I write the narratives of African American Muslim women to challenge portrayals of Muslim women as oppressed and to challenge portrayals of black Muslim women as vastly different from black Christian women.
In my last post, I shared the narrative of Sandra El-Amin. Like most women who joined the Nation of Islam, she found its message of racial uplift attractive and compelling. However, she did not agree with parts of its gender ideology. In this way, she follows in the legacy of black Christian women who joined forces with black men in the church to resist racism while accommodating patriarchy. At the same time, black Christian women found ways to lead and advance women’s rights.
Sandra’s acceptance of Imam W. D. Mohammed in 1975 as the new Sunni leader of the NOI community falls in line with the dominant narrative of movement from the Nation of Islam to Sunni Islam. However, layers of her narrative as a Sunni Muslim defy our assumptions: she embraces Imam W. D. Mohammed’s traditional gender definitions—particularly women’s important role as mothers—but parts with Imam Mohammed on the question of women imams. Sandra believes that women should be permitted to be imams leading men and women in prayer and beyond.
I now turn to the narrative of Khaleelah Muhammad. Khaleelah’s narrative is intriguing because she challenges the dominant narrative of transition to Sunni Islam. Also, through Khaleelah’s narrative, we further discover parallels in the race and gender negotiations of Christian and Muslim women.
In her book Between Sundays, Marla Frederick analyzes the contours of black Christian women’s faith work in a post-civil rights era. Shifting is the primacy of race in women’s religious consciousness as personal transformation increasingly overshadows critique of structural injustices. We see this enhanced focus on the personal in Khaleelah’s narrative.
A woman of my generation, Khaleelah Muhammad joined the Nation of Islam in college in 1992. Instead of leaving the Nation for Sunni Islam, Khaleelah left Sunni Islam for the Nation. She converted to Islam at the University of Illinois and was the only African American in the Muslim Student Association and in the local mosque. Her experience was mostly negative and she attributed this to three major things: 1) the way that the Pakistani women did not want to stand next to her in the prayer line, 2) the way that women were jam-packed in an inferior prayer space, and 3) an incident with a very dear Pakistani American friend in which she indirectly told Khaleelah that her black skin made her ugly. Khaleelah recalled how hurt she was, “Here I was thinking that there was supposed to be no racism in Islam. As time progressed, I stopped going to the masjid, and I told myself I was a Muslim in my heart, but I have no desire to be around the ummah.”
Listening to Khaleelah’s story, I couldn’t believe that key themes I discuss in my first book on race relations in the American ummah would surface so poignantly. But even more fascinating I found the ways in which Khaleelah and other Nation women expressed the appeal of the Nation. The first time hearing Minister Farrakhan, “I actually fell in love with my true self as a black woman, as I had never been before,” Khaleelah described. “I felt empowered, as I had never felt before.”
Khaleelah’s expression fit a pattern that I had begun noticing in the conversion stories of Nation women today. That is, contemporary Nation women tend to describe the Nation foremost as a means to personal uplift, in contrast to the ways that women in Elijah Muhammad’s Nation consistently highlight Nation, or community, building as the organization’s strongest feature.
My observations return me to Marla Frederick’s book on contemporary black Christian women as she describes a religious culture influenced by televangelism, where individual transformation is emphasized over social change. For example, she describes Bishop T.D. Jakes “creating a different type of discourse for church women,” in which he “uttered a clarion call for women to take control of their lives. ‘If you love yourself, you wouldn’t allow [such and such],’ the new discourse insisted.”
Although Nation women’s narratives show them transformed on the individual level, with Minister Farrakhan as their leader, these women regularly meet the challenge to connect their personal lives to broader structures of injustice. Indeed, the topic of the minister’s lecture on the day Khaleelah discovered self-love was “Racism in Religion, Politics, Education and All Areas of Our Lives.”
But even with Minister Farrakhan’s unrelenting focus on racism, there has been a shift in Minister Farrakhan’s approach, what Khaleelah described as a greater emphasis on the “universality of Islam.” In fact, Khaleelah insisted that the Nation is not just about black people. “Some people think that we’re a nationalist organization, and we are not.” While nationalism is “about everything black,” that’s not “what Islam is about. Islam is a faith and nationalism is not.” I don’t think any statement more clearly conveys the shift in how Nation teachings are understood today.
The new approach of the Nation is most striking in the area of women’s contribution and leadership. The Nation’s ministry class is open to women, and Minister Farrakhan ordained the first female minister, Ava Muhammad, to head a Nation mosque in 1998. When Khaleelah was at a crossroads choosing between Sunni Islam and the Nation, she said, “When I saw the sisters in Muhammad’s vanguard in their militant uniforms and they were standing on a female minister, that was what sealed it for me.”
Witnessing Ava Muhammad’s ministry was critical for Khaleelah because she always wanted to be a Christian minister. Referring to her Pentecostal church, she recalled, “The first time I found out that women weren’t allowed in the pulpit, I said, ‘Hmm, that’s not gonna work for me.’” So once in the Nation, she joined the ministry class immediately. The very limited number of women actually ministering in the traditional sense,—only two have been officially ordained—Khaleelah attributes not to organizational structures in the Nation but instead to the difficulty to both care for children and carry “the duties of being at the rostrum every Sunday.”
Women, however, do minister in non-traditional ways, she noted, “because we are great at thinking outside the box given that our first responsibilities are to our husbands and our families. You will see us ministering to other women and children. And in my case and the case of so many other women, you will see us ministering in the community.” At the same time, Khaleelah challenges couples to find ways to make traditional ministry in the mosque work for women. “I am blessed in that I have a husband who supports my professional work.”
Khaleelah’s last remark resonates with the topic of Minister Ava Muhammad’s talk at the 1997 Million Woman March titled, “The Further Development of Black Women Who Are or Wish to Become Professionals, Entrepreneurs, and or Politicians.” Traditional gender roles are still upheld in the Nation, but like those in Sandra’s generation, women continue to expand their impact beyond domestic space. Khaleelah asserted, “I’m a career woman all the way. I love what I do, and there’s no way you can take me from it. But I have my priorities in order and my priority is my family.”
A mother of three, Khaleelah has a J.D. and is a community activist and organizer in Chicago. She coordinates the Ministry of Justice for the Nation of Islam at Mosque Maryam and works in the anti-violence movement. Her service to the Nation and her anti-violence work led to a position at St. Sabina, a famous black Catholic parish in Chicago, led by Father Michael Pfleger. In this interfaith partnership, Khaleelah manages the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, a reentry program catered towards youth between the ages of 18 and 24. Khaleelah describes Father Pfleger, who is white, as her boss and mentor. “I love him just as much I love the minister because both of them fight for justice.”
Given “the widespread complacency of our time,” to use Khaleelah’s words, she acknowledges that her activism is above average for members of the Nation, or even for those in the church. Nonetheless, Khaleelah embodies the ideal movement between social consciousness and personal transformation, which Khaleelah considers essential complements to each other, especially for black women whose self-esteem has suffered from white supremacy. “There’s nothing more empowering than providing someone the facility of not only getting the knowledge of self but becoming confident in self because all the justice work that I’ve wanted to do all my life, I don’t think I would have done effectively if I had the white supremacy in my head so strong as I had it when I was growing up.”
One of the most important ways that black women of faith address structural racism as it has affected their personal lives is by protesting hypersexualized images of black women. Frederick writes, “While white women” also experience “rape, teen pregnancy, and physical abuse, Black women’s experiences of sexuality are shadowed by a history of ownership, exploitation, and forced pregnancy for the sake of profit. Not being able to define who, when, where, and how their bodies would be engaged, Black women…engaged in countless struggles to assume authority over their own bodies.”
Therefore, black Christian women who make a very personal choice to reclaim their bodies as part of their faith practice, namely, committing to marital intercourse or celibacy, do also impact broader social structures that intersect to exploit black women.
Similarly, Minister Ava Muhammad has described portrayals of black women at two extremes, “an over-sexed woman on display” or “as an obese, miserable, angry, unattractive, manless female, who thus hates the world.”
In addition to a commitment to marital intercourse, women in the Nation of Islam also have Muslim modesty codes as a tool in creating platforms and discourses to protest stereotypical portrayals of black women. For example, Tamorah Muhammad founded Modest Models, Inc. whereby she links modesty and femininity to women’s empowerment. She stated, “The [demeaning] images can be reversed when Black women who have awakened to their true consciousness grow in numbers, create their own images, and avoid what their enemy tells them they should be.” In addition to protesting larger structures, modest and distinctly feminine dress also functions on a personal level as it symbolizes the Nation’s demand that a woman be honored and respected.
The deeply personal gender implications of racism for black women emerge in Khaleelah’s story. While Khaleelah tends to identify more with race-based justice work than gender-based, when I asked her whether the Nation’s race attitudes or its gender attitudes have had the greatest impact on her personally, she thought about the distinction for the first time, and was surprised to acknowledge that it was the gender attitudes having had the greatest impact. Similar to the way that Frederick describes sexual abuse as motivating Christian women to reclaim their bodies as part of their spiritual work, sexual violations as a young child inform how Khaleelah understands and embraces gender roles and practices in her religion. Before coming to the Nation, “I had hated that God had made me a woman because of the unfettered abuses that I had experienced at the hands of boys and men.”
But this changed with “the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad” which taught that “the woman was to be revered and respected…. Now I wear my femininity as a badge of honor. I’m proud to be a mother, I’m proud to be a wife…It’s the most prized gift that God could ever give. Because of what I know now and what I have been taught about roles and the nature of the male and the female, I have come to fall in love with myself as a woman and to fall in love with the man I was to marry.”
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.