The (South) African Queen: Remembering Shamima Shaikh

Muslimahs who work hard in shaping the depiction of themselves and their sisters in the media, and who are engaged in Islamic feminist discourse to dispel cultural and literalist concepts unjustly attributed to them, are often left flattened under the heavy heap of misrepresentations and stereotypes by both Muslim and non-Muslim agencies.

Shamima and Na'eem. Image from Shamima's commemorative website.

Shamima and Na'eem. Image from Shamima's commemorative website.

I would like to dedicate my post for the week to one such South African woman, who

fought against all types of oppression, especially against the oppression of Apartheid, Zionism and misogyny.

Shamima Shaikh (1960-1998) was a journalist, media activist and Islamic feminist. Both her life and her death were symbols of struggle for the rights of Muslim women. I found it very difficult to articulate the magnanimity of Shamima’s life, so I turned to her husband, Na’eem Jeenah, for insight:

Shamima’s mission in life was to struggle for justice; whether against white racists propping up apartheid or Muslim misogynists who wanted to ‘keep women in their place’.

Deeply committed to the message of the Qur’an concerning justice and fighting oppression, she lived her life fighting for the right of all people to be treated equally as human beings, and for women, in particular, to be accorded their rights. She was inspired in all of this by the words of Allah. She was also one of the most compassionate people I know – towards everyone.

She tirelessly worked for this message of this justice, including speaking, and writing. Shamima wrote for student publications, newspapers, and became the editor of al-Qalam, a South African Muslim community newspaper, and was the founder chairperson of the Muslim Community Broadcasting Trust, which owned The Voice, a Muslim community radio station. All these media she shaped in order to deliver that singular message. Her persistence, her love, her conviction that Allah’s justice would prevail endeared her to many, including some of her ideological opponents.

Whilst browsing through the memorial website set up for Shamima by her husband and friends, I read the messages of condolences on her death; I became overwhelmed, in awe at her personality and felt sadness that I never had the privilege to meet Shamima. One obituary that made every tiny hair on my body stand is:

Shamima was an extraordinary human being. In knowing her as a friend and organisational colleague there were many aspects of her personality that moved me very deeply: her passionate commitment and idealism which translated into a continuous activism for social justice, her constant transgression of religious and cultural traditions in critically constructive ways, her fundamental refusal to be taken as a second-class Muslim because of being a woman, her openness in engaging even the thorniest aspects of the women’s struggle and her capacity to extend sisterhood to women very different in beliefs from herself, her wonderful laughter, generosity and hospitality (Shamima and Na’eem’s home was an “open-house”, always full of people talking, eating, laughing, arguing), her inexhaustible energy in both juggling motherhood, work, numerous political commitments and an active social life. All of these things are what defined Shamima, but most distinctive for me were her incredible qualities of courage and spunkiness and it is with a multitude of both that she faced her meeting with Allah – she never faltered in the face of death, remaining true to her life commitments to the every end. Even in her death she made this manifest – she requested that her janaza (funeral) prayers be lead by a woman. Very few of us can, at the age of 37, be able to stand before our Creator and be sure that we have fulfilled our vicegerency in this world with the totality of who we are. I believe that Shamima will be able to do so. Dearest Sister Shamima, aluta continua. Go with the knowledge that you have touched this temporal world in the profoundest way. Salaam-u-alaykum wa rahmat-ul-allah wa barakatu.

Sa’diyya Shaikh

A small collection of her articles can be found here. She was also the subject of many a written work.

Farid Essack, in his book, “On Being a Muslim” wrote

When other co-religionists were denying women the right to be on air, she served as chairperson of the Muslim Community Broadcasting Trust… In the same way that for anyone committed to gender justice a woman’s place cannot be confined to bedrooms and kitchens, she ultimately became frustrated at being an “upstairs” woman. In a little-known move, unprecedented in the world of Islam, she and a number of comrades –male and female – started an alternative congregation where gender equality and all its implications for Islamic thought and practice were the norm.

Shamima, we do not have to pledge that we will pick up the battles where you left off. About that you have no doubt. We can pledge to try to do so with the gentleness and love with you fought them. What a life! What a way of passing on! What a death.

Amina Wadud also writes about Shamima in her book, “Inside the Gender Jihad”

I liked her right away; she had no airs, no fan fares, and no feminine vanities. She impressed me a person who worked with a cause, and found meaning in doing.

Just what was Shamima’s message about Muslim women in the media? In a paper she presented a few days before her death at the Durban Conference, she said:

Another problem is that men write women into their experiences, For a long time men have been writing about women, men have been writing the interpretations. Even if a progressive man writes about women, it’s from a male perspective. They write us into their experiences. Ebrahim Moosa (a leading South African and international progressive Muslim theologian and scholar) experiences life much differently than I do. He’s progressive, fine! But I’d rather Firdousa (the MYM Gender Desk co-ordinator) wrote it. It would be more real. Our experiences are different because we’re in an oppressive situation.

Shamima’s role and impact on the media was immense. Not only was she a journalist, but her activities were constantly in the public eye, for marches, demonstrations, mass rallies and solidarity campaigns against the apartheid government and especially for her famous “women in the mosque campaign”, when she mobilized a number of Muslim women to attend Ramadan prayers in a male only mosque in Johannesburg.

Image from Sheikh's commemorative website.

Image from Sheikh's commemorative website.

Shaikh also became the first National Co-ordinator of the Muslim Youth Movement Gender Desk, a position that again put her on the MYM’s National Executive. Under Shaikh’s leadership, the MYM Gender Desk rapidly became the most outspoken Muslim organization on the question of Muslim women’s rights and gender within the Muslim community and the leading organization in the South African articulation of Islamic feminism. She was also involved with the founding and establishment of the Muslim Personal Law Board of South Africa and was a member of the Board until it was unilaterally shut down by the United Ulama Council of South Africa.

She also co-authored a book with her husband Na’eem about their spiritual journey on the Hajj. The book features their personal analysis of the pilgrimage, anecdotes and observations highlighting racism, inequalities and misogyny within the Muslim world as experienced by the couple on their trip.  It was published only after her death, and serves as a mini memoir and inspiration to thousands of South African pilgrims.

Shamima learned of her cancer in 1997. She continued her social struggle in the face of her physical struggle against illness, and most would say, with even more zest than before. Her last public engagement in the media was the deliverance of a paper “Women & Islam – The Gender Struggle in South Africa”, in Durban, with great difficulty due to her condition. Just seventeen days later, on January 8, 1998 / 9 Ramadan 1418, Shamima passed away. She left behind her husband Na’eem and two sons Minhaj and Shir’a. May Allah grant her peace and paradise.

In life, as in death, Shamima fought against what she precieved as injuctice, to people of colour, and to women. Numerous funeral prayers were said for her, most notably the funeral prayer led by a woman, her close friend, Farhana Ismail, as per Shamima’s request. Shamima was often referred to by her opposition as “that mad Shaikh women.” At another funeral service in a Johannesburg masjid, led by her husband Na’eem, he prayed, “If this be madness God, give us all the courage to be mad.”