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.”
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 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, maleand 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.”
 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.
Photo Credit: Glenn Halog
Jamillah Karim is an award-winning author, lecturer, and blogger. Karim specializes in race, gender, and Islam in America. Her most recent academic appointment was as associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Spelman College, where she taught courses on the study of Islam for six years. In 2010 Karim traveled with her family to Malaysia, where she began her blog Race+Gender+Faith. She is the author of Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam (2014, with Dawn Marie-Gibson), which explores women’s experiences and contributions in the Nation of Islam, and American Muslim Women: Negotiating Race, Class, and Gender within the Ummah (2008). She occasionally contributes articles on spirituality for Azizah magazine. She was recently highlighted as a young faith leader in the black community by JET magazine. Karim holds a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from Duke University.