When I was invited in 2012 to speak at Harvard University’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Conference, “Expressions of Islam in Contemporary African American Communities,” I was in the middle of my research for my new book Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam, co-authored with Dawn Marie-Gibson.
I immediately knew the two women whose narratives I would share: Sandra El-Amin, Ph.D., and Khaleelah Muhammad, J.D. I chose their narratives partly because they intricately capture the ways in which Muslim women contribute to black feminist thought and practice.
Like black Christian women, black Muslim women both accommodate and resist gender norms in their communities within the context of the broader goal of racial justice. Muslim women, however, contribute to black feminist discourses in ways specific to Muslim ideals and practices.
For Sunni women formerly in the Nation of Islam (NOI), like Sandra, and women currently in the NOI, like Khaleelah, the Muslim Girls Training class frames their gender negotiations. An all women’s space, Muslim Girls Training cultivates sisterhood and women’s leadership. But the goals of MGT, i.e., to teach women how to keep house, how to rear children, and how to take care of a husband, have also made MGT a space for women’s reinterpretation and self-definition given men’s tendency to see women’s roles in ways more confining than women have imagined them.
Contrast also characterizes Sandra’s and Khaleelah’s narratives, making them excellent choices for analysis. The two narratives stand in contrast to each other as one narrative demonstrates movement from the Nation to Sunni Islam, while the other shows movement from Sunni Islam to the Nation. But also, the two narratives stand in contrast to the dominant narratives of women in the Warith Deen Mohammed community and Minister Farrakhan’s resurrected Nation. To be sure, these women’s narratives are exceptional, but at the same time, shed much light on the collective thought and practice of black Muslim women.
Sandra El-Amin joined the Nation of Islam in 1974, just a year before Warith Deen Mohammed’s transition. She and her fiance had recently returned to Atlanta, GA, having graduated from Smith College and Harvard, respectively. “The Do-For-Self piece and the economic piece,” Sandra stated, were attractive, but the religious piece, “I thought it was made up, but my position was that if white people can make up their religion, we can make up ours too.”
Of all the women I have interviewed, Sandra was the least nostalgic and the most critical of the Nation of Islam. And she was the only one who, unprompted, described herself as a feminist. “I didn’t like the stuff about serving the husband. I decided it was a little chauvinistic.” But Sandra was not vocal in her disagreement. “I didn’t rock the boat. I was just like, ‘Okay, well, we just have to go along with this to get this piece over here which is good,” referring to the economic aspirations.
However, Sandra made sure that she was not personally restricted by the Nation’s gender ideology. Her husband knew very well her feminist sentiments, and therefore, “There were certain things that were not imposed on me,” she said.
When Imam Mohammed became the leader, Sandra’s private resistance was supported. “I remember one lecture that Imam Mohammed gave to the community and he was telling the men that they were crazy if they thought that under Master Elijah Muhammad, that the women thought they [meaning the men] were gods. Because his thing was that any woman that’s been married to you and slept with you and washed your dirty draw’s, knows that you not no god. So, his position was that women never believed that, but just went along with it, and that certainly was true for me.”
With Imam Mohammed, the gender ideology changed from notions of men’s superiority to ideas of equal but different roles. “It made sense to me that women had a primary responsibility for homemaking and rearing children, training children, even in terms of establishing schools. But in terms of intelligence and talent, there was no superiority. In God’s sight, piety or good conduct was something that elevated one person in rank over another, not gender.” Here, Sandra makes reference to one of the Qur’anic verses most cited my Islamic feminists.
Imam Mohammed not only changed the rhetoric, but also he altered the community infrastructure in ways that reflected the new gender perspective. Two important ways mentioned by Sandra were, one, the establishment of CERWIS, the Committee to Enhance of the Role of Women in Society—note the focus on society rather than the home—and two, opening Minister classes up to women. Sandra attended ministry classes even before her husband.
By the mid-eighties, Sandra’s husband had become the imam of the former Nation community. For many years, Imam Plemon served as both the imam and the director of the Mohammed Schools, the community’s elementary and high school, from which I graduated in 1993. Sister Sandra, as I called her, was my English teacher from 4th to 10th grade.
The ultimate community goal for Sandra was to establish a competitive Muslim school. Although her husband was the official leader, much of the schools’ development came from insights she offered to her husband behind the scenes. She eventually became the schools’ director in 2001. Her solid work made her qualified for the school’s leadership but what actually opened the doors for Sandra after fifteen years of service was accreditation standards that required a director with a master’s degree, which only she had. For the sake of her own children and others in the community, Sandra served behind her husband/leader, but she feels that the time it took the community to honor her leadership was long overdue.
Around the same time, Sandra began reading the work of Islamic feminists including Fatima Mernissi. She was quite inspired but continued to keep her sentiments private. Sandra explained, “For many years I preached outwardly whatever I thought was appropriate for my position either as the Imam’s wife or the director of the school.”
Sandra believes that was the right approach at that time, but says, “I don’t think the person who I am now could have carried that out as well now as I did then.” Sandra and her husband divorced in 2004. Six months later, she resigned from her position at Mohammed Schools. She now feels “freer” to voice her perspectives since she does not carry the title imam’s wife or director of the school. She playfully referred to this new place as her “coming out.”
As part of coming out, Sandra has begun to carve out her philosophical position as a Muslim woman: “After 30 years of being Muslim, I’ve discovered that there are things about Islam in the way it’s interpreted and preached by men that take away from it’s pure concept.”
Sandra identifies Amina Wadud as one of her favorite scholars and shares her position on women’s prayer leadership: “I don’t understand why women have to sit in the back or sit behind a wall or curtain…I think that a woman is equipped and knowledgeable enough to lead the prayer and in many instances know and understand the religion better than any man.”
Sandra’s view on prayer leadership is quite radical and not representative of most women in her community. However, her view on gender roles has not changed much from what she described as Imam Mohammed’s view: “[A woman can pursue any career she likes], but if you have a family, the society can’t afford for her to neglect that kind of primary responsibility. So, I feel like if you are blessed to be a mother, you need to be a mother and that takes precedent over anything else. At the same time, I don’t think there is anything that a woman cannot do…We were all put here to develop our talents, gifts and abilities, not to just hold them within ourselves.”
In the same year that Sandra resigned from the school, she founded Sacred Diva, a community-based organization addressing the spiritual wellness of women and girls. Sacred Diva partners with other organizations to serve women who have experienced different types of life trauma including homeless women and abused and neglected teenage girls. Sandra explained, “Sacred Diva is the archetype of the totally self- actualized woman that every woman was intended to be. We are talking about the woman who reaches her highest development or evolution and my belief is that’s an ideal that God has for each of us. So, every woman is a sacred diva but few of us know it.”
Jamillah Karim is author of Women of the Nation and American Muslim Women. She is a former Professor of Religion at Spelman College. She specializes in Islam and Muslims in the United States (African American, South Asian and Arab), Islamic Feminism, Race and Ethnicity, and Immigration and Transnational Identity.