A Nation Can Rise No Higher Than Its Women: African American Muslim Women in the Movement for Black Self Determination” is the name of Philadelphia-born Bayyinah S. Jeffries’ recent book.
The title not only suggests the important contribution of black Muslim women to the advent of Islam in American society, but also the struggle to forge an identity for themselves in the process.
Muslim women have historically faced challenges based on the culture of Middle Eastern nations and sexism. These challenges existed prior to the advent of Muhammad and resurfaced after his passing. Many gains under Prophet Muhammad were reversed, bearing witness to his warning that:
Three generations after me, will not be of me.
He meant some of those who came later would have the name Islam but would deviate from his path.
“Obviously there are challenges that Muslim women face. As there are challenges that women everywhere face in terms of gender discrimination. It’s not that we don’t experience gender discrimination because we do,” said doctoral candidate Donna Auston.
“But we want to get away from the assumption that because I’m a Muslim I’m more oppressed than I would be if I wasn’t,” added Auston, a student in an anthropology program that examines identity and race among American Muslims.
Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, senior lecturer in Islamic and African American studies at the University of Florida and one of the founding members of the Philadelphia-based Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship and Mosque, said African American Muslim women “have never been marginalized.”
“African American women have played a major role in the spread and the nurturance of Islam in the African American community. They’ve always been in leadership roles, been in the forefront of our movement in our community,” she said in a telephone interview.
Other Philadelphia black Muslim women activists, in addition to Auston and Simmons, include Kateria Moore, who sits on the executive committee of the local chapter of the Council For American Islamic Relations and doctoral candidate Kameelah Mu’Min Rashad, the Interfaith Fellow and Muslim Chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of the Muslim Wellness Foundation.
“The way I’ve integrated my work as a chaplain and also a mental health advocate is to talk about how to integrate emotional well being and conversations about the importance of spirituality and religion,” said the doctoral candidate in clinical psychology with a concentration in marriage and family.
When it comes to the “dominant (Islamic) narrative” women and young people sometimes find themselves alienated, she said. “So we have to be able to talk about the internal and external barriers to really have a healthy religious identity.”
In addition, she said, you also have to take into consideration for women other ways communities are “marginalized.” This includes, race, culture as well as gender. She added external marginalization includes “Islamaphobia.”
“It’s often women that bear the brunt of this narrative of Islam being oppressive. So in some way who we are becomes a battle ground for so many different issues,” she said. Moore, who has a doctorate degree in Urban Environmental Sciences, contends that “now in Philadelphia Muslim women are realizing that we have a voice and we can use that voice.”
Her sentiments are bolstered by Jeffries, the author of the book on African American Muslim women, she writes that women “converted to a religion that required them to stand out demonstrates their agency, courage, earnestness and willingness to put ourselves on the frontline.”