Throughout history, there are many examples of strong Muslim women who contributed a great deal to society and became feminist icons. We all know the examples of Khadijara and Aishara. While Islam is inherently a feminist religion, in some conservative Muslim communities, the idea of being a “Muslim feminist” is challenged. This is not exclusive to Islam by any means, and happens in other conservative religious communities as well. So who are some of these women that pushed through the patriarchy of their respective social environments and reached others who needed to hear their messages? What were those messages, and how did they influence the lives of people all over the Muslim world and beyond?
Here are the stories of five strong Muslim women and how they changed their communities — and the world.
The Lioness from Egypt
If you were to search for influential Muslim feminists in history essays or academic papers available in databases, WritingBros, or some other platform it would be impossible not to come across the story of Egyptian revolutionary, writer, and philanthropist Huda Sha’arawi. She was awarded status in the Order of Virtues, which is an Egyptian order of knighthood for women. Her contribution to the improvement of Muslim women’s status in Egypt and beyond involved more than just leading protests and awareness-raising campaigns. She founded the Egyptian Feminist Union, and fought to make academic education accessible to girls instead of limiting their education within the confines of patriarchal gender roles. Huda organized Egyptian women to lead the revolution against British colonialism and demanded the release of men who were arrested for opposing colonialism and demanding their freedom.
The “Lioness from Egypt,” as Frank Turner describes her in a song published in 2019, showed her compatriots what it means to stand for justice and fight oppression, just as the Quran describes.
The Light of Hussein
Born in raised in America, the daughter of a celebrated American pilot, Noor Al-Hussein was the Queen of Jordan from 1978 to 1999. Queen Noor is a Princeton-educated architect and was a member of Princeton University’s first female ice hockey team with a strong belief in human rights. Her life story is a complex mix of travels, exploration, and self-discovery that serves as an inspiration to generations of young people.
Her Syrian ancestry influenced her interest in the Middle East. She accepted a position in Tehran, where she was part of the team working on modernizing Iran’s capital city. When the political situation in Iran forced the company to move its operation to the UK, Lisa Najeeb Halaby (the queen’s birth name) took a position at the Royal Jordanian Airlines. It’s through that position that she met the King of Jordan and eventually, as you know by now, married and became queen.
Queen Noor grew up with Christianity and is a revert to Islam. Although many in the Western world falsely assumed she would be treated badly or as an outsider by the Jordanian people, she was well-received. Queen Noor continued her commitment to Jordan and its people even after her husband’s death. She is the leader of numerous human rights organizations and initiatives including International Commission on Missing Persons, United World Colleges, King Hussein Foundation International, International Arab Youth Congress, and many others.
The Restless Lawyer
Born and raised in London, Salma Sobhan came from a prominent political family, and this is perhaps the main reason why her entire life was a long political struggle. If we look through the archive of college papers on feminism written at universities worldwide, we’d find many mentions of the life and human rights activism of the first Pakistani woman barrister. As a college professor, Salma valued intelligence and rational viewpoints over theory, which allowed her to reach out to her students and connect with them on a deeper level.
As the leader and one of the founders of “Ain O Shalish Kendra” a human rights organization focused on labor and women’s rights, Salma Sobhan worked to expose violations of human and worker’s rights in Bangladesh. Dismissing the prospect of a lucrative legal practice, Salma was relentless in her fight for equality and improvement of the position of women in Bangladesh.
The Founder of Women for Women International
Zainab Salbi grew up in Baghdad under the regime of Saddam Hussein as the daughter of the Iraqi president’s pilot. Her family arranged a marriage to a much older man in the U.S., which helped Zainab to escape the war-torn country. However, she quickly realized that she traded the horrors of war for life in an abusive relationship and thankfully escaped the clutches of her abusive husband.
When the Yugoslav Wars started in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Zainab Salbi decided to help the women affected, and founded the Women for Women International. Her goal was to provide women with access to education and resources necessary for personal development and growth. With hundreds of millions of dollars in direct aid and micro-loans, WWI provided war-affected women across the world with the means to improve their lives.
The True Islamic Feminist
Shamima Shaikh was a South African Muslim feminist, human rights activist, and journalist who promoted Islamic feminism. During her studies, Shaikh was involved in the promotion of a white-owned business boycott in Durban during the South African apartheid regime as a member of the Muslim Students Association of South Africa.
After graduation, Shamima started writing for al-Qalam, a Muslim community newspaper, where she heavily questioned the status of women in the Muslim world. In 1994, a group of female activists lead by Shamima Shaikh attempted to offer tarawih prayers at a Johannesburg Mosque against the will of men who attended the prayers, which resulted in a clash between some of the men and the women’s rights activists. They labeled Shamima as “that mad Shaikh woman.”
Shamima remained an activist until her death in 1998. She fought for reforms necessary for equality among men and women within the Muslim world. She wrote numerous books and essays on the position of women in Islam using a feminist lens to interpret Islam.
These women are all iconic examples of standing for justice and fighting against oppression, as is incumbent upon all Muslims. They diligently pursued justice, truth, and good in their lives; may they be an example to all of us. Do you have a Muslim feminist hero of your own? What makes her exceptional for you? Slide in our DMs at @muslimgirl on Twitter and Instagram and let us know.
Helen Birk is a freelance content writer. She enjoys writing about history, culture, and world news. As a writer, Helen aims to improve the everyday lives of her readers.