Which Muslim Women Should Every Person Know?

In a recent article for the Huffington Post, titled “10 Muslim Women Every Person Should Know,” Fazeela Siddiqui writes:

Image of Rabia al-Adawiyya. Via the Huffington Post.

“[I]n recent years, due to the global socio-political climate, the phrase “Muslim woman” might conjure an image of a demure un-empowered woman sheltered by her burqa. Yet this image is not what our history records or what our present reflects. For example, the current Prime Ministers of Bangladesh (Sheikh Hasina Wazed) and Mali (Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé) are Muslim women. Similarly, the current President of Kosovo, Atife Jahjaga, is the world’s youngest female president, as well as her country’s first female Muslim president.

Since 1988, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mali, Pakistan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Senegal and Turkey have been led, at some point, by a Muslim woman president or prime minister. [...]

In honor of Women’s History Month, I present 10 Muslim women, from the seventh century until today, that every Muslim (and everyone else) should know about.”


The article features a slideshow, with information on ten different Muslim women from different times and places.  The women Siddiqui lists are:

  1. Nusaybah bint Ka’b al-Ansariyah, “one of the first advocates for the rights of Muslim women”
  2. Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, “widely considered to be the most important of the early Sufi poets”
  3. Fatima al-Fihri, “the founder of the oldest degree-granting university in the world”
  4. Sultan Raziyya, “the Sultan of Delhi from 1236 to 1240″
  5. Nana Asma’u, “a princess, poet and teacher”
  6. Laleh Bakhtiar, who wrote “the first translation of the Quran into English by an American woman”
  7. Shirin Ebadi, “the first Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize”
  8. Amina Wadud, “the first female imam to lead a mixed-congregation prayer”
  9. Daisy Khan, who “founded the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality”
  10. Anousheh Ansari, “tthe first Muslim woman in space”

I appreciated that Siddiqui’s list, as well as the women that she mentions in the introduction to the slideshow, reflect a wide range of geographic and ethnic origins, which isn’t always the case when Muslim women are talked about.  I was, however, disappointed with the photo attached to the description of Nana Asma’u, captioned only as “Fula women” – are they pictured only because they come from the same background as her?  If, as the description of Asma’u states, there are now a number of organisations and schools named after her, couldn’t there have been a more relevant picture to include?

I also that U.S.-based women are heavily overrepresented in her list, which means that it’s possibly not the greatest reflection of the ten Muslim women most relevant for every person to know.

That said, Siddiqui doesn’t frame her list as the top ten Muslim women, ten most important Muslim women, or the only Muslim women that people need to know about, so I don’t think we need to try to knock anybody off the list.  They’re ten women that people should know about, with the possibility open, of course, for there to be many more.  I’m curious, then, what your own top-ten lists would be: who are the Muslim women, past or present, famous or not, that you think people should know about?

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Great piece Krista… Although Siddiqqui does not frame them as the “only” women people should know, I feel that there is little effort to look at a more diverse group of women. In addition, I feel that we should look at the other contributions many women make to their communities which are not necessarily leading prayers or challenging the political status quo…

  • http://www.domeshotsandfatlaces.com Hamza 21

    The list features a few omissions and should have included Dr. Fatimah Jackson (Biological Anthropologist) Dr. Ingrid Mattson,Dr. Rasha al-Disuqi and Alia Sabur (youngest college professor in the US). Also it seems odd there’s no mention of the fact that Nana Asma’u is Shaykh Uthman Dan Fodio’s daughter.By not mentioning this fact it leaves the reader with the impression she started the education program on her own. She was simply following what her father taught her about educating others in Islam.

    This comment has been edited according to MMW’s Comment Moderation Policy.

  • http://vish-ayengar.com Dr. Vishwanath Ayengar

    Chand Bibi [1550 - 1599] of India who valiantly fought against the forces of Mughal emperor Akbar.

  • http://blog.muslimawalkingaround.com/ Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Hamza 21… isn’t teaching someone and creating important educational programs an accomplishment on its own? I think that Nana Asma’s is an accomplished woman even if she is following her father’s career…. I wonder if you would say that a man in not accomplished because he picked up his father’s career?

    • http://www.domeshotsandfatlaces.com Hamza21

      @ Eren Arruna Cervantes

      “Nana Asma’u is Shaykh Uthman Dan Fodio’s daughter.By not mentioning this fact it leaves the reader with the impression she started the education program on her own. ”

      How anybody can misunderstand this clear and concise statement is beyond me. However to elaborate.

      1)Nana Asma’u is Shaykh Uthman Dan Fodio’s daughter.By not mentioning this fact
      2)it leaves the reader with the impression
      3)she started the education program on her own

      To further elaborate she continued a program of educating the people that was started by her father. The post story doesn’t mention this leaving the reader with the notion that Asma’u decided upon this course based upon her own volition not because she was raised by a father who promoted the idea this is the way it should be . Moreover it is not mentioned she was able to educate others because of the resources and methods put in place by her father.

      Nobody becomes successful by themselves and to ignore and conveniently not mention the fact Asma’u ‘s success comes at large part from her fathers influence,resources and methods is disingenuous at best.

  • http://eccentricyoruba.wordpress.com excentricyoruba

    By not mentioning this fact it leaves the reader with the impression she started the education program on her own. She was simply following what her father taught her about educating others in Islam.

    But she did start out the programs on her own…even though Usman dan Fodio did place importance on educating and empowering women, Nana Asmau is credited with creating the jaji, a group of women scholars who travelled around towns and villages to educate women in their homes.

    Just because she was the daughter of a powerful man doesn’t mean all her work should be credited to him. While it may be important to acknowledge sources of inspiration, it’s pretty much accepted in Nigeria that Nana Asmau did start the tradition of travelling women scholars and their signature headgear which was adapted from pre-Islamic traditions.

  • Michael Elwood

    Kahula bint Azwar – She was a warrior who fought in the Battle of Yarmouk.

    Ghazāla al-Harūriyya – She was an Imam and a warrior. She believed that leadership in Islam should be based on abilities, not ethnicity or gender. She led one of the first mixed gender prayers in the mosque of the city of Kufa in 677 C.E.

    Aisha Musa – She is Visiting Assistant Professor at Colgate University and author of “Hadith as Scripture” and “A Quranically Based Vision of Multiculturalism and Inter-Religious Relations”. She is also one of the few female scholars who’s scholarship isn’t limited to what is considered “women’s issues”.

    Martha Schulte-Nafeh – She is Senior Lecturer, Arabic at University of Texas at Austin and co-author “Quran: A Reformist Translation”.

    Halima Rashid – She is an Afghan American philanthropist who founded Earthcare International with her husband Jermaine Jackson.

    • LucianaCamino

      Why doesnt Halima appear in the webpage?

  • http://blog.muslimawalkingaround.com/ Eren Arruna Cervantes

    I think that just trying to dismiss Nana Asmau for following her father’s steps of building on them is problematic. She accomplished things herself, she served her community and has an important legacy…. should we credit her father instead? are those his accomplishments? are we going by the idea that if women receive help, or build on someone else’s work, or simply have the support of male relatives, then they are not independent and worthy of recognition???

  • http://thedelphiad.wordpress.com/ Dominique Millette

    Khadija bint Khuwaylid (Khadija the Great), first wife of Muhammed. Of noble origins, reknown for her business abilities, she proposed to Muhammed after hiring him to conduct her caravans.

    Aisha bint Abu Bakr, “favourite” wife of Muhammed. Known for her political influence and her role in the Battle of the Camels.

    Riffat Hassan, a Pakistani-American theologian and a leading Islamic feminist scholar.

  • duff

    OH HEYYY, lets take a diverse and accomplished group of women and reduce them to the common denominator of being Muslim!!1!! GAH. Admittedly I am not a fan of racial and religious classification and categorization of women (or men) like butterfly specimens or a natural history experiment, but I’ll let it pass if being Muslim is something that they openly admit to and/or it has some relevance to their actual work and accomplishments. So most of the women in the HuffPost women, alright yeah I guess can be on the list.

    OH WAIT NO. I notice that some bright spark has decided to put Anousheh ‘Space’ Ansari on the list, that’s curious. Is she a theologian? Umm no. Does she head up some sort of Muslim-related organization? noo. Uhh, okay has she ever mentioned religion (hers or anyone else’s) in public? I’m pretty sure she hasn’t, there’s no mention of Islam on her official website http://www.anoushehansari.com/about/

    So the only reason she’s being called Muslim isn’t because she’s Iranian, right?? Right? Sigh, what would one expect from the HuffPost or another mainstream American source, equating ethnicity with supposed religion. But I’m disappointed in Krista’s analysis, she could have made it much more interesting if she had talked about some of the assumptions made in the HuffPost article, e.g. ethnicity being synonymous with religion, or even whether the accomplishments of a woman who lived in a Muslim culture are thus actually the accomplishments of a ‘Muslim woman’ or Muslim civilization (e.g. the university founder or the female Sultan) or maybe why certain women were (not) chosen for the list. Now that would have been an interesting deconstruction of the media representations of ‘Muslim women.’

    I guess I’m highlighting the Anousheh Ansari example, as it is ridiculously insensitive of the HuffPost (and other media sources) to assume Iranians are automatically Muslim when so many in the Iranian diaspora (especially in the US) fled precisely because they did not like the infringement of religion on their lives. To now turn around and conflate their Iranian identity with Islam may in some cases be seen as a slap in the face, or if not, just bloody ignorant of history.

    Maybe if MMW had talked about some of these issues (not just in this article but in other pieces on this site), it would give an interesting perspective on the representations of so-called Muslims.

    Anyway using the logic of HUffPost and some of the contributors to MMW, I’m going to nominate Pierre Omidyar and GG from Shahs of Sunset as Muslims of the week/month/year (or however these ridiculous top 10 lists work).

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mmw/ Krista

    Thanks everyone for the comments and for the interesting suggestions of who to include!

    @ Duff: I agree with you in general about how problematic it is to assume that someone is Muslim because of their name or background, and I think you’re right that it can be particularly insensitive in the case of Iranian expats. That said, it seems that Anousheh Ansari does identify as Muslim; according to this interview (http://www.mideastyouth.com/2008/12/09/anousheh-ansari-proud-of-being-an-iranian-muslim/), she brought a copy of the Qur’an with her in space. (Not that she needs to act in certain ways to “prove” her Muslimness, but it doesn’t seem that it’s something that’s only imposed on her from outside, and she’s not only being called Muslim because of her Iranian background.)

    As for your comment about “whether the accomplishments of a woman who lived in a Muslim culture are thus actually the accomplishments of a ‘Muslim woman’ or Muslim civilization” – I saw the article differently. To me, the fact that the accomplishments of these women didn’t all focus primarily on their religious identity shows that Muslim women don’t have to be defined only by the obviously “Muslim” things that they do. This should be an obvious point, of course, but given the ways that Muslim women are often reduced to specific identity markers, it’s nice to see Muslim women being pointed out for stuff that doesn’t necessarily have to do with Islam. (Again, I mean “nice” in a pretty limited way, in that this should be obvious, and the information given isn’t particularly deep or critical.)