Striving for Muslim Women's Human Rights – The Feminist Wire

Striving for Muslim Women's Human Rights

By Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons

I am a practicing Muslim and an Islamic scholar who received my Ph.D. with a focus on Islamic law and women from Temple University in 2002.[1] I came into the tradition via Sufism, the Mystical Stream in Islam. It was my great fortune to meet and study with a Sufi Master from Sri Lanka, M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen[2] who I met here in the United States in the fall of 1971. Meeting him was the culmination of my search for a spiritual guide who could answer questions about the nature and purpose of existence that I had been posing to my parents, ministers, Sunday school teachers, and the like since I was 12 years old. Questions that had troubled me for over a decade included: “Who am I?” “Why have I come here?” “Why are we all here?” “What is this spectacle in which we are all involved really about?” Prior to meeting and studying with this highly revered teacher, I had not found satisfactory answers from any of the sources I went to with my queries. Bawa practiced gender inclusiveness and taught a mystical and non-hierarchical gender interpretation of Islam that valued women and encouraged our leadership and participation in all aspects of the community. I was drawn to the Islam that Bawa described: an Islam of equality, peacefulness, and unity that is exemplified in the human being’s life by inner patience, contentment, trust in God, and praise of God. This was a spiritual state of consciousness accessible to all human beings. Bawa often reiterated the “feminine” qualities of Allah, His/Her compassion, and His/Her mercy as being the two most important attributes of God. This was the Islam I embraced.

I grew up in the Jim Crow South during the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s. During this period, I experienced virulent racism and what I would later identify as sexism in all of the institutions with which I interacted. But I also saw strong women in my family, my church and my school who resisted both racism and sexism, overtly and covertly. These were women with positive views of themselves and their ability to make a way out of no way, just as their foremothers had done. They were the backbone of my family, my church, and my school. These women made a strong impression on me, and because of them I never questioned my ability to accomplish any goals that I sought to achieve. This attitude propelled me into the swirling vortex of the Student Sit-In Movement and later the Civil Rights Movement where I became a leader, working as a full time field secretary in SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), primarily in Mississippi and Georgia.[3]  I served as the Project Director in Laurel, Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964 and for some twelve months thereafter. I was also one of the founding members of the Atlanta Project of SNCC, which developed the ideological underpinning for the Black Power thrust within SNCC and served as the Project’s Assistant Director.[4] During my time in SNCC, I was beaten, jailed, chased by the Ku Klux Klan (had the tires shot out during one such chase!), led marches, and held my ground. There were many female comrades in this struggle who withstood much more than I and were known and respected for their leadership, their insight, and skills.

I was one of many women in the Civil Rights Movement who stood shoulder to shoulder with men as we confronted the officials who upheld the Jim Crow system that we were hell bent on destroying. In many of the rural and small town areas in which we worked, women built the movement and sustained it. There would not have been a Civil Rights Movement without the women – known and unknown – who were the foundation for the structures of change we built.[5]

The above biographical information is an important backdrop for my views on Islam, Muslims, and women. It will help to explain my inability to submit to misogynist interpretations of Islam used to lock women into second-class status or worse in many majority Muslim states and institutions. My own experience with women from my childhood until now prevents me from succumbing to many of the ideas about women’s inferiority and their place in the world espoused by many men (and sadly women too) in numerous Muslim societies and institutions, including those in the West. In my work described briefly above, I learned that most if not all of what had been taught about Black people in this country were lies told to keep African Americans mentally enslaved and to bolster white supremacy. Everything possible was done to make whites feel innately superior to blacks and for blacks to feel completely inferior to whites. The entire Jim Crow system was devised and rigidly maintained for this purpose. I also came to learn that the stereotypes promoted about women as the “weaker” sex were used to justify and bolster the patriarchal system in which men control women’s lives. I saw how religion and culture were used to make women compliant and often complicit in their own oppression. I have seen how religion, tradition, and culture have been abused historically to convince women of their inferiority to men and their need to be obedient and compliant to the men in their lives.

Because of my longstanding rejection of institutionalized patriarchy, including that found within some Islamic communities, my relationship with Islam has been wrought with ambivalence and tension.

Yet, I have made Umrah – the small Pilgrimage to Mecca – and found it one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life. I love dearly the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen mosque that I and the disciples of Bawa constructed in Philadelphia in 1984. Spending time there in contemplation and prayer are special times for me. The prayers, the month of fasting (Ramadan) and other Islamic rituals are dear to my heart. I lived for two years in Jordan and traveled regularly to Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. There is much about these cultures that I love and embrace in spite of the blatant sexism I saw and experienced. I have traveled to other parts of the Muslim majority world where I have witnessed varying degrees of sexism not unlike what I experience here in the U.S. Additionally, I have spent time in numerous Muslim communities here in the U.S. where I often find it difficult to accept, as many feminist Muslims and their allies have since the nineteenth century, what I see and hear. These include the support for the Personal Status provisions of Shari’ah law[6] by many Muslims and their denial of its discrimination against women and non-Muslims, which I find distressing. The emphasis on women wearing hijab and other “Islamic” garments to show that they are modest believers is troubling. The rejection of women as prayer leaders, or callers to the prayers, I also find difficult to accept. I stand with those progressive Muslims who reject the idea that women cannot lead mixed gender prayers or give the call to prayer. There are Muslim communities here in the U.S. where women give the call to prayer, lead prayers, and give the Friday sermon. It was my great pleasure to worship with such a group in Atlanta, Georgia in May of this year. The emphasis on women’s biological role as determinative of every aspect of their life as well as the promotion of gender segregation in public spaces greatly disturbs me. It is saddening, but not surprising, to see that such views are also espoused here in the U.S. by other religious groups.

Even more difficult for me is the idea, still clung to by many, that the woman is to be obedient to male family members who have the right to control her. Again we see these same sentiments expressed here in the U.S. by those who identify with the Christian Right. I am saddened by the use of the more misogynist passages from the Hadith[7] as well as sexist interpretations of Qur’anic texts to justify the views and practices being embraced, which are unacceptable for me personally.

Equally, if not more troubling, is the widespread resistance to a public exchange of ideas within the Muslim community, especially when initiated by women, who are expected to “accept” male perspectives and interpretations, many of which were developed in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries of the Common Era. These conservative interpretations defy what I and many progressive Muslims see as the essentially egalitarian message of the Qur’an and the early Muslim community when women such as Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.), Aishah bint Abu Bakr, said to be the favorite wife of the Prophet (S.A.W.), and other women played significant leadership roles in the bourgeoning community.

Many Muslims – women and men – do not accept these retrograde views and are on the front lines fighting for women’s human rights. We women who consider ourselves feminists are questioning the male and often misogynist interpretations of the sacred tenants of Islam. We are focusing a feminist lens on Islam’s canon and are deriving different interpretations from those that have prevailed for centuries. “Seeing a single essence or ‘spirit’ of Islam, a single blueprint for gender roles…proves difficult. Islam is not one thing, but rather a set of beliefs and values that evolved over time in rhythm with changing historical conditions and local customs and practices with which it came into contact.”[8]

We feminist Muslims – as our Jewish and Christian sisters have done – are bringing this insight and information to the forefront. We are arguing that Islam is NOT a monolithic structure etched in stone for eternity. We are seeking to separate Islam the religion from culture, tradition, and the social mores of the societies in which Islam arose and took root. We are reinterpreting the sacred texts anew from a feminist perspective. We are reviewing the history of the religion and are finding and bringing to the foreground earlier interpretations of earlier sects or groups in Islam whose views were more egalitarian, but were labeled heterodox and dismissed. We Muslim feminists seek to reinterpret, reconceptualize, contextualize, and historicize Islam and our societies’ rituals and practices.[9]

We know that we have a difficult task before us. Thirteen centuries of belief and cultural tradition are hard to change. But it is a struggle we must wage for our daughters and our daughters’ daughters.


Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer in Religion with a primary focus on Islamic Studies and African American Studies at the University of Florida. In addition to her academic studies of Islam, Simmons spent seventeen years as a student of the contemporary Sufi Master, M. R. Bawa Muhaiyadeen, and is a founding member of the Bawa Muhaiyadeen Fellowship and Mosque. Simmons spent her early years as an activist in the Civil Rights Movement, working for several years as a field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinting Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s, primarily in Georgia and Mississippi.

[1] I spent two years (1996-1998) on Fulbright and NMERTA Fellowships during dissertation research in Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Palestine focused on the impact of Islamic law on women, which culminated in my dissertation, The Islamic Law of Personal Status and Its Contemporary Impact on Women in Jordan.

[2] Muhammad Raheem Bawa Muhaiyadeen arrived in the U. S. on October 11th, 1971. He traveled extensively in the United States selflessly sharing his knowledge and experiences with people of every race, and religion as he had done for over fifty years in Sri Lanka.  He established the Bawa Muhaiyadeen Fellowship of North America in Philadelphia. Since then branches have spread throughout the United States and Canada as well as in Australia and the U.K. For more information on Bawa and the Fellowship see the official website of the Bawa Muhaiyadeen Fellowship at:

[3] See Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, “From Little Memphis Girl to Mississippi Amazon,” in Hands On The Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts By Women in SNCC, ed., by Faith S. Holsaert et al, Urbana, Chicago, & Springfield, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2010, pp. 9-32.

[4] See Winston A. Grady-Willis, Challenging U.S. Apartheid: Atlanta and Black Struggles for Human Rights, 1960-1977, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006.

[5] There are excellent books that have been written about women in the Civil Rights Movement. I highly recommend: Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers & Torchbearers 1941-1965, eds. Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Rouse, & Barbara Woods and Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement, edited by Betty Collier-Thomas and V. P. Franklin, New York University Press, 2001;

[6] Shari’ah or Islamic law is the moral code and religious law of Islam. Shari’ah deals with many topics including crime, politics and economics but it also covers religious and personal matters. For example, how one performs the ritual prayers in Islam are spelled out in the Shari’ah, as is how to perform the Fast of Ramadan or the Pilgrimage to Mecca. The Shari’ah also covers marriage, divorce, sexual intercourse, hygiene and the like. There are numerous books on Shari’ah in the English language that can be found easily on line. One such title is: Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Shari’ah Law: An Introduction, Oxford, England: Oneworld Press, 2008.

[7] The Hadith are the collections of the saying and actions of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) as remembered and recorded by his Companions. These collections are seen as authoritative and are considered second only to the Qur’an in their importance for the faith.

[8] Khalidi, Ramla, and Judith Tucker, “Women’s Rights in the Arab World.” Special Report of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), pp. 2-8, n.d.

[9] For a fuller treatment of my views on the global Muslim feminist for Human Rights see my essays, “Striving for Muslim Women’s Human Rights-Before and Beyond Beijing – An African American Perspective” in Windows of Faith: Muslim Women Scholar-Activists in North America, ed. by Gisela Webb, Syracuse, N.Y.: 2000, pp. 197-225 and “Are we up to the challenge? The need for a radical re-ordering of the Islamic discourse on women,” in Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, ed. by Omid Safi, Oxford, England: Oneworld Press, 2005, pp.235 – 248.