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African American Muslim women: an invisible group

September, 2004, Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, African American Muslim women: an invisible group, by Karen Fraser Wyche.


When we think of Muslim women, it is usually not American women. A typical response is to visualize an image of an Arab Muslim woman who is veiled and sequestered in the home. These images come from media photos of women in the Middle East and provide stereotypes of Muslim women that then become generalized to all Arab women. When asked to think of African American Muslim women, some readers may think of women members of the Nation of Islam (NOI), formerly called the Black Muslims, wearing long white dresses and veils covering their hair. However, the majority of African American Muslim women are not members of the NOI, but belong to traditional Islamic religious groups in the United States (Wood, 2002). We don't have mental images of them. This diversity among Muslim women is rarely seen in photographs in newspapers, magazines, or on television. Rather, we are more familiar with images of Arab Muslim women, who we view as homogeneous, than of American Muslim women. Most non-Muslims know very little about American Muslim women and men, those who convert to Islam, those who have been Muslims for several generations, or about the largest group of Muslims in America who are African American (Sachs, 2002; Wood, 2002).

This paper attempts to provide information about African American women who are Muslim. The paper seeks to uncover some background information about Islam and the African American community, and to understand the appeal of Islam to African American women. These topics are not achieved by reviewing a discipline-specific literature, for as previously mentioned, little information exists about African Americans and Islam. As a result many literatures need to be considered to weave together possible answers. Ideally, this paper should evolve from an emic (cultural insider and cultural specific) framework. But I am not a Muslim. Although I am an African American woman, I am an outsider. The reader should keep these limitations in mind when reading this paper. Furthermore, researchers rarely access the voices of African American Muslim women to help understand why they have chosen Islam for their religious practice and spiritual fulfillment. For these reasons, several topic areas are covered in this paper as a way to weave together information regarding Islam and African American women. These topics are Feminist critiques of Islam; the historical development of Islam in the African American community with a focus on the NOI; the literature on African Americans and Islam; and the relationship between religion, spirituality, and women.

Feminist Critiques

Feminist critiques of Islam articulate issues espoused by feminist historians and religious scholars. The focus of these critiques is the practice of Islam in the Arab world and not America, and should therefore be viewed from this perspective. Winter (2001) discusses two feminist approaches to studying women in Islam. She calls the first approach the apologist framework. Scholars in this tradition are developing a feminist rereading of the Quran. They try to contribute to gender relations by analyzing in the Quran the different discourses on cultural practices for Muslims (Mc Cloud, 1995). This view argues that women's position in Islam is dictated by a fundamentalist misinterpretation of the Quran that subordinates women. They challenge the lack of gender equalitarianism and misogynist constructions of Islam, by use of interpretative methodologies that include classical Islamic and modern (secular) social science approaches (Badran, 2001). This critique is against those patriarchal Islamists and religious scholars who want to impose their narrow version of religion on people. These feminists are similar to religious scholars who study biblical texts and derive different interpretations. Many religions form divisions based on these interpretive differences from orthodox, to conservative, to liberal. These Muslim women scholars argue that not all Muslim women are oppressed and voiceless. Rather, their critique emphasizes that it is the Western narrative of the "other" who engages in an inferior religion that creates a backward society (McCloud, 1995). While these Islamic feminists reject Western style feminism and debate what is feminism as framed in Islamic terms (Moghadam, 2002), at the same time, they deplore women's suppression in Islamic societies and try to maintain their culture and religion without subjugating women (Viner, 2002).

In America, the feminist analysis of Islam seems to be primarily done by Arab American scholars who provide a feminist critique of Islam outside of America. For example, Moghadam (2002) provides an interesting review of the debates on Islamic feminism in Iran as articulated by expatriate Iranian feminists and leftists. Interestingly, African American feminist who were quite vocal in their critique of male power and domination during the Civil Rights Movement (that had strong roots in the Christian churches) are silent on issues relating to African American Muslim women. Their critique relates to gender and race issues (Springer, 2002) and not religion. An underlying and unstated assumption seems to be that African American women are Christians.


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