CAIR has worked closely with organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union to advocate for civil rights and combat Islamophobia. Furthermore, the emergence of Muslim youth groups, such as the Muslim Youth of North America, led to increased collaboration with other progressive student organizations, promoting interfaith dialogue and understanding. However, the allyship between Muslim women’s groups and non-Muslim left-leaning organizations can be complex and nuanced. While some Muslim women’s groups choose to ally themselves with progressive groups, others do not seek out such partnerships. Various factors contribute to the complexity of these alliances, including diverse interpretations of Islam. While some groups may embrace progressive values in relation to gender equality, LGBTQI+ rights, and social justice, others might adhere to more conservative views that do not align with the mission of left-leaning and secular organizations. Additionally, concerns about secularism and fears of compromising their religious identity further complicate these partnerships, as some Muslim women’s groups may be cautious about forming alliances with non-Muslim left-leaning organizations. These groups often prefer to work independently or within their own religious communities to address issues specifically relevant to Muslim women.
However, when goals overlap, some Muslim women’s groups may choose to form temporary or issue-based alliances with non-Muslim left-leaning organizations. They might collaborate on specific matters like fighting Islamophobia, advocating for equal rights, or addressing racial injustice, without requiring complete ideological alignment. The broader political climate in North America can also impact the alliances between Muslim women’s groups and non-Muslim organizations. In times of increased hostility toward Muslims or other marginalized communities, these groups might be more inclined to form alliances to combat discrimination and protect their rights.
The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD) is another non-profit organization that has formed alliances with progressive organizations. MASGD was established in 2013 by a group of queer Muslim leaders who recognized the need to address different cultural frames for understanding gender and sexuality. While embracing these diverse understandings, they also challenged oppressive structures that have led to various forms of marginalization, such as misogyny, racism, colonialism, capitalism, and xenophobia. This organization co-founded by Raquel Saraswati, Yas Ahmed, Imi Rashid, and Sahar Shafqat aims to support, empower, and connect 2SLGBTQI+ Muslims. Several founding members of MASGD, including Faisal Alam, Urooj Arshad, Tynan Power, and Imam Daayiee Abdullah, had previously been associated with the Al-Fatiha Foundation. The Al-Fatiha Foundation was established in 1997 by Faisal Alam, a Pakistani American LGBTQI+ rights activist, with the goal of promoting the civil, political, and legal rights of LGBTQ+ Muslims.
In 2016, The Advocate magazine recognized four MASGD steering committee members in its list of “21 LGBT Muslims Who Are Changing the World.” Founded by members of the Queer Muslim Working Group and supported by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, MASGD’s funding comes from various sources, including individual donors, grants, and partnerships with non-profit organizations and foundations like Funding Queerly Giving Circle. Financial support also comes from events, workshops, and fundraising campaigns. The organization’s impact within the Muslim community varies depending on the region and community. However, they have made substantial efforts to raise awareness about LGBTQI+ rights, foster inclusivity, and challenge traditional interpretations of Islam that marginalize LGBTQ I+ Muslims.
As a response to these pressing issues and recognizing the need for change, Muslim women were inspired to take action by forming various religious groups that highlighted the importance of female spiritual leadership. These female activists have been working to address the power imbalances within religious institutions, creating safe spaces for women to practice their faith, and encouraging a more inclusive and equitable understanding of Islam. By centering the voices and experiences of women, these groups challenge traditional norms and empower Muslim women to become spiritual leaders, scholars, and active members within their communities. The establishment of female-led religious organizations has also promoted the reexamination of religious texts and teachings, emphasizing gender-inclusive interpretations of Islamic scriptures and religious environment.
Women’s Involvement in Islamic Education
Muslim women are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of Islamic organizations in advancing women’s rights. Individuals and organizations such as Azizah al-Hibri, the founder of KARAMAH, have been working to counter prominent conservative and liberal voices in the North American sociopolitical discourse. As Muslim women in North America become more active in civil society organizations, the need for platforms that provide representation and support for women who are informed both by Islam and different cultures across North America is becoming increasingly evident.30 Muslim women activists come from diverse cultural and educational backgrounds. Some of these women have been trained in the Islamic tradition at seminaries, many others hold university degrees in Islamic education, while others are trained in unofficial religious organizations and communities.
Muslim women recognize that religious knowledge plays an important role in educating women in their communities and the larger North American public. There are myriad instances that highlight women's enthusiasm and participation in religious discourse. Increasingly, women are being trained in religious sciences, enabling them to impart Islamic knowledge and to engage in hermeneutical projects. Their involvement in religious discourse and hermeneutic projects breaks through the historically male-dominated sphere that has been difficult for women to access. Although women have been historically among transmitters of religious knowledge, “they rarely participated in the intellectual process that produced the decree that had significant influence upon the personal status of women.”31 Muslim women’s engagement with hermeneutics promotes an egalitarian vision of the Muslim community and advances gender justice in the Islamic tradition. Muslim women scholars and activists are transforming the conventional practices of leadership and religious authority by becoming involved in sociopolitical and religious discourses.
Numerous Muslim women leaders and activists, seeking to effectively engage with their tradition and advocate for women’s rights while positively impacting their communities in North America and beyond, ground their arguments in Islamic tradition. These faith-based activists root their gender justice advocacy in Islamic teachings. This approach enables these female activists to navigate the complexities of religious interpretation while simultaneously challenging patriarchal norms and practices. By anchoring their arguments in Islamic tradition, these activists cultivate a more inclusive and equitable understanding of Islam. Their efforts have paved the way for women’s rights within an Islamic context, distinguishing their approach from secular frameworks.
By adopting an egalitarian perspective of women’s issues, Muslim female activists have embraced a methodology that offers an alternative to secular Western feminisms. These female leaders and activists are engaging in a range of theological and legal frameworks in their attempt to advance women’s religious and political authority in Muslim communities. Specifically, the growing number of female activists who come from different backgrounds and have a solid command of the Islamic tradition combined with Western scholarship offers an alternative framework for advancing gender justice. As Leila Ahmed notes, Muslim women activists merge Islamic notions of social justice with the Western legacy of social activism, critically examining problematic practices in both Western and Islamic traditions. These women are discovering creative ways to negotiate modernity and the evolving notion of justice within the North American social and political landscape. Consequently, the activism of these female leaders challenges assumptions about Muslim women as oppressed subjects who lack agency.32
Women’s participation in Islamic organizations in North America has been criticized by both American rightwing Republicans and secular feminists who view Islam as antithetical to the ideals of liberalism and feminist values. Despite these pushbacks, scholars like Ziba Mir-Hosseini from MUSAWAH are reappropriating the term feminist and choosing to identify themselves as Islamic feminists, whereas others, like Rania Awaad, an instructor at the Rahmah foundation, prefer to refrain from using this term altogether and instead identify as faith-based activists. Irrespective of the nomenclature Muslim women embrace, both Islamic feminists and faith-based activists are engaging with their tradition in an effort to advance women’s status in Islam.
Muslim women’s faith-based activism and Islamic feminism share interrelated approaches that aim to address gender issues and advocate for women’s rights within Muslim communities. Faith-based activists, like Rania Awaad, focus on engaging with Islamic tradition and religious texts to promote social change. They work within the framework of Islam to reinterpret religious teachings, challenge patriarchal norms, and promote an inclusive and equitable understanding of Islam. This is while Islamic feminist like Ziba Mir-Hosseini combine feminist theories with Islamic principles to critique and challenge patriarchal interpretations of Islamic texts. These scholars advocate for a reinterpretation of Islamic texts, emphasizing the egalitarian and justice-oriented aspects of the faith. While both approaches can overlap and intersect in their pursuit of gender justice, they differ in their methods, perspectives, and strategies for promoting women’s rights and social change within the context of Islam. Consequently, the voices of racialized and minoritized women’s rights groups, especially those engaging with their faith tradition, are gradually being recognized as distinct yet important contributors to the path toward gender justice.
Muslim women who work in Islamic organizations represent a diverse array of educational, sociopolitical, and ideological orientations. Some express their activism and scholarship through a reformist agenda, while others are more traditional in their approach. A number of organizations adhere to conventional ideals about the complementarity of the sexes, whereas others promote a more nuanced understanding of Islam that advances gender egalitarianism. Despite their different outlook, Muslim women have consistently and strategically come together to present a united front on issues that impact them. In recent decades, Muslim women in North America have been at the forefront of sociopolitical activism while simultaneously being committed to their faith.
Muslim women activists in North America stand on the shoulders of scholars like Riffat Hassan and Azizah al-Hibri, who were affiliated with Islamic women’s organizations and engaged in the reinterpretation of religious scripture.33 This intellectual legacy was subsequently carried forward by a new generation of Islamic feminist scholars, including Amina Wadud and Kecia Ali, who advocated for the reformulation of Islamic law, particularly in relation to women’s rights. The critical analysis of gender construction in Islamic legal theory, as advanced by these scholars, has provided Muslim activists with targeted arguments to justify comprehensive reform of gender-related laws within the framework of justice and equality. These seminal writings have been instrumental in enabling women’s rights activists to critique some of the classical juristic framework that still serves as a foundation for modern laws that are no longer pertinent to contemporary times and contexts.
Notable female scholar-activists like Amina Wadud, who led the first mixed-gender prayer, have contributed to an understanding of Islam that transcends the conventional interpretations of sacred text and critiques interpretations that deny women their God-given rights. Wadud argues for an active partnership of equals between the two sexes. This partnership, she argues, will move society toward equality and justice, which is intrinsic to the Islamic tradition.34 In her book Gender Jihad, Wadud frames justice as a value that is both universal in principle yet contextually relative to its manifestation across time and place. To achieve justice, she argues, will require a continual dialogue. Wadud perceives postmodern hermeneutic as a means for Muslim communities to fully utilize the wealth and transformational power of the Quran.35
Considering the broad range of opinions among rights activists that focus on Muslim women’s issues, some women’s rights activists have rejected Wadud’s approach to gender egalitarianism. In Western liberal democracies, where justice and equality are inherently linked, female activists who adhere to a relativist position are demanding a more inclusive notion of gender justice. Scholars such as Kecia Ali caution that contemporary intellectuals and activists
must take care not to be blinded by the commitment to equality and the presumption that equality is necessary for justice, as classical exegetes were by their assumptions about the naturalness of male superiority and dominance in family and society.36
To cultivate a more inclusive understanding of gender justice, it is necessary to take into consideration the diversity in cultural and religious approaches to gender and engage with these perspectives on their own terms.
An increasing number of Muslim women participate in social justice causes through faith-based organizations and advocacy groups. Among such organizations are the Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights organization (KARAMAH) and Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE), both of which strive to advance gender justice through the reinterpretation of religious texts. Islamic scholar and activist Aziza al-Hibri founded KARAMAH in 1993 to support the rights of Muslim women. The name KARAMAH is derived from a Quranic verse (17:70) that conveys the idea that God has granted dignity to all humans, without differentiating between men and women. This core principle underpins KARAMAH’s mission, which is to support the rights of Muslim women through educational programs and jurisprudential scholarship. Drawing on its members’ expertise in Islamic law, leadership, and conflict resolution, KARAMAH has developed Law and Leadership Program that provides training for Muslim women to become informed leaders in their communities as they advance gender-equitable principles rooted in Islamic tradition.37 Organization like KARAMAH challenge patriarchal interpretations of religious scriptures that restrict Muslim women’s rights while at the same time use their faith tradition as a means of empowering women.
KARAMAH is based in the United States, but its influence extends globally. The organization’s efforts have led to a greater understanding of Islamic law, gender equality, and human rights, and have empowered Muslim women to become leaders and changemakers in their communities. The organization has conducted workshops, seminars, and training in various countries, addressing issues such as human rights, women’s rights, and Islamic law. KARAMAH has been the recipient of generous grants from several prestigious organizations, including the Austelle Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the El-Hibri Foundation. These contributions have been instrumental in furthering the organization’s mission and programs.
WISE is yet another grassroots social justice organization that advances gender egalitarianism. Daisy Khan founded this organization in 2006 to support Muslim women’s rights, by creating a platform for diverse groups of female activists to connect with one another. The mission of WISE, one of the largest global networks of Muslim women, is to support the diverse work of Muslim women leaders globally and empower them to cultivate a leadership committed to social justice. WISE’s funding comes from various foundations, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Ford Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Marshall Family Fund.
WISE leads initiatives to enhance women’s socioeconomic autonomy and amplify their voices in social, political, and religious spaces. With over a hundred chapters in different countries, WISE aspires to build an international movement of Muslim women through education and leadership training. By emphasizing that change in women’s status should arise from the reinterpretation of Islamic scriptures from a female perspective, WISE has initiated a global Muslim women’s Shura Council of female scholars and activists. This council advances women’s rights and gender egalitarianism within an Islamic framework, affirming gender equality as an integral part of the Islamic tradition. Challenging the patriarchal interpretation of Islamic law, the WISE council’s global community offers an interpretation that aligns with both Islamic law and gender justice.38 WISE commemorates and highlights the historical and contemporary role of Muslim women as educators, religious authorities, and activists. Religion and spirituality is central to the mission of WISE as it recognizes the limitations of secular organizations, activists, and governments who overlook the role that religion can play in advancing women’s rights, egalitarianism, and combating extremism.
Established in 2005, the Rahmah Foundation is another independent, non-profit organization that emerged from the Sisters’ Deen Intensives (SDI), previously supported by the Deen Intensive Foundation. The directors of the SDI founded the Rahmah Foundation with the aim of providing women with religious knowledge. This educational organization, which focuses on addressing issues pertinent to Muslim women, employs qualified female religious scholars who have received ijaza (permission to teach Islamic religious texts). The Rahmah Foundation not only empowers Muslim women through education but also promotes community development. To support its missions, the Rahma Foundation relies on funding obtained from donations and program services.
The Muslim women active in the Rahmah Foundation are attempting to revive the Islamic precedence of women who have preserved and transmitted Islamic knowledge. The instructors teaching in this foundation have been trained in classical Islamic knowledge and are practicing Muslims whose agency is interconnected to their practices of piety. These female scholars recognize the value of education in combating extremism and divergence from classical Islam. Among the teachers are Ustadha Shamira Chothia Ahmed, Suzane Derani, and Rania Awaad, all of whom obtained their ijaza to teach by studying in various seminaries across the Muslim world. They bring their prior experiences from teaching at the Zaytuna Institute in California. A central purpose for the Rahmah Foundation and its teachers is to address the Islamic educational needs of women. Focusing on education, leadership development, and community-based engagement and support, the foundation plays a critical role in influencing the Muslim community. Through its efforts, the foundation fosters a more empowered and engaged community where Muslim women can thrive and contribute to the overall well-being of their communities.
While not overtly undermining male leadership and authority, female activists involved in Islamic women’s organization effectively seek to pluralize religious authority. This enables both men and women to have equal access to religious discourses and interpretation of religious texts. A prime example of such an organization is Rabata, founded in 2012 by Tamara Gray, an American Muslim scholar and educator, with the goal of fostering a new generation of female Muslim scholars and teachers. As a non-profit organization, Rabata promotes positive cultural change and spiritual growth for women through educational initiatives, leadership development, and community engagement. By cultivating a new generation of female Muslim scholars and teachers, Rabata aims to promote gender equity within religious settings, enrich Islamic thought, and inspire future generations of Muslim women. The ultimate goal is to create a more inclusive and diverse representation of voices within the Muslim community and beyond.39 Empowering Muslim women to become scholars, community leaders, and positive cultural change agents, Rabate offers online classes, literature, and spiritual mentorship. This platform supports Muslim women across six continents, helping them uplift themselves and future generations while contributing to education, Islamic upbringing, and community development.
Muslim women’s activism extends beyond women’s formal organizations, as many actively participate in institutions such as the Safina Society, Adams Center, and the Assembly of Muslim Jurist of America. Though not exclusively for women, these organizations greatly benefit from Muslim women’s contributions. These organizations often focus on diverse aspects of Islamic education, community building, and social services. By engaging in these organizations, Muslim women can influence the direction and policies of these institutions from within, addressing gender issues and advocating for women’s rights in a more nuanced and integrated manner. The involvement of Muslim women in these institutions highlights the multifaceted nature of Muslim women’s activism and its profound impact on the broader Muslim community.
The growing participation of women in Islamic organizations and their involvement in producing religious knowledge are driving change in the male-dominated Islamic discourse. Muslim women activists’ access to and utilization of religious resources strengthen their standing in gender negotiations within the Muslim community. These negotiations involve religious scholars, community leaders, activists, and Muslim women in discussions about women’s roles in religious leadership and gender-inclusive interpretations of Islamic texts. The ongoing dialogues aim to foster a more inclusive and equitable understanding of Islam. This faith-based approach by women creates an environment where gender justice is seen as compatible with Islamic tradition, rather than solely influenced by Western secular values. Female faith-based activism in North America challenges assumptions held by some secularists, demonstrating that women’s agency and religious faith can indeed coexist harmoniously in the pursuit of social justice and gender equity.
Secular Critiques of Muslim Women’s Organizations
North American Muslim women involved in civic and religious discourse are actively challenging the neo-orientalist stereotyping of Muslim women as victimized by their religious tradition and in need of liberation by Westerners. This rhetoric has evolved over time; medieval literary texts once focused on the need to subdue Muslim women, whereas modern and postmodern works emphasize their supposed need for liberation. Post-Enlightenment Western representation of Muslim women in literary texts also portray them as veiled, secluded, and submissive beings who need to be emancipated.40 In addition, the liberal feminist discourse was utilized by colonial powers to undermine Muslim perspectives on gender relations, constructing a unifying image of the modern, civilized woman. This modernist binary mode of thinking positioned the “progressive” Western tradition against the “regressive” Islamic tradition, ultimately shaping the dominating narrative informing popular discourse on Muslim women. The Orientalist discourse portraying Muslim women as lacking agency has long been co-opted by secularists, who perceive them as victims of their own culture and religion.
Orientalist thinking is notably present in the attitudes of a number of influential secular racialized women in the diaspora who come from Islamic backgrounds. The writings of figures like Irshad Manji and Ayaan Hirsi Ali have been used to advance rightwing political agendas.41 By weaponizing feminism, these women’s accounts advance a neo-Orientalist agenda that contrasts Western tradition with Islamic tradition, casting the West as progressive and the Islamic tradition as oppressive. These individuals also warn Westerners against Islamic women’s organizations, describing them as ideologically-driven networks that advance fundamentalism. However, women involved in Islamic women’s organizations draw upon their lived experiences to demonstrate that Islam can indeed advance social justice and empowerment. This perspective contrasts with Manji and Ali’s claims, which interpret women’s interest in religion as indication of backwardness and fundamentalism. Instead, Muslim women’s organizations such as MUSAWAH, KARAMAH, and the Rahman foundation often utilize the teachings of their traditions to advance women’s causes and empower women.
Prominent figures in Islamic women’s organizations across North America consider the remarks made by individuals like Irshad Manji and Ayaan Ali particularly damaging when they critique the Muslim veil. The head covering, practiced by many Muslim women as a sign of modesty, has been historically perceived by secularists as a sign of oppression. As part of the colonial project, the liberation of Muslim women became synonymous with these women divesting themselves of their traditions and attires.42 Muslim women’s bodies are the new frontier on which battles for national identity are being waged as the overemphasis on women’s dress code by both Westerners and conservative Islamists has led to a reductionist understanding of what it means to be a practicing and pious Muslim woman.43 To disrupt the political discourse surrounding Muslim women’s dress code, Islamic women’s organizations such as the Muslim Women’s League (MWL) have actively attempted to problematize such reductionist narratives. Based in California, MWL is a non-profit organization that empowers Muslim women and encourages their participation in all aspects of society. Specifically, MWL has attempted to reframe the symbolism of veiling as an expression of faith and also activism as opposed to oppression. Furthermore, these organizations argue that veiling should not be conflated with piety, as many pious Muslim women choose not wear the hijab.44
The continued association of veiling with suppression comes on the heels of increased engagement by Muslim women in civil society discourses. In North America, Muslim women do not enjoy the same freedom and security to practice their faith as those who practice Christianity. While the habit worn by Catholic nuns is understood to be a sign of piety and religious commitment, Islamic covering tends to be viewed from a lens of suspicion. This disparity is primarily due to Islam as being perceived not as part of the Judeo-Christian tradition but rather as a hostile foreign religion. In North America, secular liberal and Christian conservative think tanks argue that veiling should not be permitted in secular Western societies.45 Consequently, Muslim women who veil face additional prejudices and discrimination, since this practice is perceived as a threat to secular values. Moreover, Muslim women’s political and theological positions are frequently met with derision, resulting in leaving these women in a defensive stance. The situation is particularly challenging for Muslim women in North America who hold positions of power or are in the public eye, as they face constant pressure to prove their loyalty to their adopted countries while simultaneously being pushed to condemn Islamic extremism.46
These accounts are reflective of the minimal change in the Western narrative surrounding Islam and Muslim women, perpetuating a neo-Orientalist perception of women as victims of their cultural and religious traditions in need of liberation. It is within this context that individuals active in Islamic women’s organizations operate. Muslim women are well aware that to impact Western outlooks and policies toward themselves, it is essential to be active in the North American sociopolitical discourse. Having been misrepresented by both rightwing conservative and liberal democrats in the political sphere, Muslim women are reclaiming their identity and agency through activism and involvement in Islamic women’s organizations. By doing so, they challenge prevailing narratives and contribute to a more nuanced understanding of their experiences and perspectives.
Since 9/11, there has been a significant interest and increase in women’s political activism. A number of Muslim women’s organizations, such as the MWL and the Association of Muslim Women in America, were established to campaign for the rights of Muslims in the American political sphere. These organizations not only encourage Muslim women to be socially and politically active but also provide educational resources and training to make women aware of their Islamic rights. By doing so, they aim to prevent Muslim women from being sidelined by stereotypes reinforced by both rightwing think tanks and conservative Muslim leaders. Meanwhile, politically active Muslim women have successfully run for office, epitomizing Muslim women’s involvement in North American sociopolitical life. Specifically, politicians Ilhan Omar and Rashida Harbi Talib have become the first Muslim-identifying women to serve in the United States Congress.
Expanding on this trend, the Muslims for America group serves as an example of a Republican organization committed to helping more American Muslims, in particular women, become involved in the political system. One of its founders, Seeme Gull Hasan, has served as a Republican regent since the early 2000s. A longtime member of the national Republican Party, Seeme has held various positions within the party. In 2003, she created Muslims for Bush, with the goal of promoting President George W. Bush and supporting his foreign policies. Muslims for America has collaborated with the Republican National Committee and actively sets up American Muslim Republican Caucuses across the country. The group seeks to inform and educate politicians about Islam, in their efforts to recruit Muslims against terrorism, as they believe American Muslims to be central to achieving this goal.47
In addition to these organizational efforts, politicians such as Reema Dodin and Huma Abedin have also made their mark on the American political landscape in different capacities. Dodin currently works in the Biden administration as the deputy director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, making her the most senior Palestinian American woman ever to serve in the executive branch office of the President of the United States. Similarly, Huma Abedin, who has been involved in public service and national politics, was the former vice chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and served as the deputy chief of staff to Clinton when she was US Secretary of State. Another activist, Linda Sarsour, exemplifies the grassroots work of Muslim women in North America. In 2017 and 2019, she co-organized the Women’s March and was named as one of the one hundred most influential people by Time magazine in 2017. Sarsour, a prominent voice on immigration policy reform and the Black Lives Matter movement, is also involved in a variety of civil rights causes that extend beyond women’s rights issues.
Muslim Women’s Organization in Perspective
The active engagement of Muslim women in civil society organizations marks a new chapter in the activism of Muslims in North America. Along with the changes in the role of Muslim women in the social and political domains, the disposition of Muslim organizations in North America has also experienced change over time. A new generation of Muslim women is striving to merge the American tradition of activism with the Islamic notion of gender justice. These changes within Islamic organizations are increasingly impacted by the debates over who should represent and interpret Islam in North America.
Muslim women living in North America are uniquely situated to advance a more complex and diversified representation of themselves. They do so by being active in civil society organizations and political discourses. By participating in civil society organizations and political discourses, women-led Islamic organizations in North America draw inspiration from their faith in order to challenge patriarchy, confront stereotypes, and advance gender justice in the Muslim community and beyond. These women work under the heavy gaze of secular feminists who view Islam as an oppressive religion, while also actively addressing problematic practices within their own religious and cultural communities.48
The involvement of women in Islamic organizations has the potential to dismantle the dominant neo-Orientalist narrative of Muslim women as oppressed and in need of liberation. Across North America, Muslim women are challenging the dichotomy that associates secularism with women’s emancipation and Islam as counter to women’s liberation. These women embody an alternative expression of agency, distinct from a secular understanding, while recognizing the structural limitations imposed by both religious and secular institutions. By challenging, resisting, and at times engaging with the traditional and modern power structures, Muslim women active in Islamic organizations can reclaim their agency and renegotiate their identities.
Building on this evolution, the significance of supporting women’s faith-based activism and leadership within the broader context of women’s engagement in civil society discourse becomes increasingly evident. This approach incorporates and critically examines the role of faith in the pursuit of gender justice in Islam, rather than excluding it. Female activists and scholars advocate for gender justice, which they consider as intrinsic to the Islamic tradition. Their intellectual and leadership contributions have brought women’s issues to the forefront of Islamic activism, offering a new generation of Muslim women alternative leadership models. Such activism has cultivated a more inclusive and equitable environment, enabling Muslim women to advocate for justice and equality within their religious and cultural contexts.
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1. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Jane I. Smith, and Kathleen M. Moore, Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 4.
2. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, A History of Islam in America: From the New World to the New World Order (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 4–5.
3. Sylviane A. Diouf, Servants of Allah African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (New York: New York University Press, 1998).
4. Mariam Cooke, “Deploying the Muslimwoman,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 24, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 91–119.
5. Juliane Hammer, American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012), 163.
6. Hammer, American Muslim Women, 6.
7. Hammer, American Muslim Women, 199.
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10. Aziz, “Muslim ‘Veil’ Post-9/11,” 1–3.
11. Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 1–39.
12. Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 1–39.
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16. Aziz, “Muslim ‘Veil’ Post-9/11,” 12; Hammer, American Muslim Women, 124–146; Haddad, Smith, and Moore, Muslim Women in America, 133–141; Line Nyhagen, “Mosques as Gendered Spaces: The Complexity of Women’s Compliance with, and Resistance to, Dominant Gender Norms, and the Importance of Male Allies,” Religions (Basel, Switzerland) 10, no. 5 (2019): 321; and Juliane Hammer, “Activism as Embodied Tafsīr: Negotiating Women’s Authority, Leadership, and Space in North America,” in Women, Leadership, and Mosques: Changes in Contemporary Islamic Authority, ed. Masooda Bano and Hilary Kalmbach (Boston: BRILL, 2012), 457–480.
18. Haddad, Smith, and Moore, Muslim Women in America, 143.
19. Hammer, American Muslim Women, 1.
21. Haddad, Smith, and Moore, Muslim Women in America, 123.
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24. Haddad, Smith, and Moore, Muslim Women in America, 18.
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45. Barazangi, “Muslim Women’s Islamic Higher Learning,” 39.
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48. Shahnaz Khan, Muslim Women: Crafting a North American Identity (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000), 3–23.