Editor's Note: Be sure to read Curator Samina Ali's exhibition wrap-up "Looking Back, Moving Forward," which includes the highlights of the nine-month-long exhibition (active from March to December 2013).
Muslima is a revolutionary virtual exhibition presenting a wide collection of thought-provoking perspectives and visually arresting artwork from contemporary Muslim women around the world who are speaking to the reality of their lives. They’ve shared their voices and artwork on topics including generations, leadership, power, faith, and much more. In the process, they are defining what it means to be a modern Muslim woman.
The best way to explain the exhibition’s groundbreaking nature is through its title, Muslima. In Arabic, muslima is used to indicate a woman who believes in God and upholds God’s values, such as prayer, charity, fasting, kindness and mercy. In the way I’ve written muslima here, it’s singular: one female. This is intentional.
In a world that’s grown accustomed to denying the rich diversity of Muslim women’s thoughts and contributions, of erasing their complex differences and reducing them into an easy stereotype of an oppressed group, into lesser human beings, this exhibition title highlights the singular form of muslima in order to celebrate the unique passions and accomplishments of each and every Muslim woman who contributes.
In some Muslim communities, the word muslima carries connotations of a religious woman who prays five times a day, fasts, and wears the veil. For this reason, many of the women we approached hesitated to be featured. They didn’t consider themselves to be “that type of Muslim.” Some simply didn’t believe in God. Just as we hope to stretch the stereotypical understanding of what a Muslim woman is, we are hoping also to stretch the meaning of this word. For the purposes of this exhibition, a Muslima is anyone who identifies as a Muslim, or any woman who is identified as such because of her familial, cultural, or religious background, or even her passions, no matter her current beliefs.
But Muslima isn’t only meant for Muslims. By now, you may have noticed that I’ve used the term muslima in both upper and lower case. That’s no typo. Muslima, capitalized, refers to a female who is a follower of the religion of Islam. However, muslima, lower case, is anyone who believes in a higher power and advances good in the world. In the Qur’an, all prophets are referred to as “muslim,” not just Prophet Mohammed but also those who Muslims share with other faiths: Adam, Abraham, Noah, Moses, David, Jacob, and Jesus. The word muslim is inclusive. In that spirit, we welcome all of you – women and men of all faiths and backgrounds – to join in this revolutionary exhibition by submitting your work, sharing your thoughts, and signing on to our “Speak Up! Listen Up!” campaign.
This is a historic moment for IMOW (now part of Global Fund for Women). The museum’s mission is to inspire creativity, awareness, and action on vital global issues for women. For this project, we are taking “action” a step further and, for the first time, are creating an action campaign alongside the exhibition. We feel strongly about doing our part to change negative attitudes that hurt women. Religion is just one aspect of a Muslim woman’s life. These women are also artists, mothers, leaders of countries and of companies, visionaries, change-makers. Yet the one aspect of a Muslima’s identity that is most at issue, the most problematized, is her faith.
So join our campaign and pledge to support the efforts of women worldwide who are leading the movement for a more equitable and inclusive world, often at the cost of their own safety. Combat pervasive negative attitudes about Muslim women that confine and restrict them, lessening their lives.
I made this pledge to myself many years ago. My parents are from India and, because they raised me mostly in the U.S., it is easier for me to distinguish how much of what they believe to originate from our Islamic faith is in fact really based in our Indian culture. In India, for instance, the bride bears the burden of the dowry, whereas in Islam, it’s incumbent upon the man. In fact, in Islam, a marriage contract is drawn up, which serves as the prenuptual. In that contract, the bride not only has the right to set the amount of money she expects to receive, but she also sets the time when she would like to receive the money: right after the wedding, ten years down the line, as part of her alimony if they divorce. It’s entirely up to her. The contract also contains any other rights the bride wants her husband to be clear on, from rights that solely concern her (continuing her education, building her career, wearing/not wearing the headscarf, etc.) to rights that concern the two of them (he will not take on more wives, they will both be sexually satisfied). One friend of mine stipulated that her husband must have sex with her at least once a week for the life of their marriage. (That a wife has a right to orgasm is actually a legal requirement in Islam. The pleasure one receives while climaxing is said to be God’s way of allowing humans to glimpse paradise.)
Unfortunately, the rights Islam gives to women aren’t always put into practice. Instead, the local culture’s practices take precedence over religious doctrine (whether it’s India, Africa, the Middle East, etc.). My family not only believes in bridal dowry but, like many Muslim families in India, they take pride in the amount they are able to provide their daughters. In the process, daughters are often seen as commodities or, for families who can’t afford a large dowry, a burden.
In my experience, the cultural expression of Islam is so prevalent that many young women aren’t even aware of their basic religious rights. They blindly follow what their family or tradition or culture tells them to do, often at a heavy cost to themselves. Growing up, I knew my life didn’t belong to me. It belonged to my dad, who would be the one to say how much education I received, what studies I would pursue, when I would marry, and even whom I would marry. There was no reason to have my own dreams.
The marriage my parents arranged for me, however, went madly wrong when my husband turned out not to be who he portrayed. The nightmare I endured along with the eventual divorce gave me the courage to speak up. I told my parents that they’d had their chance at choreographing my life; now it was my turn to live it. My dream had always been to write, and so I did just that. In 2004, I finished my novel Madras on Rainy Days. The story is about a young woman named Layla, loosely modeled after me, who knows nothing about her faith except for what others tell her. She blindly follows, and loses her rights in the process. Her parents pull her out of school and force her into marriage. Her husband isn’t able to consummate their union but she’s forced to stay with him. Like this, the violations stack up, and she bears them. Why? Because she believes she must as a good Muslim girl. Stripped of all freedoms and rights, she is left with nothing to do – she can’t leave her husband’s house, can’t go back to school, can’t even visit her relatives. Unhappy, idle, and bored, she turns to the Qur’an, one of the only things allowed her, and begins studying it with her pious mother-in-law.
I like to say that I took the message of the novel to the streets by co-founding Daughters of Hajar, a Muslim American feminist group. Our first act was to protest the gender segregation at mosques that force women into back rooms or even back entrances. We marched into a mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia in 2004 and prayed in the main sanctuary, empowered by our faith. (Even in the 7th century, Prophet Mohammed did not banish women behind partitions. Why did we in the 21st century?) Following our protest, Muslims organizations in the U.S., such as Islamic Society of North America (ASMA) and Council on Islamic American Relations (CAIR), issued a report asserting a woman’s right to pray in the main hall if she so wanted. And I’m proud to say that the following year, our group organized the first woman-led prayer, led by Islamic scholar and feminist Aminah Wadud, in New York. Hundreds of men and women stood together and prayed.
My accomplishments are humble compared to those made by the women you’ll meet in this exhibition. As Curator for this revolutionary exhibition, I’ve reached out to Muslim women around the globe who have been working for years to make huge changes in the way Muslim women are portrayed, treated, and included in the world.
Maria Bashir, the only female Prosecutor General in Afghanistan, has taken on the mission of educating and empowering the women in her community, where high rates of violence against women prevail. The sad irony is that while Maria Bashir protects women and children in Herat, her own life is under threat. In a film about Maria’s work and experiences called Half Value Life, we see an attack on her house. It’s unclear whether the government or the Taliban are behind it. Maria is ultimately forced to send her children out of the country to keep them safe.
Unfortunately, Maria Bashir’s situation is not unusual. Dr. Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, has worked to improve the lives of women and children in Iran for more than 40 years. Trained as a lawyer, Dr. Ebadi has represented families of writers and intellectuals who have been killed; she’s exposed conspirators behind an attack by pro-clergy assailants on students at Tehran University; and she’s represented the mother of a nine-year-old girl, Arian Golshani, who was tragically beaten to death by her father and stepmother. In this last case, Dr. Ebadi hoped to change Iranian custody laws that favor fathers over mothers.
Her life’s work to bring justice to victims has led to Dr. Ebadi being jailed, having her life threatened, and having her Nobel Prize medal confiscated by Tehran’s Revolutionary Court. Yet Dr. Ebadi doesn’t let fear stop her from advancing women’s human rights. She, like many other women you’ll meet in this exhibition, display incredible courage. A few other examples include Fahima Hashim who is actively spearheading a national campaign to reform rape laws in the Sudanese region of Darfur; Laila Shawa, whose acclaimed Walls of Gaza series focuses on the heart-rendering messages of hope and resistance spray-painted by ordinary people on the walls of their city in defiance of Israeli censorship; or Elvira Bojadzic who is trying to rekindle Islamic culture after the devastation of the Bosnian war.
My hope is that this exhibition will begin a new discussion about the realities of what it means to be a Muslim woman today. Listen to the moving stories, explore the striking artwork, and be inspired by their incredible courage. We hope Muslima might shift your perspective and show that these women who happen to be Muslim are also fearless reformers, renowned artists, and world leaders.
- Sign our “Speak Up! Listen Up!” pledge
- Does a particular interview or artwork strike you? Tweet it, email it, add your own comments at the end of the piece.
- Not all of our contributors are Muslim! If you have work that speaks to one of our themes, such as Helen Zughaib, submit your work.