Triple Minority: Black Muslim Women in America

I’m giving a talk at the end of this month on the experiences of Black Muslim women in America. Insha’Allah, I plan on outlining the historical development of Islam in the Black American community and Black women’s roles in the American Muslim community. Much of my talk will draw heavily from two works: Carolyn Moxley Rouse’s Engaged Surrender and  Jamillah Karim’s American Muslim Women. I believe are great follow-ups to Sherman Jackson’s work, Islam and the Blackamerican. They are intriguing ethographic works offering insight into both the experiences of Black Muslim women, the challenges they face in gendered spaces that privilege men over women and in a society that often views them with pitiful contempt. They complicate notions that Muslim women are buying into their own oppression, by showing how becoming Muslim was an empowering act that challenged the racism, sexism, and classism in American soceity. I really liked how both studies shed  light on the ways in which Black Muslim women participate in  Quranic exegesis and interpret Islamic beliefs and practices.At the same time neither study glosses over the challenges many Black women face within the Muslim community and society at large. What is more important is that these studies provide so much  more insight into the actual workings of communities than a study from the top up. For anybody interested in the history and the current condition of Black American Muslims, you should really read these works. In fact, you should encourage more studies about Muslim women. I hope that there is somebody with the training and sensitivity of these authors to do an in depth study of the Black Muslim women within the Salafi movement. I do think that there should be work done on how masculinity is constructed in the American masajid.

One of the ironic things about working on women in Muslim communities, is that you can easily find yourself marginalized. Even creating a space for women in the masjid can be a double edged sword, as I discovered when I gave a recent talk. Many of the women wanted to have a women only event. As a result, my husband was excluded from coming. I attend many of his talks and sermons to support him. He felt it was unfortunate that he couldn’t support me. I knew of another couple where the husband had wanted to come hear my talk. It is likely that the wife decided to not attend because she would have been by herself. When I first learned that my talk on the Spirituality of Muslim women was women only, I became mortified. First, because the times I have attended masajid in Philadelphia I have often received an icy reception. There are no warm welcomes, or even a friendly curiosity over a new face in even a small community. Usually it is a polite ignore, which I find disconcerting, especially coming from California where I met most of my friends through random encounters at events. Second, the idea of women only talk reinforced the problem that I was just highlighting about the lack of women’s voices in Islamic scholarship. I noted that on campus topics focusing on women and family issues  were poorly attended by Muslim men. But a women only event meant that no man would know about Muslim women’s spirituality. Why should they care? Most have mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and associates. Perhaps knowledge the can offer understanding or even inspire a bit more respect for our spiritual journey. I do believe that people are well intentioned, but I became flustered when somebody approached me as they were attempting to develop women only programming. Imam Anwar, on the other hand, is working to create an environment that both allows for women to carve out a space safe from the male gaze and a platform for women to be heard in their community. Just because I am a woman does not mean that I deal with women only topics and even if I do begin to write about Muslim women, I believe those issues should be of interest to the broader Muslim community.

Sometimes I am at a loss for words. There were times when I first began researching for my lecture that I was frustrated and even saddened by the condition of women’s scholarship I read those books relating to the struggles that each woman faced, personally moved when those scholars gave voice to the struggles I experienced. This is why I started blogging and why I was so relieved to find a community of Black Muslim bloggers to engage in these discussions with. Through this discourse I even found my soul mate.

I’m reading a lot of blogs by Muslim American women in general, and Black American Muslim women in particular to gain insight into life experiences that may reflect my own or differ in multiple ways.  In an effort to get a better sense of the issues that Black Muslim Women face in America, I am making a general call for input. I am developing a non-scientific survey to get a sense of what are our primary concerns. Is it discrimination in the broader society as Muslims, within the Black Muslim community as women, within the broader Muslim community as Black women? Are we concerned about marriage, raising children, economic disparities, losing our children to drugs and gang violence, lack of resources, access to Islamic education? In the meantime, feel free to comment and let me know your greatest concerns.  Believe me, my talk will also high light many of the rewards of being Muslim in America. If you don’t want to focus on the negative, please feel free to write what you want people to know about you.

8 thoughts on “Triple Minority: Black Muslim Women in America

  1. Insha’Allah I definitely plan to attend this talk-so please post up the details. I was trying to get over the bridge for your last talk-but unfortunately could not make it.

    I am familiar with Karim’s work. I think its focus on bridging the gaps between African-American and South Asia Muslim women did not allow the space for her to really delve into the specific needs of African American Muslim women.

    I really don’t know where to start. I do worry about everything you have stated. We as BAM women are put into a situation where we must battle within and without. So often we want to call out our brothers but we also acknowledge the nuances of their struggle and remain deeply committed to them as they are our husbands, uncles and brothers in faith.

    Yet, as your post alludes to we have some serious intra-gender tensions too & for me this is also a serious problem. As your experience demonstated with your talk becoming sister only-there are gender paradigms within BAM circles that are not necessarily policed by men but by other sisters. This tends to make it difficult for sisters who think out of the box to find others sisters to commune with.

    I think that in a lot of ways black American women are drawn to Islam because it allows for a new defining of womanhood (a womanhood that has previously been denied)-yet it also means that we have some codified ways of thinking about what our place is within the community. It can be truly confining at times. And I believe it cuts across generations.

    As some black women were never too hype on feminism (because of its blindness to the intersections of class, race and gender) sisters who look for other ways to think about gender and Islam are deemed to be inauthentic or influenced by thoughts outside of the tradition rather than within the tradition.

    I also am really interested in issues of personal finance & women in general. I am alarmed by the number of elderly American women who die in poverty. What does this mean for black women and BAM women more specifically? How are issues of inheritance, personal savings & work played out against issues of broken kinship in our communities?


  2. Salaam alaikum Samira,
    I do hope you are able to make it out. I’d love to meet you. I’m feeling the intra-issue pain right now. I agree with you that there is a major linkage to poverty and our elderly sisters(especially single BAM women). I think part of it stems from gender vulnerabilities that come their role as homemakers and primary care givers to children. BAM women have to deal with broken kinship and high rates of divorce. And on top of that, they are often discouraged from seeking spousal support through the state. I think that some ways that masculinity is constructed in the masajid does not create accountability for the behavior of many men, increasing women’s vulnerabilities. Nor is there coaching on how to be good husbands. Compare marriage classes and books written to specifically women audiences to those given to men. Sigh…


  3. As salaamu alaikum and Ramadhan mubarak,
    Thank you for your commentary on women only programming. It reminds me, and I’d like to remind others that Allah says in the Quran that Maryam is the model for all humankind…it does not say that Maryam is the model just for women. While there is probably a time for women-only programming, there also must me an opportunity for men to learn about and learn to value believing women, particularly ones who are role models for all humankind. may Allah bless your efforts.


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  6. Thank you for this! A topic that hasn’t been delt with nearly enough!

    You raise some really interesting points and many that I can relate to personally. (I actually know Dr.Jamillah Karim whose book is cited in the piece. My sister went to high school with her (the same high school I later attended). I don’t know whether that is just a happy coincidence or indicative of the small number of published African American Muslim female scholars!

    I’ve also written on this subject in the past and I remember one of my mentors commenting that I “stand powerfully at the intersection”(Female/Black/Muslim) a comment that has stuck with me and emboldened my voice a great deal.

    I also really appreciated your words on Muslim men’s lack of interest in Muslim women’s spirituality. I was listening to a lecture series on the Wives of the Prophet(SAW) recently and became infuriated as the imam kept saying “She is a great example for you SISTERS”…Ummm, NO, they were great examples for ALL Muslims!

    Best of wishes for the lecture series and I would also be very interested on the details of time/place and of whether any recording will be made.


  7. I am an African American Muslim convert who lives in Raleigh, NC. I was raised Christian and was very active in the church. I sang in the choir, volunteered, and felt the church members were my family. I converted to Islam in 1997. I married a African Muslim man that was raised Muslim in a Muslim country. The one experience that I deal is that there has not been an openly warm welcome from other Muslim women. I do not know any other African American Muslim women converts and I see a divide in the Muslim community between Muslims who are from different countries. For example, Arabs stay with the Arabs, Africans stay with the Africans. I have shyed away from attending the masjid because I feel and see this divide. The seminars are in arabic or in the native language/tribal language. It is rarely in English. I love being a Muslima, but I will say I miss feeling really part of a spiritual family/community.


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