Muslim Leaders Without Beards

The Columbia Spectator
March 22, 2006

A few weeks ago, in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy, when Canadian media wanted to speak with representatives of the Muslim community, they chose Muslim males without asking or even bothering to find leadership among Muslim women. It’s assumed that only Muslim men (preferably with beards!) are leaders. Rigid, unforgiving, and sexist voices are considered the voice of authentic Muslims by Western media. If a Muslim woman speaks out or is qualified to take a leadership role, however, she’s called militant. This poses a challenge because the struggle for gender equality, combined with the question of leadership among Muslim women, is becoming a global reality and is my personal Jihad (struggle).

I believe the leadership will emerge from North America, and it was to speak about my personal journey that I was invited by Chung Hyun Kyung, associate professor of ecumenical theology at the Union Theological Seminary at Columbia, to address her class studying Islam and Muslims. I participated in a panel of diverse Muslim women, speaking of our lives and leadership. With me were Aisha al-Adawiya, an African-American Muslim woman and founder and executive director of Women in Islam; Shqipe Malushi, a Sufi poet and writer from Kosovo who is part of Faith and Feminism dialogues; and Nureen Qureshi, a young television anchor and media consultant from Canada. These women work at grassroots levels and are some of the new voices in North America—the ones creating dialogue and safe spaces for other Muslim women. We believe that if men won’t give Muslim women their rights, then the faith will—all we have to do is reclaim what was originally given to us in Islam.

Columbia students were fascinated by the perspectives brought about by the panel of Muslim women and asked about a number of issues, ranging from terrorism to the Taliban. One student kept staring at Nureen, who is fair, light-eyed, and wears Western clothes. Finally she blurted out, “But you don’t look Muslim,” and the stereotypes started to abate. With humour and honesty, we dealt with the queries as best we could.

This populist women’s movement about leadership also has traction in Europe. At an early celebration of International Women’s Day, the International Federation of Women Against Fundamentalism and for Equality held a conference in Paris. The conference, titled “Women’s Leadership: Indispensable to the Struggle Against Fundamentalism,” was supported by 15 European organizations. Discussions ranged from fundamentalism as it exists in many faiths today to the challenges of female leadership.

Formed after Sept. 11, 2001, WAFE asserts that fundamentalism in all faiths has emerged as the biggest challenge for humanity. The battle for sexual equality and emancipation can’t be separated from the fight against extremism, its members say.

The international solidarity network Women Living Under Muslim Laws has identified anti-female policies as one of the warning signs of rising fundamentalism. Whether it’s abortion bans in the United States, opposition to head scarves in Europe, or forced veiling by the Taliban, whether it’s limiting women’s freedom of movement or their rights to education and work under dictatorial regimes, the leaders of these movements are always men, and the victims are always women.

The women, however, are insistent on making their voices heard.


The roster of speakers in Paris included multi-faith and diverse women from India, Africa, North America, and the Middle East, including members of parliaments from various European countries. The panelists identified that religious fanatics exist in every faith, and women have been exploited by religious leaders for centuries.

WAFE Chair Dame Elizabeth Sidney OBE explained that, in fundamentalism, all power rests with men, and she invited women to share that “burden” of power. She clarified that there is only 16.3 percent women’s participation in parliaments worldwide and 7 percent in the Arab States. She also pointed out U.N. statistics that say only 1 percent of the world’s revenue belongs to women.

During the discussions, what clearly emerged is that the critical element women need today is freedom, especially the freedom to make choices that enable them to be independent agents of positive change.

Muslim women’s voices were also heard this past weekend in Lansing, Mich., where the International Center of Michigan State University held its first conference on Islam, titled “Islam and Gender: Social Change and Cultural Diversity in Muslim Communities.” Among the presenters was Jasmin Zine, assistant professor of sociology at Wilfred Laurier University, who spoke about identity issues and the education of Muslim girls in Canada, both in Islamic and public schools. She also talked about double standards for girls and boys and reinforced the importance of gender equity, especially in light of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination this week.