A few times every block along the route of the third annual Women’s March in Washington, Khadija Husain heard a voice call out from the crowd: “May I take your picture?” Each time, she paused and held her poster high, smiling as the photographer offered a “thank you” or thumbs-up before moving on.
Although she wore a fashionably fuzzy cream-colored coat and crimson, striped Harry Potter scarf (Gryffindor), most likely it was her hijab that drew much of the attention. Her head scarf, a sign of her Muslim faith, along with her purple poster from the Muslim Women’s Alliance helped her stand out from the crowd.
Her poster read: “No Muslim Ban Ever. Black Lives Matter. Believe Women, Believe Survivors. Human Rights are Women’s Rights.” A quote often attributed to the Rev. Martin Luther King—“No one is free until we are all free”—was emblazoned across the top.
Husain was one of scores of Muslim women who participated in the Women’s March in the nation’s capital in January, drawn there by a passion for a range of issues. The Chicago-based Muslim Women’s Alliance was an official partner of the event. The non-profit was founded in 2007 by a group of women frustrated with the lack of leadership opportunities for women in mosques, and the alliance has since broadened its scope beyond the mosque to become a voice for Muslim women’s empowerment. With 13,000 people on its mailing list, the MWA raises money for scholarships, runs a mentorship program for Muslim girls, hosts events, and works with the boards of mosques to build greater gender equity inside religious institutions.
Suroor Raheemullah of Chicago is part of the MWA leadership team. Her sister was a founder of the group. She says the MWA began with a fairly straightforward idea: “We’re going to have our own board, and we’re going to have women on it, to give women the opportunity to lead.”
The Women’s March’s sponsorship was an example of the alliance stepping onto a national stage. Raheemullah and Husain, the MWA communications director, led a group of about a dozen Muslim women from Chicago to D.C. for the event, chartering a bus for the overnight drive across 700 miles of dark, snow-swept highways. A contingent of more than 50 Muslim women from the D.C. area met them there. Many of the women marched in matching bright blue hijabs.
“Our faith calls for speaking out for justice, not just for our own community, but for others,” Husain said, speaking into a microphone at the front of the bus as it made its way east through Indiana. “So today I march for Indigenous women, I march for any woman who’s ever said ‘me too.’ There are so many reasons that we can all come up with why we march, but for me I will continue to raise my voice every single time when any issue comes up, whether it’s the wall, whether it’s Latino rights, I will continue to march, and I will continue to demand justice for all communities.”
In the weeks leading up to the march, media attention focused on reports that the Women’s March national leadership was fracturing, holding tearful meetings and navigating allegations of anti-Semitism after a former board member, Vanessa Wruble, said she left the organization after hearing anti-Semitic comments from march leaders. Women’s March board member Tamika Mallory came under fire for attending a Nation of Islam rally and praising Nation leader Louis Farrakhan on social media. The Southern Poverty Law Center, while acknowledging the Nation of Islam’s programming and theology is aimed at uplifting African Americans, designates the Nation of Islam as a hate group for its leader’s racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-LGBT rhetoric.
The controversy had an impact: Women’s marches took place in cities around the country, and some, concerned that the tensions in the D.C. group had tarnished the brand, took pains to separate themselves from the march in Washington.
For many of the Muslim women at the D.C. march, the issues were complex. No one in the MWA contingent was a member of the Nation of Islam; just two percent of African American Muslims ally with Farrakhan, whose racist theologies are anathema to the racially inclusive theology of mainstream Islam. Many of the women, however, had watched the controversy play out in the media, and several commended the Women’s March leaders for listening to criticism and responding by expanding their leadership team.
“We know we condemn anti-Semitism fully. It’s a no-brainer for us,” said Wardah Khalid, who participated in the march and is the founder of an organization aimed at boosting Muslim participation in politics and civic life. “Inclusion is an important issue for us.”
Others said the focus on the controversy was drawing attention away from more critical issues. “It is a distraction. It’s to divide us,” said Tiffany Blanton, 34, of Milwaukee, who rode the MWA bus from Chicago to the march. An African American who converted to Islam as a college student, she said it’s common for people to make assumptions about her faith. “If I tell people I’m Muslim, they automatically think I’m in the Nation. ‘Oh, you hate everybody,’” Blanton said with a sigh. “Uh, no.” She said she does not believe the march leaders are anti-Semitic, and that the larger women’s movement, not Tamika Mallory, should be the focus. “That’s her views. That’s what she does. That doesn’t take away the fact of what she started,” Blanton said, adding that she doesn’t expect a broad coalition of women to agree with each other on every priority. “By having this march and all coming together, maybe we can work these issues out. We have to at least speak to each other.”
As the march meandered from Freedom Plaza down Pennsylvania Avenue, pausing for a few minutes outside the Trump International Hotel, Blanton held up a homemade sign with pictures of some of her icons that she had cut out of magazines, including writer and actress Issa Rae; Trayvon Martin’s mother, activist Sybrina Fulton; and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters. She’d written this message across the poster in purple marker: “Time 4 U white women & non-black women to put in work! Signed, Black Women.”
Next to her marched Marina Hayes, 27, a special education teacher at a Chicago public school. Raised in a Greek Orthodox family, Hayes converted to Islam a few years ago. She said she marched because she was frustrated by the Trump Administration’s policies banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries. Diana Cruz, 45 and a Muslim convert, said she marched for families separated at the U.S.-Mexican border. She’d added a bright pink beret to the top of her pink hijab for the march. “I’m trying to change the narrative.”
Muslim women’s political activism is growing nationwide. The recent elections of the nation’s first Muslim congresswomen—U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan—are parts of a much larger movement, says Najeeba Syeed, associate professor of interreligious education at Claremont Theological Seminary in Southern California. Syeed, who teaches a class on Islam, Women, and Social Movements, notes that groups such as MWA are led by women who are adept at building coalitions. “What’s been really fascinating to me is some of the cutting-edge, anti-racism work within the Muslim community has been largely led by Muslim women,” she said.
The U.S. Muslim population is extremely diverse, a fact underscored by a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, and this diversity was evident in the MWA group, which included women who were white, black, Latina, and of South Asian and Arab descent, and included converts as well as lifelong Muslims. Of the approximately 3.45 million American Muslims, about 20 percent identify as black or African American and 28 percent identify as Asian. Although the majority are American citizens, those with immigrant roots trace their ancestry to more than 75 nations.
“Because we’re not from one background, we all come with our issues that are most important, and it’s our faith that pushes us out here,” said Husain, who was born in Saudi Arabia and has lived in the U.S. for 30 years. Syeed uses the term “embodied pluralism” to describe how American Muslim women learn to navigate complex racial, ethnic, and religious identities, even as they navigate gender in secular and religious spaces. These experiences have helped shape leaders who are particularly skilled at leading diverse coalitions such as the ones seen at the Women’s March, she said. “Some Muslim women talk about being the ‘unicorn at the table,’ but that’s their normal, everyday,” Syeed said. “And they’re not exceptions. There are whole communities like this.”
This diversity was evident at a recent MWA event in Chicago, a workshop on gender equity in mosques titled “Muslim Women Reclaim the Masjid.” (Masjid is the Arabic term for mosque.) The workshop attracted about 100 women to share their frustrations around the lack of women’s leadership, cramped prayer spaces, and sexist attitudes from men inside mosques. A 2011 study on the status of women inside American mosques found that while nearly six in 10 of the nation’s approximately 2,000 mosques have had at least one woman board member, many fell behind in recruiting women leaders and making worship spaces “women friendly.” Raheemullah, who helped lead the workshop, urged the audience to go back to their mosques and include men in the conversation. “This is not a women’s problem. This is a community problem. We need to help each other to make the change.”
A month later, Raheemullah was on the long overnight bus ride to the D.C. march, her 10-year-old daughter curled up on the seat beside her. Raheemullah also attended the first Women’s March in January 2017, the day after President Donald Trump took the oath of office. “I marched in 2017 because there was a heightened sense of anti-Muslim rhetoric out there, and I was scared. I did not want to bring my daughter in 2017 because it was a really terrible environment.” As the bus ride got underway, she said, “At that time for people of color, people of my faith, nobody knew what direction things were going to be going in. But two years later, I march again because the last two years and the last march taught me that fear, if we let it, will cripple us, but love will [uplift] us.”
The fear hasn’t gone away. Nearly every woman on the bus reported experiences of harassment. A 2018 poll by the Michigan-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that six in 10 American Muslims reported experiencing religious discrimination in the past year. Nearly 70 percent of those targeted were women.
Raheemullah wasn’t the only Muslim marcher who returned to the streets of Washington D.C., hoping to tap into the atmosphere of compassion and solidarity many experienced during the first march. Saira Toor, part of the MWA group, said the 2017 march was the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks that she felt she was back in the welcoming, inclusive country she’d grown up in as a child. “I was amazed by the outpouring of support and love. People saying, ‘Thanks for being here,’ like we were VIPS,” Toor recalled. Husain agreed. “Everywhere we’d go, people were giving us hugs. It was very loving.”
As this year’s march wound down, Raheemullah said she noticed the “electric” feeling of the first march wasn’t as palpable this time. “People seem tired,” she said. At one point, she had reached protectively for her daughter after a shouting match erupted nearby between protesters on either side of the abortion debate. Abortion rights were not mentioned on the MWA signs at the march, a sign of the complexity of the issue for many Muslim women, Husain explained.
The mood seemed to lift an hour or so later, as the Chicago group gathered around Brooklyn political activist Linda Sarsour, who is Muslim and a co-chair of the Women’s March. Sarsour greeted many of the women by name and offered words of encouragement for the work ahead. “Where I am, my sisters are,” Sarsour said. “I’m ecstatic, I’m inspired, I’m refueled.”
She lingered for several minutes, offering hugs and posing for selfies before heading back toward the rally stage.
Monique Parsons is an independent religion reporter based in Chicago.