Sunday, October 19, 2014

Homeschooling with Charlotte Mason, but not forgetting my Ashanti Roots

This school year I've decided to use the Charlotte Mason homeschooling approach for my sons, ages 4 and 6. Features of Charlotte Mason that influenced my choice included:

1. Listening to or reading "living" books, characterized by their outstanding literary quality; readings followed by student's narration.

2. Short lessons, 5 to 15 minutes per subject, for children my age.

3. Good character and habit formation.

4. Emphasis on nature and spending large parts of the day outside.

5. A liberal arts curriculum including music, picture study, handicraft, foreign language, and scripture study.

I decided on Ambleside Online, a CM curriculum, because it has been thoughtfully created by a group of homeschooling parents, and it is free.

A challenge, however, is that the history readings, at least for Year 1, are Eurocentric. Hence, I'm on the quest to incorporate readings on African and African American history and culture. (In particular, I am looking to substitute a book on the history of Britain with one on the history of Nubia.)

I want living books as described here in Charlotte Mason's words as, "fit and beautiful expression of inspiring ideas and pictures of life." The authors of living books are both knowledgeable and passionate about their subject. They display "imagination, originality, and the 'human touch.'"

The pursuit hasn't been easy, none usually are in the beginning, but I was quite delighted this past Friday morning when we opened two books that complemented each other wonderfully and inspired the soul and intellect.

The first, Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions, was recommended to me by once it noticed my search on children's book/African history. Awarded the Caldecott Medal in 1974, this book has been described as a "stunning ABC of African culture." My children were immediately captivated by its beautiful illustrations, and the prose is a delight.

For each alphabet there is a vignette that colorfully tells of a custom of one of twenty-six African peoples. Each ethnic group is marked on a map of the continent in the back of the book, which helps me to achieve my goal to specify the people or country when referring to an aspect of this vast continent. Hence, Ashanti instead of African in the title of this post.

The second book, Langston's Train Ride, is the one that truly inspired me to finally write a post on the pursuit to incorporate "living" reads recounting African and African American history. I randomly picked the book off the shelf at my local library a month ago and just happened to read it for the first time after reading from Ashanti to Zulu.

It was beyond perfect, and that has much to do with the fact that my children have memorized, or partially memorized, three of Langston Hughes poems. The first was the "Negro Speaks of Rivers," which I began reciting to my eldest when he was just a baby.

The author of the book, Robert Burleigh, notes, "I love the poetry of Langston Hughes. In Langston's Train Ride, I wanted to capture just one thing: the moment when Langston Hughes came to believe in himself as a writer." The book recounts his train ride from Ohio to Mexico in which he wrote "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," just out of high school.

Burleigh writes with rhythm and soul, channeling the spirits of our people. I loved that the book captures the process by which a young African American man, whose words my sons recite, was inspired to write poetry. Too, I loved that the vivid pictures and words reinforce our geography lessons, as the book traces Langston's train ride west and south, painting the varied landscapes of our country.

But most I loved its imagining Langston's thoughts as he crossed the Mississippi River:

    "I think of what this river means to my people. Slaves worked here on boats, in nearby fields, and alongside the banks, stacking sandbags to hold down floods. . . Whoosh. Words and phrases come rushing into my head. The names of other ancient rivers bubble up. African rivers. The Congo. The Nile. The Euphrates."

Of course the Nile and the Congo were highlighted on the map in Ashanti to Zulu, which we revisited.

Langston, the author tells us, looked at his reflection in the train window as he recited his new poem again and again. "Questions keep coming into my head: Am I really a poet? Is it possible? Can I sing my America, too, as other great poets have sung theirs? Can I?"

These lines, of course, alluded to Langston Hughes' poem "I, Too, Sing America," giving the boys and I license to recite.

Langston's Train Ride is truly a living book as it brought Hughes and his poetry to life for us one Friday morning.

#CharlotteMason #AfricanAmericanCharlotteMason #AfricanAmericanHomeschooling #ChildrensBooksAfrica 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Our legacy, too: Muslim women and the civil rights movement

“No one person owns this. This history is a history of thousands of people and we tell hundreds of those stories.”
When I heard former mayor of Atlanta Shirley Franklin speak these sentiments about the civil rights movement on the occasion of the opening of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in my hometown of Atlanta, GA, I could not help but think about the courageous women whose stories are told in my new book Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam, co-authored with Dawn Marie-Gibson.
Growing up in a Sunni mosque community in Atlanta, originally a temple in the Nation of Islam, I regularly heard the stories of men and women who converted to Islam to boldly protest racism and advance opportunities for African Americans. Through them, I felt that I had inherited firsthand the legacy of the civil rights movement. Later, however, I learned that the “Black Muslims,” as scholars called them, were not considered part of this movement. While the civil rights movement was marked by aspirations to integrate with whites, the Nation of Islam was labeled separatist because it promoted black pride and independence.
A few scholars, however, have resisted the tendency to write African American Muslims out of the movement. With efforts to see the movement beyond the black church and to include Muslim women among leaders of the civil rights era, womanist religious studies scholar Rosetta Ross devotes a chapter of her book Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights to Clara Muhammad, who contributed significantly to the NOI’s beginnings. Ross writes,
“Although she was not a part of what might be called the ‘mainstream’ Civil Rights Movement, Clara Muhammad’s role as one who helped construct the vehicle that transmitted notions of race pride to the Black masses made her a significant participant in the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement” (142).
It was during an interview with Karen, a former member of the Nation in Queens, New York that I realized that Nation women were not unlike the African American women of the civil rights movement. With a tone of “righteous discontent,” Karen described her dedication to the Nation of Islam but also her protest to some of the Nation practices that confined women. Her simultaneous alliance with and protest to male leaders in the organization immediately reminded me of the position of black Baptist women in the South as portrayed by Evelyn Higginbotham in her book Righteous Discontent.
Quite literally, Nation women were these women before converting. Before the Nation, they had membership or affiliation with the black church, and some were members of civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). No Nation woman that I met proved this connection to the civil rights movement as remarkably as Ana Karim.
Ana was no ordinary woman in the Nation—or person, for that matter. She was invited by Elijah Muhammad personally to join the organization. A SNCC activist carrying out voter registration work in poor, rural areas near Tuskegee Institute, where she attended college, Ana witnessed grave atrocities against African Americans. “I nearly lost my life,” Ana told me, her words bearing no exaggeration. Some of her peers were shot to death fighting for the rights of others. News of these courageous students made local newspapers that eventually fell into the hands of Elijah Muhammad. Upon his invitation, she sat with Muhammad who tried to convince her to join the Muslims. She initially declined, returned to Tuskegee, and witnessed one of the most horrific acts of inhumanity, perpetrated against a pregnant African American woman.
Elijah Muhammad’s call began to make sense to her: “It’s not that I feared death, but there was so much I wanted to do. I didn’t want to die not having accomplished anything—just die on a back road in some rural county and my body be buried in a cornfield or drowned somewhere in a stream. I didn’t want to die like that, so I left because I thought there was a higher mission, a better opportunity to help my people with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.”
Interviewing Ana was a highlight of my career for I had been chosen to tell the story of this remarkable African American Muslim woman. Ana went on to do extraordinary things in the Nation and in the Sunni community that emerged from the Nation under the leadership of Imam W. D. Mohammed. She rose as a leader of African American Muslims—men and women—because, she says, “I assumed the hardship of the civil rights movement. God prepares you for what’s coming in the future.” Ana proves that no one person or one religion owns this history.
Jamillah Karim is co-author (with Dawn-Marie Gibson) of Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam (NYU Press, 2014).
This piece was originally posted at from the square, nyu press blog.

Muslim women’s dress, a tool of liberation

It was in a black feminist/womanist course at Duke when I realized that black Muslim women fit squarely within black women’s tradition of navigating the complex of race, class, and gender struggles. Not, though, because there were any readings on black Muslim women. I understood that black Muslim women had fascinating narratives to be told because I grew up in a Sunni Muslim community in Atlanta with historical roots in the Nation of Islam.
Although readily imagined as a sign of oppression and male control, Muslim women’s dress is a prominent example of the ways in which black Muslim women have used their faith to address overlapping race and gender struggles. Black women scholars including Patricia Collins, bell hooks, and Melissa Harris-Perry have analyzed the ways in which pervasive stereotypes of black women have worked to deny them dignity and rights. The “jezebel” image, stereotyping black women as sexually loose, has its roots in slavery to justify the systematic raping of enslaved women. It is in fighting this image that I see long dresses, or the hijab, as tools of liberation.
Growing up, I constantly heard women in my Sunni community making a case for dressing modestly. “It is a protection,” they always told me. Former Nation women shared these sentiments again during research interviews. Islah Umar, who joined in 1970s Queens, noted that she loved the Nation’s modest dress codes for women: “It was a nice relief from being [seen as] a piece of meat in the street.” Jessica Muhammad, of Atlanta, similarly notes that it was great to be a part of a group whose men “respected women who covered and who called black women queens…[and other honorable names] we didn’t hear in the streets at that time.”
Dress may have even played a role in the very beginnings of the black Muslim movement. One report notes that Clara Poole, soon to be Clara Muhammad, decided to attend a meeting by Fard Muhammad, the founder of the Nation in 1930s Detroit, after a friend told her, “There’s a man who’s saying some things about our people, said we didn’t always dress like we dress. We once dressed in long flowing cloth and we were royal.” Clara brought her husband Elijah to the meeting with her, who would later become the leader of the Nation of Islam.
Contemporary Nation women continue to use dress as a liberating tool. Minister Ava Muhammad of Farrakhan’s Nation has encouraged women to resist the portrayal of the black woman as “an over-sexed woman on display.” Tamorah Muhammad founded Modest Models, Inc. as a platform to prove that “the [demeaning] images can be reversed when black women who have awakened to their true consciousness grow in numbers…[and] create their own images.”
The modest dress that has been embraced by and made meaningful to black Muslim women—from the time of Sister Clara Muhammad to the time of Minister Ava Muhammad—indicates the persistent damage of false racial images on black women and their ongoing faith resistance.
Jamillah Karim is co-author (with Dawn-Marie Gibson) of Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam (NYU Press, 2014). The two authors anticipate that their book will help to correct the absence of black Muslim women’s voices in women’s studies scholarship.
This piece was originally posted on March 20, 2014 at from the square, nyu press blog.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Speaking at altfem magazine's launch

I am looking forward to speaking on motherhood and African American women at altfem magazine's launch this Wednesday in DC. The magazine is featuring my article "Mothers to Society."

First Female Honoree in Academia, The 100 Influential Georgia Muslims

"These men and women are leaders who transform vision into action, surmount challenges, break down barriers, and spark innovation," said Islamic Speakers Bureau founder and executive director Soumaya Khalifa in making the announcement. "They work to attain success for their organizations and communities, transform the landscape of business, nonprofits, or government, and demonstrate positive characteristics and inspire good will."

Thank you Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta for this honor and initiative.

Here with Judge Fatima El-Amin, my high school classmate and full judge in Dekalb County Juvenile Court, and Abdullahi An-Na'im, Professor of Law at Emory University

Saturday, August 30, 2014

How my husband makes it easier to be a scholar and homeschooler

“More than anything, Jamillah wants to play a role in the growth of Islam in America and the positive growth of the African American community, beginning first with raising a Muslim family of her own.”

These were the words published in my yearbook at W. D. Mohammed High School next to my senior picture.

SubhanAllah, these lofty aspirations led to an ambitious pursuit, a doctorate in religion (the study of Islam) at Duke University with a focus in Islam in America, race, and African American Muslims. My family came second, though, not first.  I married at 29, after completing my first year teaching at Spelman College. I had my first child at 32. Pregnant with my first, I finished my first manuscript. 2008 was Obama’s year, Yahya’s and my first book's, American Muslim Women.

Spelman College was great for my career and family. I didn’t go to work with Yahya until he was eleven months, and I received a paycheck during my time off. When I was pregnant with my second child, Lut, I taught and diligently prepared documents for tenure. I received the call from the president of the college when Lut was a newborn.

Leaving work

With tenure in hand, I resigned from Spelman in 2011 to stay at home with my two sons.

Various ideals and realities in my life led me to stay at home, but the influence that stands out most is the Qur'anic statement that men are the supporters of women. I never struggled with this verse but still worked to make meaning out of this divine statement and was influenced by scholars like Amina Wadud whose books I read in graduate school.

In a context in which too many men are not assuming their responsibilities to take care of their families and women are more than capable, I read the statement as a reminder to men, not a restriction upon women. I also concluded that the reminder to men implied that women were more likely to successfully carry multiple loads, i.e., mothering and working.

In other words, I thought, perhaps the Qur'an is giving women a break. So I decided to take one since my husband could manage without my working and because I was the one working the same as a man, pumping milk and/or pregnant with a child, dropping and picking up my child from daycare, and cooking meals. Yes, my considerate husband was washing bottles and doing all the other things that men do.

The decision to leave Spelman was tough. In all honesty, the greatest fear was the thought of my husband losing his job. The Qur’anic verses stating that God is the best of providers ultimately empowered me to overcome my fears.

Other factors made me confident about my choice. My husband is a man of taqwa, good character--May God increase him--and I could depend on him, after my reliance upon God.

Also, I had just signed a contract with NYU Press to co-author a second book, Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam. The book would be the first of its kind, focusing on women's experiences in the Nation of Islam, and would ensure that I remained active and relevant within academia. This gave me the confidence to know that if I did want to return to work, I would find a job.

Office hours

And here is where I must pause to express gratitude to my husband. When Dawn-Marie Gibson, the co-author of Women of the Nation asked me to write the book with her, I initially declined because I knew from my first book the enormous amount of dedication and work that it required.

Also, I was exploring the possibility of homeschooling my children. The appeal of homeschooling constantly grew as I met homeschoolers and learned their philosophies. I was ready to give my all to my children, so at first I declined the offer to write the book.

And then my husband uttered the words that changed my life forever: "I think you should do it, Baby." 

I responded with a "you don't know what we're getting into" attitude. I conveyed to him the amount of energy and time writing a book would require of me. Alhamdulillah, he heard and rose to the occasion.

He instituted office hours! And not the kind with students but the kind without children. Initially, my office hours were twice during the week in the evening. Those nights he would put the kids to bed. I had longer hours during the day on Sunday. Depending on my work demand, my office hours increase or decrease. I had tons more the months of intense writing for my new book.

Moving across the street from my mother

The second smart thing that my husband did was buy me a house across the street from my mother. My aunt also lives there. Both of these women play a vital role in making my life easier. At least twice a week I don't cook dinner because we simply go across the street to share one of my mother's nutritious, delicious meals. My aunt is super generous as well, and because she is not working, she's almost always there to watch the boys when I need a break or have an appointment. She watched the baby this year when I traveled to speak at Harvard and Yale.

Hiring a part-time nanny

We can't afford a nanny or even a part-time one on a regular basis, but we did commit to spending money on a part-time nanny in the weeks after Zayn was born while I still had deadlines for the book. I encourage women to budget for a part-time nanny, cleaner, or cook even if it's just once or twice a year.

Opening our home to my husband's family

When my husband asked if his brother and family could live with us for the first year of his brother's MBA program at Emory University, I said yes because my in-laws are not crazy or dramatic and because I knew how much it would mean to my husband who goes out of his way to accommodate others.

In other words, my husband's generous spirit rubbed off on me, and it was one of the best things I ever did. My sister-in-law prepared meals half the time, she watched my three year old when I was writing the book, and she drove my five year old to school. We enrolled Yahya in school that year since I was pregnant and writing a book. (If you hadn't already surmised, I'm not trying to be a superwoman.)

My in-laws moved out after a year, but we continue to assist each other in the spirit of family and community. My brother-in-law takes the boys to the park, and my sister-in-law continues to cook delicious meals.

Why my husband gets it

One of my husband's favorite pastimes is reading books on relationships. He has learned that partnerships work when two people are fulfilled, because the more fulfilled we are, the more able we are to give to others.

Before we started office hours, I would research or write and the children and their toys were all over the house. My husband envisioned a better way. He suggested that I separate my time with the children and my time writing. Office hours would ensure that I would give my all to my children within a limited period. Then, at the appropriate time, I could devote myself to the work that truly left me fulfilled, writing about Islam, race, gender, and, in the future, education.

My husband, sons, mother, aunt, and sister attended
 the discussion and signing of both books in July.

This quote from a piece by a homeschooling parent speaks to the great service my husband has done for me, beginning with his convincing me to write my second book:

    "How many parents give up on their dreams? Trade them away for homework and recitals and multiplication drills? It's a convenient way to let go of your dreams - to convince yourself that your child needs so much from you, requires so much of your time and attention, that you have no time for your own self, your own needs."

More importantly, my husband realizes that the more fulfilled I am, the more engaged I am in our relationship, and the more I have to give to him. Don't we expect something from those with whom we create a partnership? The secret to getting what we want is making sure that our partner is fulfilled.

My husband understands that he is not the key to my fulfillment--that is ultimately my responsibility via my personal pursuits--but he does feel responsible to help facilitate what I find fulfilling, and for that I am grateful and fulfilled.

Friday, August 8, 2014

"Mothers to society": African American Muslim women professionals prioritize motherhood

When I was invited by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University to contribute an essay on the topic of "Women, Religion and Family" that challenged usual modes of thinking and generated new questions, I immediately thought to write about professional Muslim women leaders in the Warith Deen Mohammed (WDM) community who promote traditional gender roles during the first years of motherhood.

Dr. Sandra El-Amin
Dr. Sandra El-Amin came to mind first. When I interviewed her for my book Women of the Nation, she expressed undeniably feminist views and at the same time passionately called women to commit to the role of nurturing their young over working outside the home.

I was thrilled when interviewing Dr. El-Amin because she provided further evidence to support a conclusion that I had come to since writing a term paper for feminist scholar Paula Giddings in a course on black feminism: that subscribing to traditional gender roles was a feminist act for many African American Muslim women.  This finding, I believe, helps to broaden the way we understand feminism.

As I explain in my blog post "Imam Mohammed a Feminist?", African American Muslim women's feminism is guided by their understanding of Qur'an and Sunnah. Women in the WDM community are greatly influenced by Imam W. D. Mohammed; however, they offer their own interpretations based on their everyday realities as black women.

Interestingly, I find women's promotion of motherhood often surpassing Imam Mohammed's. As I noted in my last post, he did not tell women to stay at home. In a 1979 interview he stated,

     "Women are to be allowed to excel in academic pursuits. If women are given freedom to excel in academic pursuits, how can we tell them to stay home? What is all this education for? You can’t keep [women] at home to nurse babies."

Since the original posting of my essay "Mother's to Society" in May 2014, Sandra El-Amin earned her doctorate in counseling, and her daughter, Fatima El-Amin, was named a full judge for Dekalb Juvenile Court.

"Mothers to Society": African American Muslim Women Prioritize Motherhood and Believe in Women's Work and Leadership, originally published here by Georgetown University's Berkley Center.

Sandra El-Amin is a self-declared Muslim feminist. Unlike most American Muslim women, she holds the radical position that women should be allowed to be imams (leaders) of mixed-gender prayers. Sandra graduated from Smith College in the 1970s, joined the Nation of Islam, married and became a mother, followed Imam W. D. Mohammed into Sunni Islam, worked as an English teacher at the Mohammed Schools in Atlanta and later as the principal and then director for twenty years. After resigning from the Mohammed Schools after a divorce from the mosque imam, Sandra came out as a feminist and started the organization Sacred Diva. Her feminist profile makes the following comments by Sandra all the more provocative: “A woman can pursue any career she likes; she can be a Supreme Court justice. But if she has 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 precedence over anything else. At the same time, I don’t think there is anything that a woman cannot do.”
Sandra’s comments push us to revisit the dominant narrative that you cannot both claim feminism and ascribe to traditional gender roles. Sandra’s feminism cannot be denied. She is clearly an independent thinker who consciously protests gender norms in her Muslim community, particularly the traditions of women’s sitting behind men in the mosque and men’s exclusive right to lead the prayer. She states, “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 its pure concept. . . .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.”

In my research of women who in 1975 made the transition from the Nation of Islam to Sunni Islam under the guidance of Imam W. D. Mohammed, Sandra’s sentiments about the critical role of motherhood were echoed by other women. Jessica Muhammad was the first woman to serve on her mosque’s board in 2002. She also likes the idea of women imams, but she too believes in traditional gender roles: “My primary role was to nurture and protect my babies, so I wasn’t on a job. . . .I would go to work [occasionally] but still we knew that who was responsible for paying bills was Dad. . . .I still feel that if a mother goes out to work, she needs to figure out how she’s going to be the greatest influence on her children.”
Jessica Muhammad

Women like Sandra support traditional gender roles not only because they made most sense to them when they were raising their children but also because they share concerns about the ways in which the loss of traditional roles impacts society today. Sandra, for example, states, “I feel that some of our problems in society have developed from women having to put so much into earning an income [because a husband is not providing] that she doesn’t have the energy or even the spirit sometimes to give what is her primary role to the family and the husband.” Safiyyah Shahid, another former principal and director of Mohammed Schools, states, “Because everybody’s trying to get that dollar, . . .what happens is more and more the focus is taken off of the children because then somebody else begins to take care of the children. The daycare takes care of the children whereas [before] the women themselves were taking care of children or their friends [were].”

In more concrete terms, these women promote women staying at home during their children’s early years and developing their careers in ways that do not jeopardize essential time spent with their children. Because of this position, Sandra is aware that many will challenge her self description as a feminist, which is why she offers her own definition: “a feminist is one who loves, nurtures, exalts and respects the feminine nature, gifts, and personality.” In this way she both prioritizes motherhood and believes that society does not thrive when women are held back from nurturing their own talents.

It is significant that these comments come from professional women with great influence in their faith community. However, they are not surprising in light of the gender ideology of Imam Mohammed. Imam Mohammed coined the term “mothers to society” to resist the Nation of Islam’s narrow focus on women as domestics and to expand their roles in society while at the same time highlighting and honoring women’s unique contribution as mothers. He taught that the capacity to mother within women, including those without children, offered a vital element to building a wholesome society.

Imam Mohammed’s guidance influenced his women followers but also have the everyday realities of women’s lives. Sandra, for example, is not beholden to all of the imam’s views--for example, his belief that only men should be imams--but she agrees with his emphasis on motherhood. Black feminists and womanists[1] teach us that African American women find liberating faith interpretations that speak to their everyday struggles of race, class, and gender. Within this scholarly framework, anthropologist Carolyn Rouse and I have argued that for pragmatic reasons, African American Muslim women embrace a gender ideology that idealizes their role as mothers. Historically, African American women had to work alongside men. During the time of slavery women were expected to work the fields even while they were pregnant and breastfeeding. After slavery, African American women worked as domestics and nannies in white homes. From this historical perspective, African American Muslim women embrace traditional gender roles because, ideally, they free them from the work--primarily menial tasks done for white employers--that had always been required of them.

The perspectives of Sandra, Safiyyah, and Jessica prove that African American Sunni women continue to find the idea of traditional gender roles favorable. I highlight “idea” because many African American Muslim women work even while raising small children. Womanist scholars have argued that dismantling traditional genders has never been a central goal for black women, as it has been for white women, because of black women’s history of work. African American Muslim women feel comfortable emphasizing their role as mothers within an African American cultural framework that does not either limit their right to work or teach that women are incapable of any form of work. Hearing Muslim women’s voices about children losing out when motherhood is not prioritized, we discover that their celebration of traditional roles is not foremost an issue of women’s rights but children’s rights. At the same time, the Qur’anic statement (4:34) that men are the ones who support women reinforces African American women’s faith in traditional gender roles. This divine statement highlighting men’s role as providers is liberating for many women due to the cultural understanding of African American women’s wide capacity, and sometimes over capacity.

Black feminists and womanists scholars would normally pause at and likely protest acceptance of traditional gender roles, but I argue that this discourse on gender roles marks a key place to include Muslim women in the womanist tradition. Their everyday voices evoke Alice Walker’s description of womanist as “committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.” The position of an African American Muslim feminist like Sandra encompasses children and elevates faith. Jessica states that her position goes deeper than nurturing her babies. It’s also about nurturing her soul: “It’s also about taking the risk” to depend on your husband’s income and embodying “the faith that things will work in your favor. You have to make room for God to show up, for grace to show up.”

_______________________________________________________ [1] Coined by Alice Walker, womanist generally refers to a black feminist. The distinction is necessary to highlight and correct the ways in which historically white feminists have not taken into account the race struggles of African American women.

This posting is part of a collection addressing the nexus of women, religion, and the family. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Berkley Center or WFDD. The goal of the entire collection is to generate discussion around these important topics.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Did she call Imam W. D. Mohammed a feminist?

I don't call Imam W. D. Mohammed a feminist in my new book, but I did say to an audience at my mosque in Atlanta that when I studied Imam W. D. Mohammed's writings on women, I was stunned by the extent to which they sounded, "dare I say it," feminist.

Imam W. D. Mohammed would not have claimed the label--gender equality was not his guiding principle--but empowering and elevating women was central to his work in transitioning the "Black Muslims" from the Nation of Islam to Sunni Islam. He certainly took on the fight for gender justice and it was at the center, not the periphery, of his work. In a 1977 issue of the Bilalian News, Imam Mohammed stated,

               "Women's lib' is not an accident. It is a divine thing but women have to rise above the 'lib' to understand that we want more than just lip. We want mothers who have mothers' hearts. We want to hear some hearts, some mother sentiments."

In light of other statements by Imam Mohammed on gender and women, which I explore extensively in the book, I interpret the imam here as encouraging women to base their demand for rights and opportunities not on popular notions of women's liberation but on their own experiences as mothers or potential mothers.

As I argue in the book, in no way was he reducing women's experiences to motherhood or encouraging women to stay at home. The increase in women's work and education outside the home was a hallmark of the transition and the imam's leadership.

Instead, Imam Mohammed was saying that the physiological capacity to carry and nurture a human being (a mind) is a honorable commitment and undertaking unique to women. He focused on mothering to correct religious interpretations, especially those of the Bible, that vilified women and this capacity. The capacity to mother, even for women who have not had the experience, offers an immense contribution to the intellectual and moral character of a society.  

To the mosque audience, I did not attempt to provide an extensive analysis of Imam Mohammed's feminist consciousness but invited them to read the book. A question from the audience, however, reminded me that many do not feel comfortable using the word feminism in sacred space, let alone associating it with Imam W. D. Mohammed. I understand the sentiment given the tendency to see feminism in very limited ways. Indeed popular notions of feminism present a critique of religion, and Islam in particular, as inherently oppressive to women.

It is for this reason that I like the modifier "Islamic" to designate a form of feminist thought and practice derived within an Islamic framework. As I state in my interview "Islamic Women, Islamic Feminism,"

          "Muslim women do not have to look beyond their faith tradition to acquire gender consciousness and to fight against gender injustices.  The Qur'an and the precedent of the Prophet Muhammad, prayers and peace be upon him, inspire and inform their feminist practice. This, however, does not mean that other forms of feminism do not influence Muslim women's feminism. Rather, feminisms intersect to influence Muslim women's [consciousness] and activism." 

In my writings, I also use womanist, or black feminist, thought to frame my discussion of Islamic feminism. Because mainstream white feminism did not account for the experiences of African American women who faced multiple forms of discrimination, particularly racism, which affected an entire group of people, not only women, black feminists understood feminism as the pursuit for the rights of women, men, and children.

Similarly, I see Islamic feminism as gender justice thought and work that also accounts for children and men, linking their struggles to the fight for women's rights. Imam Mohammed once stated,

          "I'm trying to promote women's lib and at the same time save society."

I interpret this statement as a clear indication of a feminist consciousness that accounts for the advancement of an entire community. Imam Mohammed's comments on women were almost always tied to consideration of the whole society, community and family.  

In a coming post, I present women's voices in relation to Imam Mohammed's gender thought. Drawing upon their everyday experiences as mothers, many women in his community honored and emphasized motherhood beyond the imam's teachings. They developed gender consciousness and activism on their own terms.

Indeed, African American Muslim women have answered Imam Mohammed's call when he said, "We want to hear some hearts, some mother sentiments." Women answered the call to carve out their own ideas, not based on society's standards, not even based on Imam Mohammed's standards, but the divine light in the hearts of women.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Islamic Women, Islamic Feminism

With my new book out, I've been talking about Islamic feminism again. I thought I'd share this interview from 2006 when I was a professor at Spelman College. It was originally posted at

Jamillah Karim—where do I start?

Armed with a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from Duke University and a lifetime commitment to the faith, Jamillah moved quickly to her current role as an assistant professor of religion at Spelman College. Her teaching, writing, research, and ample public speaking centers around nothing less than Muslims in the U.S., immigration, race, class, religious spaces and communities, and Islamic feminism.

She’s the author of several published articles including “To Be Black, Female, and Muslim: A Candid Conversation about Race in the American Ummah” and “Through Sunni Women’s Eyes: Black Feminism and the Nation of Islam.” As well, Jamillah contributes regularly to Azizah, an American Muslim women’s magazine.

These days, Jamillah [is promoting] a book on how African American and South Asian immigrant Muslims relate to each other, specially focusing on women’s experiences.

Here’s Jamillah:

As an undergrad at Duke University, you studied electrical engineering. How did you come to be a leading Islamic Studies scholar, focusing on gender and race?
Since high school, I have had a passion to teach Islam to the American public. Growing up in an African American Muslim community, I witnessed how Islam has had a positive impact on black communities in general, and especially on women. My mother, and the other women in my community who taught me, shared some of the same struggles as other black women, i.e., taking care of children while going to school and working, some of them divorced, some married. They were strong and God-fearing, and their faith and discipline helped them to achieve great things despite their humble beginnings. My mother, for instance, went back to school when the youngest of her four children was two years old. She’s divorced now, has never remarried because she hasn’t found a man worthy (it’s been 18 years), works as a project manager in an international consulting firm, and loves to do community work. My mother is an amazing role model.

By my senior year in college, I realized that my passion was to teach and write about the amazing community of women that I grew up around. There were graduate students in Islamic Studies at Duke who exposed me to the possibility of graduate studies in Islam, and I thought, ‘I want to be like them.’ So I decided that I would complete my engineering degree but would pursue a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies. With African American Muslims, especially women, as my main area of research, it was inevitable that I would become a scholar of religion, race, and gender.

As a professor at a historically Black women’s college, can you talk about what role such a school plays today, both in the lives of young Black women and in higher education overall? What has your experience been like as a Spelman College professor?
I love Spelman! I’ve always wanted a profession in which I felt that I was making a difference. Spelman has an amazing legacy of producing black female scholars and leaders. My grandmother and aunt, both educators, attended Spelman. Spelman is important because we live in a world that does not take seriously the struggles of black women. We can thrive in many places, like I did at Duke. But we need places committed to the experiences and education of black women. Also, it is vital that black communities produce our own institutions because at the end of the day, we are responsible for our own future. Spelman is a model of the kinds of institutions we need to continue to build.

I could teach anywhere; however, I feel that I truly make a difference at Spelman. Students at any institution do best when they can relate to the professor, when they feel excited and passionate about their courses. I believe that because I am a young, black woman, my students relate to me more than they might relate to other professors teaching Islam. I think that I offer a lot to Spelman; at the same time, Spelman offers me so much, allowing me to be a part of this amazing legacy of educating black women.

Can you talk about the significance of Islam in your own life?
Islam is at the center of my life. It is my pathway to becoming, what one great Muslim scholar, al-Ghazali, described as being god-like. He described this state as follows: it means that “one’s heart and aspiration be taken up with God—great and glorious, that he or she not look towards anything other than God nor pay attention to what is not God, that one neither implore nor fear anyone but God.” This means that whatever I do, including my scholarly work, I begin it with the intention to please and serve God.

You investigate what it means to negotiate Islamic ideals of community (ummah) against America’s race and class divisions. What have you discovered?
Muslims in America are affected by race and class divides in the United States. The majority of converts to Islam are African Americans, and the majority of Muslim immigrants to the United States are of South Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi) and Arab descent. This means that the American ummah (Muslim community) is made up largely of African Americans and immigrants, although whites and Hispanics are steadily joining the American ummah. Immigrants tend to live in affluent white suburbs, and African American Muslims in black neighborhoods. As a result, African Americans tend to worship in mosques separately from South Asian and Arab immigrants. At the same time, I have found that there are a growing number of sites in which African American and immigrants come together because of their shared Muslim identity. This is happening especially on college campuses where African American and second-generation immigrant Muslims participate in Muslim student organizations and form lifelong friendships. Although Muslims are affected by the racialized residential patterns that I mentioned above (white vs. black neighborhoods), I believe that the Muslim community has a special potential to cross race and class boundaries and emerge as a model of cosmopolitan community.

How do women fit into the historical Muslim tradition?
Women have played a key role in the historical Muslim tradition. The first convert to Islam was a woman, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife Khadijah. She supported the Prophet financially and emotionally during the early part of his prophecy when the early Muslim community faced religious persecution. A later wife of the Prophet, ‘Aisha, played a pivotal role in the memorization and transmission of the Prophet’s words and traditions, peace be upon him. Without these traditions, there would be a great omission in Muslim thought and practice.

Muslim women played an integral part of the community and the transmission of sacred knowledge in the early period (the 7th century). However, as Islam expanded beyond the Arabian Peninsula into Persia, it was embraced by cultures in which women did not enjoy a prominent role, as was the case for many medieval cultures. Women’s contributions to the Muslim tradition became less dominant during this period, again, because of culture and not because of the precedent that the Prophet Muhammad set. Today, Muslim women across the globe are reclaiming the legacy of Muslim women’s contribution in Islam, and some are identifying themselves as Islamic feminists.

How do mosques conflate as both religious and cultural spaces, and how do women of color fit into these spaces?
At least two-thirds of mosques in the United States dominate in one ethnic group, either African American or South Asian. The remaining one-third tends to be a combination of Arab and South Asian Muslims. Mosques, therefore, function as cultural or ethnic spaces. Most women have no problem finding a mosque that fits their cultural or ethnic experience. However, immigrant mosques are more likely to have prayer spaces in which men and women are separated by a wall or curtain. Some women feel uncomfortable in these spaces, especially African American women, but also do first and second-generation immigrant women.

How have African American Muslim women situated themselves within Black feminism? How has feminism been influenced by Muslim women? What is Islamic feminism?
Most African American women do not identify themselves as feminists because of the range of meanings that the term evokes, including the notion that feminism teaches women that they do not need men. Many African American Muslim women are independent, i.e., they are divorced; however, they believe in the ideal of strong families in which men function as leaders and financial supporters. When I write about African American Muslim women, I do situate much of their thought and practice within Black feminism, particularly the dimension of Black feminism that emphasizes feminism as resistance to all forms of injustice, not just gender inequalities. Like other black women, African American Muslim women experience gender discrimination that intersects with discrimination based on race and class. Also, Black feminism’s focus on family and elevating the entire community—women, men, and children—resonates with black Muslim women.

Feminism has been influenced by Muslim women in much the same way that it has been influenced by nonwhite women. Muslim women, like other minority women, challenge narrow definitions of feminism. In particular, Muslim women prove that one can be committed to faith and still act as a feminist. Muslim women broaden feminism.

Islamic feminism is feminist thought and practice derived within an Islamic framework. Muslim women do not have to look beyond their faith tradition to acquire gender consciousness and to fight against gender injustices. The Qur’an and the precedent of the Prophet Muhammad, prayers and peace be upon him, inspire and inform their feminist practice. This, however, does not mean that other forms of feminism do not influence Muslim women’s feminism. Rather, feminisms intersect to influence Muslim women’s activism.

Islamic feminism also fights against other injustices that affect Muslim women, particularly anti-Muslim racism.

Muslim women are hyper-mediated in the mainstream U.S. news cycle. Particularly, secluded women in hijabs were held up as the epitome of oppression that, in part, supposedly justified war a few years ago. Your work focuses on the gender roles of American Muslims. What’s your response to the political characterization of Muslim women overseas, and how does it compare to Muslim women in our own borders?
I always make it clear that the characterization of Muslim women, especially overseas, is political. The way in which imperial feminists have supported the characterization of Muslim women as backwards to justify the occupation of Muslim lands partly explains why many Muslim women are suspicious of feminism and often choose not to use the label feminist. This is another reason why the qualifier ‘Islamic’ is so important because it distances Muslim women from imperial feminism.

Certainly, there are gender inequalities in Muslim-majority countries; but many scholars have demonstrated that Muslim women have challenged these inequalities through indigenous feminist paradigms. Western feminists can never fully address the concerns and issues of Muslim women, especially those living overseas, because gender activism must always emerge from within the culture it addresses in order for it to be most effective.

Muslim women’s experiences in American borders are certainly different from their experiences abroad. Many immigrant women are claiming their rights for the first time in the United States. However, some of the earliest and most effective Islamic feminist movements have occurred outside the United States. Also, Muslims live across diverse regions of the globe, so we must be careful not to lump Muslim women’s experiences overseas. Muslim women’s experiences in Ghana are drastically different from their experiences in Kuwait. But generally, Muslim women in the United States are highly educated and active in their communities, Muslim and non-Muslim.

In “To Be Black, Female, And Muslim: A Candid Conversation about Race in the American Ummah” you wrote: “While both African Americans and immigrants contribute to these divides, this article shows how immigrant Muslims enjoy a level of privilege and power over African American Muslims.” Can you expand on this?
Muslim immigrants are socialized to respond to African Americans in ways that most immigrants to the United States are—that is, distancing themselves from African Americans, especially their neighborhoods, as part of assimilating into the dominant white culture. In the process, they become complicit in anti-black racism. Even though they don’t enjoy white privilege as whites do, they do acquire some benefits as they seek to claim whiteness. This is the major way that I see immigrant privilege. Also, immigrant Muslims come from multi-generation Muslim families and cultures, and, therefore, tend to imagine themselves as better Muslims over African Americans, who are largely a community of converts and their Muslim-born children. When African Americans have had negative experiences with immigrants, they tend to ascribe this bad behavior to all immigrants even though it does not represent them all.

“Challenges Facing American Muslim Women.” By Samer Hathout. Islam for Today.

Azizah Magazine“These women produce a magazine that reflects the experiences and perspectives of Muslim women living in North American society. “

Muslim Women’s League
“…a non-profit Muslim American organization working to implement the values of Islam and thereby reclaim the status of women as free, equal and vital contributors to society.”

“The Feminist Movement and the Muslim Woman.” By Maryam Jameelah. Islam 101.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Women of the Nation makes top reads

I am honored that the authors of Love, InshAllah chose Women of the Nation as one of six books selected on their list #RamadanReads: Changing the Conversation about Muslims, One Book at a Time. The list was created for Beacon Books' "Beacon Broadside."

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Announcing My New Book!

Women of the Nation
Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam
Dawn-Marie Gibson and Jamillah Karim
288 pages | $26.00 Paper
"A fascinating and well researched book that expands our knowledge about Islam in the United States. Its analysis of the interactions between the Nation of Islam and mainstream Islam is a model for the scholarship on African American Islam. Anyone who wishes to understand the complex religious identities of contemporary African-American Muslim women should read this book."
—Richard Brent Turner, author of Islam in the African-American Experience, Second Edition

READ: Our legacy, too: Muslim women and the civil rights movement
E-book also available.

With vocal public figures such as Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, and Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam often appears to be a male-centric religious movement, and over 60 years of scholarship have perpetuated that notion. Yet, women have been pivotal in the NOI's development, playing a major role in creating the public image that made it appealing and captivating.

Women of the Nation draws on oral histories and interviews with approximately 100 women across several cities to provide an overview of women's historical contributions and their varied experiences of the NOI, including both its continuing community under Farrakhan and its offshoot into Sunni Islam under Imam W.D. Mohammed. The authors examine how women have interpreted and navigated the NOI's gender ideologies and practices, illuminating the experiences of African-American, Latina, and Native American women within the NOI and their changing roles within this patriarchal movement. The book argues that the Nation of Islam experience for women has been characterized by an expression of Islam sensitive to American cultural messages about race and gender, but also by gender and race ideals in the Islamic tradition. It offers the first exhaustive study of women’s experiences in both the NOI and the W.D. Mohammed community.

Dawn-Marie Gibson is a Lecturer in Twentieth-Century U.S. History in the Department of History at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Jamillah Karim is a national and international lecturer in Islam in America, Islam in black America, and women and Islam. Her former academic appointment was as Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Spelman College in 2011.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

JET Magazine Didn't Leave Black Muslim Women Out, or the New York Times

Photo in JET, except a head shot. By Sunny Tyrell, a Muslim woman
You would have thought I'd won some money if you had witnessed my excitement upon learning that I was selected to be featured in JET as a young faith leader in the Black community. That was in February. 

It was perfect timing that the article came out in this week's JET with Queen Latifah on the cover. Why? Because just Monday I received this tweet from Arabic Funk:

The link in the tweet is Thrival Room's (hadn't heard of this site before) "32 Photos That Hope to Change the Way We Look at Muslim American Women." The women profiled range from artists to educators to doctors. 

BUT there was not one African American Muslim woman featured. The women appear to be of Arab and South Asian descent. 

My first thought was that it demonstrated the continued relevance of my first book American Muslim Women, where I argue that African American and South Asian American Muslim women generally occupy separate ethnic spaces, though ummah ideals of unity and other social dynamics occasionally facilitate our crossing our race, class, and gender boundaries. 

My children and the richness of life pulled me away from these thoughts until facebook returned them as African American Muslim women discussed what it meant to be left out again and as efforts were made to create alternative lists. 

Mohammed Schools senior class on NYT, 1993
I want to say out loud that this glaring omission does matter in the sense that it unwittingly reinforces the narrow narrative of American Muslims as immigrant and proves the immense work we need to do to recognize one another across race and ethnic lines in the American ummah. But in another sense, it really doesn't matter that we were left out because our community mothers and fathers, our leaders, our Ana Karims (you have to read my new book to learn about this amazing lady), our Tayyibah Taylors, our Ayesha K. Mustafaas, and our Qur'an Shakirs have been doing this work since we were babies. 

Yes, images and books and lists are powerful and we need all of them to fight Islamophobia, but know that we've been in the trenches shattering the myth of the oppressed, deprived, foreign Muslim woman for some time now. And it's paying off.

We have been featured in our own presses such as the Muslim Journal, but also in mainstream presses such as the New York Times. Just recently, the image of a Black woman first featured on a back cover of Azizah magazine was chosen by the U. S. Department of State for its 2014 publication on American Muslims.

For me, the greater achievement is when our media are recognized by the larger community, as in the case of Azizah Magazine, or when we are included in an important list by a publication that is not Muslim. And not because others are defining us, but because others find us valuable and relevant. 

The JET article in which I am featured is titled "The Chosen Few", and it reads, "With a passion for raising spirits, these new faith leaders inspire truth-seekers to listen for God in the still and the storm." Each faith leader is introduced and quoted with words of wisdom on some aspect of human experience such as love or failure.

Alhamdulillah, I am the Muslim among the five faith leaders featured. Though the feature is small in print, the meaning of this is enormous because it demonstrates American Muslims' ability to offer something beautiful and meaningful from our tradition to a larger human community beyond our faith. The great historian of Islam Marshall Hodgson notes that indeed this ability to offer something relevant to people is indication that a new religious tradition has succeeded in becoming an integral part of society. 

Actor Sumayya Ali, The Washington Times
Hodgson argues that the cultural traditions and dialogues within a place determine Islam’s cultural relevance: only as Islam engaged already existing cultural dialogues could it “become significant for cultural life at large.” To be included in JET's list and other mainstream media in positive, self-defined ways means that we have entered the dialogue and that we are valued.

But of course, our success started with creating our own value, our own images, but even as we created and promoted our own, we have been most effective when the mission is beyond establishing ourselves in this country, and showing compassion and concern for the people who were already here.

Two leaders, whom I highlight in my first book, come to mind most immediately in this light: Dr. Umar Abd-Allah who has encouraged Muslims to make the concerns of non-Muslim Americans their concerns and Imam W. D. Mohammed, whom Dr. Umar holds as a model of this principle.

Speaking to an audience largely second-generation South Asian and Arab Muslim, Dr. Umar stated, "You have to love your people. If you don't love your people, how can you take Islam to your people? And how can you not love your people?"

Imam W. D. Mohammed loved his people.

The Nation of Islam created the Muhammad Speaks newspaper as a medium for Black Muslim expression and images. When Imam W. D. Mohammed became the leader of the Nation after his father's death, he changed the name of the paper from Muhammad Speaks to Bilalian News. Imam Mohammed coined the term Bilalian and offered it as a name for all African Americans, not just Black Muslims.

A 1976 cover of the Bilalian News
As Precious Rasheeda Muhammad and Mahasin Abuwi Aleem have eloquently described, he offered the name to Black Americans in light of our historical search for "a dignified name."  He preferred the term “Bilalian” over “black” and selected it as the name for African Americans: “I think there’s more dignity in identifying with an ancient ancestor than in identifying with skin color. When I say I am a Bilalian, I’m saying that I am a man like Bilal.” He chose Bilal, companion of the Prophet Muhammad emancipated from slavery after embracing Islam, because he was the Muslim ancestor whose story most reflected the narrative of African Americans. 

Ana Karim states, “The Imam had told us Bilal is a prototype of us. . . .His enslavement did not break his will. He held fast to Almighty God. So, the imam said, ‘We are [now] the prototype; we are Bilalians.' The Imam wanted us to be a beacon or harbinger to the future generations to reach for excellence.” The Bilalian News (later changed to Muslim Journal) was an offering, inspired by the Muslim tradition, to all Black Americans.* Ana continues:

Bilalian News stood on the shoulders of Muhammad Speaks in that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad said in Muhammad Speaks, “Up you mighty Nation, you can accomplish what you will.” Imam W. D. Mohammed, by naming it Bilalian News, he was saying to our people, “You have the wherewithal within you, God has put all the ingredients in you, to become a great people and become respected by the world. . . .He was reaching out to our people to strive for human excellence.

My recognition as a young faith leader by a Black magazine is simply one of the many fruits of the efforts of Imam W. D. Mohammed and his early followers, including my parents. Because Imam Mohammed loved his people and dedicated his community's newspaper to Black Americans at large, it is no surprise that we are now recognized by one of the most important magazines in the history of the Black freedom struggle.

Indeed, I associate JET with my Granny and Grandpapa, Mrs. Lavada Smith and Dr. Harvey Smith, who always had a copy of the magazine on their coffee table. It was hard for my Granny when my father became a Black Muslim, but over time, as her grandchildren grew with character and intellect, she began to see the beauty of the new life my father had chosen. Her seeing me in JET as a faith leader in the Black community would have sealed her appreciation for Islam, I like to imagine. I am blessed that my 91 year old grandfather has lived to see this day.

May our sons and daughters bring greater light and clarity on a faith meant to benefit all of humanity.

* Bilalian News included a statement of its “policy objectives.” The first five were: “1. Advancement of the moral, and educational development of the entire society. 2. Encourage support for the financial development of economically deprived communities in the society. 3. The presentation to the world of the religious mission of the World Community of Islam in the West, and its community building activities. 4. The presentation of positive Bilalian achievements within and without the United States. 5. The censuring of destructive and negative influences which have traditionally impeded Bilalian development.” “Bilalian News Statement of Policy,” Bilalian News, August 26, 1977, 2.