2015 was an extraordinary year for Muslim women. After being routinely consigned to the sidelines or discussed only for their dress choices, in 2015 Muslim women spoke up on issues ranging from the refugee crisis in Europe to the civil rights movement in America. TV shows and movies showcased the stories of exceptional Muslim women, news featured Muslim women as diverse as famous Muslim activists to the Kurdish girls fighting ISIS. Women grappled with the implications of growing Islamophobia – while one Muslim woman in America committed a heinous crime that led to a spike in anti-Muslim backlash.
Here we cover just a few of 2015’s top stories.
Suzanne Barakat, Grace Under Fire
Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
On February 10, 2015, three young Muslim American students — Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha — were murdered in their North Carolina home. Their deaths devastated the American Muslim community, but showcased the strength and grace of their families.
Deah’s sister, Dr. Suzanne Barakat, was particularly vocal in her condemnation of the rising tide of Islamophobia in the country, noting that it was “open season on Muslims.” She stated:
What I am is the sister of three family members who were murdered gruesomely in their homes because of their faith. . . What I am is an American Muslim — not very different from others who have pursued opportunities that our country has to offer.
The family established a fund to honor the legacy of their children – Our Three Winners – and it has so far raised almost a million dollars.
Linda Sarsour Stands Up, Stands Out
Activist Linda Sarsour has been vocal and visible in 2015, rising to national prominence this year for her activism in the Black Live Matter movement. She marched with Black Live Matter protesters from New York to Washington, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebuild black churches burned in the south, and got arrested in a protest for Eric Garner’s killing by the police.
Emitithal Mahmoud, Winning Poetess
Yale University senior Emtithal Mahmoud won the Individual World Poetry Slam Championship in Washington DC, getting the top prize for her poem entitled “Mama” , about her family’s experiences surviving war and genocide in Darfur, Sudan.
When I was 7, she cradled bullets in the billows of her robes.
That same night, she taught me how to get gunpowder out of cotton with a bar of soap.
Years later when the soldiers held her at gunpoint and asked her who she was
She said, I am a daughter of Adam, I am a woman, who the hell are you? . . .
Nadiya Jamir Hussain, England’s Best Baker
Britisher Nadiya Jamir Hussain won the The Great British Bake Off contestant in 2015. It is the most-watched show on TV in England, and over 15 million viewers tuned in to see Hussain win the final in October.
Before coming on the show, Hussain worried she would be dismissed by viewers as a “Muslim in a headscarf”, but now says:
I’m just as British as anyone else, and I hope I have proved that. I think the show is a fantastic representation of British society today. The feedback I have had reveals how accepting people are of different cultures and religions. Now people know who I am, I can see how tolerant and accepting British society is.
She has now been offered a £1 million book deal from Penguin Random House to publish her cookbook.
Malala Yousafzai in a Movie
American filmmaker Davis Guggenheim released his documentary entitled He Named Me Malala in October 2015. It provided a glimpse into the life of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, before she was shot by the Taliban in Pakistan for speaking out on behalf of girls’ education. The film also covered the aftermath of the shooting, from Yousafzai’s recovery in England to her journey as she became a global spokesperson for children’s education.
Rabia Chaudry and “The Case That Captivated A Nation”
Attorney and activist, Rabia Chaudry, brought Adnan Syed’s story to the attention of the “This American Life” team, who then turned it into the record-breaking podcast “Serial” (it has been downloaded more than 75 million times, from all over the world). Syed was convicted 15 years ago of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in Maryland.
Chaudry also helped create the Adnan Syed Trust, a legal fund for exonerating Syed. Along with other lawyers who work for the Trust, Chaudry launched her own podcast entitled “Undisclosed” in 2015 to cover the case. The podcast has been downloaded more than 37 million times.
Chaudry announced in 2015 that she is writing a book about Syed which will cover Syed’s initial conviction, his life in prison, and his recent legal victories.
Chaudry is also an altMuslimah contributor.
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, President and Pioneer
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim was voted Mauritius’s first female president on June 1st, becoming the first female president of her country and the third female president in Africa.
Judge Carolyn Walker-Dialloent Sworn-in on Qur’an
Carolyn Walker-Dialloent was sworn in as a Brooklyn Civil Court Judge, and she used a Qur’an to take her oath of office. Pictures and video of her swearing-in ceremony went viral, leading to threats against the Judge’s life.
Huma Abedin, Making a President
Huma Abedin is the vice chairwoman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential campaign. Abedin was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the State Department, and before then a long-time aide to Clinton. This year, her role in the Presidential campaign has made her one of the most prominent American Muslim women in the country. She got particular attention when she wrote an email to Clinton supporters to denounce Trump’s calls for banning Muslims from entering the US, noting:
I’m a proud Muslim – but you don’t have to share my faith to share my disgust. . .Trump wants to literally write racism into our law books.
If Clinton secures the Presidency in 2016, Abedin’s public role may become even more prominent.
Saba Ahmed, Celebrity Muslim Republican
Saba Ahmed is the founder of the Republican Muslim Coalition, an organization that advocates in Washington on behalf of Muslims for “pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-traditional family values, pro-defense, pro-trade, pro-business policies.”
Ahmed became an Internet celebrity in 2015 after appearing on Fox News wearing an American flag as a hijab to debate a Trump staffer who was promoting Trump’s proposal that mosques be monitored and shut-down.
Fatima Mernissi, the Passing of an Icon
Fatima Mernissi, known as one of the founders of Islamic feminism, died in November. Mernissi’s work sought to reconcile feminism and Islam, which she did most powerfully through her seminal works “Beyond the Veil: Male Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society” and “The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam”.
Mernissi’s conducted scholarly analysis of the Quran and Hadith to show that much of the misogynistic practices in the modern Muslim world come from Hadith that contradict the Quran, and are thus of questionable value.
She said famously:
If women’s rights are a problem for some modern Muslim men, it is neither because of the Quran nor the Prophet, nor the Islamic tradition, but simply because those rights conflict with the interests of a male elite. . . The elite faction is trying to convince us that their egotistic, highly subjective and mediocre view of culture and society has a sacred basis. If there is one thing that the women and men of the late 20th century who have an awareness and enjoyment of history can be sure of, it is that Islam was not sent from heaven to foster egotism and mediocrity.
Tashfeen Malik, Jihadi Bride
On December 2, 2015, Tashfeen Malik, a California housewife and mother, teamed up with her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, to murder 14 of his colleagues at their annual holiday gathering. Malik was raised in Saudi Arabia and studied in Pakistan before coming to the US as Farook’s fiancee. The couple’s family and even law enforcement have struggled to identify the motives behind the shooting, because neither of the shooters had a clear connection to any terrorist organization.
The story led to backlash against the American Muslim community amidst growing fear of Muslims being quietly radicalized within their homes and mosques. It also raised the spectre of radicalization of Muslim women – there have been a number of young women leaving western countries to join ISIS as so-called “jihadi brides” this year.
Muslim Women Fighting ISIS
The women in the Peshmerga, the national military force for the Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq, have risen to international fame in 2015 for their courageous battle against ISIS. They have delivered key strategic victories in taking down ISIS, and set an example of female leadership for the world. Even ISIS is afraid of them, particularly because ISIS fighters allegedly believe that they will not go to heaven if killed by a woman.
Hijab and Safety
Tashfeen Malik not only ruined the lives of her victims, she also made life much harder for Muslim women in the West, particularly those who wear the Muslim headscarf. Women have been threatened, assaulted, run off the road, and sent death threats to their homes. Armed gunmen “protesting” outside mosques have followed women entering and exiting. Calls for monitoring, registering and even deporting American Muslims abound.
In response, MuslimGirl.net released a Crisis Safety Manual, encouraging Muslim women to take self-defense classes, remain alert when travelling in public, and consider alternative ways of wearing hijab.
The palpable fear of harassment and assaults also raised the question of whether it is permissible under Islamic law to remove the headscarf in times of fear.
altMuslimah.com featured a four-part interview series with reknowned Islamic scholar Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, who stated, “And any jurists, any legists, who takes rulings right out of the book without looking at the social reality, the psychological reality, the personal reality of our society and just says, ‘This is the rule,’ they turn this religion into a procrustean bed. …They make Islam completely unworkable.”
Muslim women pushed back on shame-based approaches to the question of hijab and fear. Activist and writer, Nadiah Mohajir, wrote:
[W]hile well-intentioned, and aiming to empower women to stay strong, I worry that many have chosen to defend why Muslim women should keep wearing the scarf, by using a shame-based approach, or pressuring and guilting those who are struggling to continue wearing it.
Interfaith Solidarity and Hijab
In 2015, and particularly in the aftermath of recent terror attacks and anti-Muslim vitriol, many non-Muslim women have reached out to Muslim women to show support. The most prominent of these was Wheaton College professor, Larycia Hawkins, who wore a hijab to show solidarity with Muslims. She also stated that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God” – leading to her suspension by Wheaton College. The College held that Hawkins statement a shared conception of God violated its Statement of Faith.
The question of whether it is appropriate for non-Muslim women to wear hijab as a sign of solidarity has been contested within the Muslim community. One controversial Washington Post op-ed suggested that women should refrain from wearing hijab because it is intrinsically oppressive towards all women. Many in the community disagreed with this op-ed; in a widely-read response on altMuslimah, Keziah Ridgeway noted that Muslim slaves helped build America, that Black American Muslim women’s perspectives are often overlooked in national debates on American Islam, and that there is nothing intrinsically un-American or oppressive about modesty or covering.
Women’s Leadership in Mosque & Community
In January 2015, Sana Muttalib and Hasan Maznavi opened the first American women-only mosque in the United States. The mosque provides women-led Friday prayer services for women and children. The mosque is part and parcel of a broader project to increase access to Muslim women scholars and speakers through co-ed events and classes.
The mosque’s opening led to a debate within the Muslim community about the best way to create a women’s space mosques and increase women’s participation as community leaders. Some questioned whether women-only mosques may be counterproductive, pushing women’s involvement further to the margins.
Muslim Characters on Mainstream TV
2015 was a bellwether year for the portrayal of American Muslim women on television. Two leading TV ABC programs featured powerful Muslim characters – Quantico and American Crime.
Quantico features Nimah and Raina Amin, twin FBI agents played by actress Yasmine Al Massri. Not only are both Nimah and Raina FBI agents, they also strong, well-rounded female Muslim characters. One of the twins wears a hijab and the other does not, and both are accomplished and fearless FBI trainees and then agents.
American Crime features Aliya Shadeed, an African-American Muslim convert played by actress Regina King. On the show she struggles to save her brother from falling victim to drugs and pimping. King earned an Emmy for her portrayal of Shadeed.
More than a million refugees crossed into Europe this year, fleeing war, famine, and persecution. Many of them were Muslim, and the media accounts of the courage and desperation of the parents of young children who undertook these uncertain journeys were both moving and tragic.
Feature Photo Credit