Tell us about your experience with reconciling Islam and gender.
Before I converted [to Islam], I visited a mosque while I was in the Caribbean to listen to the Friday sermon. My cousin and I were the only women there. After it ended, all of the men stood up and started shouting, "What are these women doing in the masjid?" I thought, “I just want to find out about Islam!” It was as though we were violating the sanctity of the masjid by our very presence. But the violation was not one of piety. It was one of presence.
I also lived in Saudi Arabia for almost seven years. I realized there that the objectification of women is not always about being seen. For two of the years I was living there, I covered my face. On one occasion, I was getting off the bus and walking to my university’s gates, when I was accosted by men in several different cars. In the West the woman is undressed and her body is used to sell things. In Muslim-majority countries, she's covered up, barred from public space, and then when she enters this public space, she becomes objectified. The objectification is in such a different format, but the result is the same. So there was this kind of juxtaposition between wanting to be enveloped in spirituality in Islam and seeing this display of blatant gender inequality.
Please share the story of how you founded Azizah Magazine.
It had a subconscious start and a conscious start. I grew up in Toronto during a time when there were no positive images of people of color in the media, textbooks, or anywhere in the visible public space. When I was about 12, I remember picking up a copy of Ebony magazine, and seeing people of color in positions of leadership, contributing to society. And I had a bit of an epiphany in terms of validation of self, of being, of black culture.
The conscious start [to the magazine] took place in 1992, when the Sharifa Alkhateeeb created a conference for Muslim women in Chicago. They were from all across the country, of all ethnic backgrounds, and from all schools of Islamic thought. I remember going into the conference room and being mesmerized by the energy, the expertise, the beauty, and the spirituality that was in the room. And I said to myself: we have to encapsulate all of this, put this down in the pages of a magazine! I went back home, and started formulating the magazine’s concept. We launched the first issue in 2000.
Tell us about Azizah Magazine’s approach to its portrayal of Muslim women.
The magazine’s aim is to reflect who Muslim women in America are in their totality. So everything from food and fashion to books and travel, to more substantial issues, such as disability, eating disorders, and aging in the Muslim community is explored. It's about the totality of our existence because when we are looking to better ourselves, we don't look to develop just ourselves on a spiritual, professional, or artistic level. In order to respect your potential, you have to develop all aspects of your being. It's part of our ibadah—our worship.
What can Muslim women do, on both an individual and institutional level, to create a meaningful and relatable reflection of themselves in mainstream publishing?
I would advise women to fulfill whatever talent they have: whether it is being a fabulous mother and homeschooler or becoming a scientist for NASA. For those who want to write: it's important for us to tell our own stories. Usually, when we hear about Muslim women, someone else is having the conversation about us, or speaking to us. For example, when I first became Muslim, all the books about women I could find were written by men. Now, we have several Muslim women who have chosen Islamic theology as their field of scholarship, so we have books written by Muslim women about Muslim women.
So we are having our own conversation and it is rich with nuance, which makes it powerful and effective. And ultimately by writing our own stories, we are raising our God consciousness.
You are a passionate advocate against gender-based violence. What is the core message you want to convey to audiences?
To the female audience I say, "You are a khalif a fil ardh
: a representative of Allah on this earth. You are not to be broken or beaten or abused. In many of Muslim-majority countries, misogyny has unfortunately been woven into the theology and practice of Islam, and then handed over as the original fabric of Islam. The subjected women are saying: "My mother was beaten. My sisters are beaten. This is my lot as Muslim woman, therefore I can't complain if my husband beats me.” There's menstruation, there's childbirth, there's abuse. It's just lumped into one inevitable experience.
Being able to separate what is cultural adulteration and what is Islam is essential. Both men and women are here on this earth for the purpose of worship. And we must point out to the men, “If we are all here to worship Allah, how can I have a soul that is completely at peace, pleasing to Allah, and pleased with Allah, if I'm in a state of constant fear and pain?
I also think that many times when women's groups go into Muslim majority countries or Muslim communities and try to undo some of the misogyny, they speak from a point of reference that is not inclusive of Islam. They approach Muslims from a very secular vantage point, or the Western feminist frame of reference. But I think it's important for us as Muslims to acknowledge that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) treated women with tremendous respect and dignity, and that is a model to be followed. It is a model that comes from our very own history. The change is not something you can superimpose on a person, a community or a country. They will embrace it if they feel they own it.
How should Muslim women respond to the resistance they sometimes experience from their communities when trying to accomplish their goals?
When I first started Azizah Magazine, I got disgruntled calls, letters and emails from people saying "This is forbidden. You’re going to hell.” They asked me why I had women on the cover, suggesting that I should put pictures of food or flowers instead, to which I responded, “If this was a magazine about food, I would put food on the cover.”
That was 12 years ago. The community has come a long way since. The people who had defined the pious Muslim women as silent and invisible woman had problems--and still have problems—accepting a publication like Azizah Magazine, where the Muslim woman’s voice is unfiltered.
I think, however, that Muslim women’s modesty of dress and behavior is her passport to public space. It's not a reason to further bar her from public space. And I believe strongly that since our purpose as human beings is to worship if a Muslim woman’s intention is to praise God through her work, to establish a more connected Muslim community, or to help non-Muslims see Islam as it truly is, then who are we to say her work is not ibadah, worship?
Sarah Farrukh is an Associate Editor at Altmuslimah and an information studies graduate student at the University of Toronto. She blogs about faith and books at A Muslimah Writes.