The Invisible Muslimah

What’s the first image that comes to your mind when you think of a Muslim woman? Is she Arab or South Asian? White or maybe Afghan or Indonesian? Notice that I haven’t mentioned African American (and also Latina). The media depiction of Muslim women usually does not include African American women. Often, Muslim women are depicted as coming from the Middle East or South Asia, and occasionally sub-Saharan Africa. Also, there has been increasing focus on Muslimahs of European descent, especially converts such as Yvonne Ridley and Dr. Ingrid Mattson.

When African American Muslims are depicted in the media, it is usually a male face (Siraj Wahaj, Abdul Hakeem Jackson, Malcolm X, Imam Warithdeen Muhammad, etc.) that is presented to the public. There are exceptions such as Dr. Amina Wadud. However, the overall trend is rather disheartening, considering how much African American Muslimahs do for other black Muslims as well as the whole Muslim community. I have often wondered why the stories, needs and concerns of African American Muslimahs are not focused on and come up with a myriad of possible answers.

One is the sexism that black Muslimahs encounter in their own community. This is probably symptomatic of the sexism that black women as a whole face in the black community. Black Muslimahs still have a long way to go in gaining leadership positions in mosques and national organizations, such as the Muslim Alliance of North America, which focuses heavily on issues affecting African American Muslims. When there are few of us in leadership positions, it is hard for us to become the faces of the community in the media.

There’s also the racism, both covert and overt, that African Americans face in the Muslim community. Often, we’re not on the boards of masajid that aren’t predominately African American and if we are, our numbers are insignificant. African Americans are also not well represented in national organizations like ISNA, ICNA and CAIR. Also, the issues that affect African American Muslimahs are often ignored by organizations like ISNA and ICNA. When these organizations are pushed as the voice of American Muslims but lack significant input from African American Muslimahs, then it is not surprising that representation of African American Muslimahs is seriously lacking in the media.

Lastly, there is the racism of the mainstream media. On MMW, we have often discussed how Muslim women are portrayed as victims and otherized. The face of this woman is usually brown. Fatemeh has a great post about the racialization of Islam up at Racialicious. I think that this racialization of Islam leaves little space for the representation of Western Muslim women and almost no space for the representation of African American Muslim women.

While this post thus far may sound bleak, I do think that there is slow progress in getting African American Muslimahs heard. The blogosphere has provided an outlet for many African American Muslimahs to speak to the world. Not too long ago, NPR did a piece on polygyny among African American women. About four years ago, a great ethnography of African American Muslim women titled Engaged Surrender was published by the University of California press. Additionally, there has been more focus on African American Muslimahs in the entertainment industry as well. So things have been getting better. However, there needs to be more coverage of African American Muslimahs, as well as Latina Muslimahs. We are Muslim women too and we’re not invisible.

  • amirah

    thank you for this!!! im a african american/ latina convert to islam … a lil over a year now …… and for the most part ppl in the muslim communities i have been in treat me like crap. my husband is north african and looks arab so we go out in public and the light skinned muslims stare, the non muslim blacks stare… and his friends told him why’d he want to marry a black girl because they arent good(these are no longer his friends)…… i went to EID prayers at a community center and i was the only black muslimah….. the other women stepped on me, hit me with chairs and gave me dirty looks. the imam spoke mostly arabic and the little english he did speak he talked about perserving arab culture ,and how we musnt let our sons marry these other girls and i had to tell the women over and over to be quiet so i can hear because they got louder when he switched to english……….this kinda stuff makes me and i am sure other women feel like outsiders in the community. even the somali people give me bad looks. i find myself always on the look out for someone who is latina or african american/ canadian (since i live in canada now) who shares with me but its like we dont even exsist in some areas inshallah things will change and ppl will see we want to be heard too!!! we arleady experince enough racism for being latina/ black on the otherside but it sucks when adding muslim to that makes it worse

  • Jamerican Muslimah

    Faith, thank you for this!

    I have so many thoughts on this subject that I need time to process them before I can thoroughly respond. One thought I can offer is the following: when you contrast the stereotype of Muslim women as oppressed, passive and docile with the stereotype of Black women as neck-rolling, sassy, brash, sapphires, the two obviously don’t mesh. In some respects I feel like the media (and people in every day life) operate off of stereotypes when imagining both groups. How, then could they process the idea of African-American Muslimahs? They’d certainly have to change their language and approach when discussing women in Islam. (I hope you get where I’m going with this).

    I’ll be back with more, insha’allah…BTW, one AA sister that repped Islam to the fullest was Mubarakah Ibrahim (sp?) She is the personal trainer featured on Oprah last year.

  • Fatemeh

    GREAT POST!! We should definitely cross-post this on Racialicious!

    Amirah, I’m terribly sorry to hear your experiences. May Allah give you respite.

    @Jamerican: I didn’t see the Oprah article, but we’ve had stories about her on our Friday links every now and then. I really like her outlook!

  • Jehanzeb

    This was a great post. It’s really shameful how exclusive our Muslim communities get. You can see it at the Mosque — Arabs only talking to Arabs, South Asians chatting with South Asians, and African-Americans conversing with African-Americans. The sad part is that Muslims like African-Americans are given limited roles in the Mosque. I have seen this many times :(

    As a South Asian, I have negative experiences with Arab Muslims who expect me to speak Arabic just because I’m Muslim, or don’t even bother asking me to lead prayer. Even my Hafez, who is from Bangladesh, was ruled out when a group of Arab Muslims were looking for an imam for a particular event. Is it because they assume he can’t pronounce the Arabic words correctly? Do they think he’s less qualified because of his ethnic background?

    I can’t imagine what it must be like for our fellow African-American brothers and sisters. I have seen African-American males deliver wonderful speeches and read Qur’anic Arabic beautifully, but there is definitely not enough credit given. I have known some African-American Muslim women who even told me that they feel excluded from the Mosque because it is predominately Arab. Amirah’s story is appalling! Someone needs to educate that Imam and remind him what the Prophet said about how Arabs have NO SUPERIORITY over non-Arabs, and vice versa. And that blacks have no superiority over whites, and vice versa. We are all equal, and are judged by God based upon our good actions.

    Again, thank you for writing this post. As an aspiring filmmaker, this is something I will definitely keep in mind :) I think it would really strengthen our community if we focused more on how diverse it is, and especially focus on the African-American and Latino/a brothers and sisters.

  • krista

    Great post, Faith. Thanks for writing about this.

    I think a major reason why this issue is so important is that African-Americans represent such a HUGE proportion of the Muslim population of the US. You know more about the actual numbers than I do, and I don’t want to get the stats wrong, but I think that’s a really big concern. When such a large segment of the Muslim population is invisible, that’s a major issue. Especially in relation to the visibility of some white Muslim women, as you’ve mentioned, who represent only a tiny percentage of Muslims in the US…

  • Sobia

    Wonderful post! Thanks for writing it.

    Part of the reason I posted on Muslim women in hip hop and Akil was precisely because we rarely see the African-American Muslim woman anywhere. I remember going to an ISNA conference a few years ago, where there were so many African-American Muslims, and going to a talk on African-American Muslims in the US. I was yet wasn’t surprised that myself and one other South Asian person were the only non-African-American Muslims there! It was obvious to me that others didn’t care.

    Btw Faith, I think MMW and Racialicious would be a great ways to highlight African-American (and Canadian) Muslim women.

  • Jamerican Muslimah

    BTW, if you contrast the involvement of African-American women in the predominately immigrant communities with their/our involvement in the communities under the leadership of Imam W.D. Muhammad you see two different pictures. It gives me pause…

  • Krista

    Jamerican: Can you elaborate on that a bit? I can probably take a guess at the kinds of pictures you’re getting at, but not being in the US, it’s not something I have really witnessed/experienced myself. I’d love to hear more about those differences in involvement.

  • Jamerican Muslimah


    Well, Imam W.D. Muhammad’s movement is predominately African-American (he brought many African-Americans over to traditional Islam from the Nation of Islam.) You will see AA women working at many different levels within the masajid that are under his leadership- from the board to the kitchen to the office. (And I have yet to see a WDM masjid where women are separated from the men by a curtain or partition). However, in the predominately immigrant masajid women are still fighting for a place on the board, to make their voice heard in the masajid and to remove the partitions. I can imagine that is even more difficult for AA women to rise to such a high position given the reception we frequently get coming into predominately immigrant masajid.

    I don’t want to suggest that there is absolutely no sexism or other problems in the masajid under Imam Muhammad’s leadership. (After all, Black women have challenged sexism in the NOI and other Black organizations). But the reality is that a predominately AA organization serving the AA community could not survive without the involvement of AA women- it’s always been that way.

  • Krista

    @ Jamerican: Thanks, that’s really interesting. Living in Canada, I think we only really have immigrant-run mosques, which are pretty similar to the ones you’re describing in the US. (I can think of only one place around here – and it’s not even a mosque, but an Islamic “cultural centre” – that totally defies that stereotype.) That’s interesting (and really good!) to hear that women are so involved in various levels at AA mosques. Though I imagine it makes the exclusion of AA women from public images of what is “Islam” all the more frustrating…

  • Sobia

    To add to this discussion (and perhaps to play a half-assed devil’s advocate) I have to ask who isn’t excluded from the image of the Muslim woman? Do we ever see the likes of Deeyah or Yasmin Ghauri depicted as the Muslim woman? How often do we see women without a headscarf depicted as the Muslim woman? I mean, even on this site when we talk about Islamic fashion shows how often are we talking about the runways of Karachi or Lahore where Pakistani (Muslim) models wear belly bearing saris and sleeveless shirts?

    Honestly, to answer your initial question “What’s the first image that comes to your mind when you think of a Muslim woman? ” my answer would be ‘an Arab woman in a hijab.’ And I honestly think all this is more our propaganda than it is the Western media’s.

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  • Samira

    ASA Faith:

    I think your post is quite interesting. As an African-American Muslim woman I often feel invisible. Definitely in the realm of the mainstream media and to some extent in the cultural/artistic/literary realms representations of African-American Muslim women in both the mainstream and within our own communities is lacking. This does not mean that there is not a thriving intellectual and artistic life-it just seems that-with the exception of the whole Aminah Wadud affair-the life of African-American Muslim women is not controversial enough to be considered fodder for stereotypes or, to some extent, radical enough for progressive (feminist) circles.

    I think that Jamerican Muslimah is on to something when she links to the how/where African-American Muslim women have historically come to know and practice their Islam.

    In many ways, I think that for many of the African American Muslim women that I know central to their identity as Muslims is-the Qur’an and hadith. They are indeed practicing an engaged surrender where there spiritually is the core of how they think about Islam. There is strong intellectual work and ongoing dialogue about gender, race and sexuality but in my experience it is heavily steeped in the study and practice of Islam.

    I think that there are a lot of porous borders that have allowed African Americans to cultivate a unique culture and to form meaningful relationships between masajids and churchs-as well as across ethnic boudaries within Muslim communities.

    At the same time-the issues that matter in my own community-incarceration, teenage pregnancy, joblessness, homelessness, drug addiction are issues that seem to not be in vogue. To be blunt these issues seem just too Black to be properly exotic.

  • Fatemeh

    “To be blunt these issues seem just too Black to be properly exotic.”

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  • Rosina

    The Imam of our masjid is black Egyptian and he gets a lot of respect.