Cultivating Political Leadership in Muslim Women, Now!

  • Mar 21, 2016
  • maya

By Akifa Khan, Emerge California (Class of 2016)

When I was a child in my local mosque, I learned some well-intentioned but completely misguided pieces of information about Islam. I grew up with a mixed concoction of cultural beliefs steering the application of Islam. In one instance, I was told that women do not  publicly speak about Islam after asking my Quran teacher about what to say about the five pillars of Islam for my 6th grade class presentation. This was a clear example of how patriarchal culture overrode actual Islamic teachings. To me, this seemed like a confusing contradition, as a prominent rule in Islam is to gain knowledge and share it. I was completely fed up. At 16 years old, I decided not to continue studying at the mosque. For the most part, I didn’t feel welcomed. I wasn’t able to challenge some of the notions of my teacher’s cultural interpretations of Islam without seeming blasphemous so I did what any normal teenager would do and worried more about not fitting in at school.  It wasn’t until college where I found Islam again. I researched different interpretations and grasped a better understanding of the Qur’anic text.

After interning at the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), and talking to its senior advisor Dr. Maher Hathout, I came to the realization that the true essence of Islam is to serve humanity. That can happen in many forms, but what I noticed is that Muslim women in my community, at college, and in the workforce were instinctively working for the common good. Intuitive empathy, strength in conviction, and serving a purpose always came through in their personalities. However, not one of them ever expressed a desire to run for office. There are so many different layers as to why Muslim women — my classmates, friends, and colleagues — never thought that running was even an option. I have identified three reasons thus far.

First, I wasn’t alone when I did not feel welcome in my local mosque. Across America, women have had an extremely difficult time attaining leadership roles in their local mosques. Creating a climate that doesn’t enable women to freely express their viewpoint within their local community hinders their ability to offer a different perspective and flex their leadership skills, which in turn, affects their roles in the broader community. In 2000, 31% of mosques had policy of not allowing women serve on their board.  By 2011, it dropped to just 13%. But only half of those who changed their policy have had women serve on the board. Mosques average about 18% female attendance at Friday prayers, and that has not changed over the past decade. If more than half of the congregation cannot take an active role at their own mosques, they end up not attending. In turn, it makes it more challenging to create a base of supporters, if they ever decide to run for a local or state office.

Second, many women are discouraged from running because the perception of Muslims portrayed in the  news media is overwhelmingly negative, and they don’t think they can generate popular support as a Muslim woman. Yes, it is true that most news media paints Muslims unfavorably, but as Dalia Mogahed said in her TED talk, “We would be giving into ISIS’s narrative if we cast them as representatives of a faith of 1.6 billion people.“  It’s sad to say, but minorities actually share a common history of discrimination in one form or another in media and culture. It’s actually what binds us together instead of divides us. Studies say that 62% Americans have not met a Muslim. What better way to meet as many people as possible than on the campaign trail?

Third, is the notion of perfection that has been engrained in far too many women across all cultural backgrounds. Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code said, “Women have been socialized to aspire for perfection, and now they are overly cautious and do not take as many risks.” In the past months, during my Emerge trainings, I’ve seen many women who are worried about everything that has to be set in place in order to run for office, including me.  Men on the other hand, decide to run, and then they run. Just as Reshma is teaching girls to be brave through learning to code, Emerge is teaching women to be brave and take risks in the political arena. We need more American Muslim women in leadership roles in their communities and local mosques to give them a stepping stone to greater political aspirations. As one of two Muslim women in the 2016 class of Emerge California, I am calling on more Muslim women to take a chance, find courage, and run for office.