By Tina Price-Johnson
Shamima Shaikh was born on 14th September 1960, the second of six children of Salahuddin and Mariam Shaikh. Her family moved from Louis Trichardt (in the Limpopo Province), South Africa to Pietersburg (now called Polokwane), where she graduated from high school. Ms Shaikh then attended the University of Durban-Westville, at that time an institution listed by the apartheid government as reserved for students of Indian ethnicity.
Whilst studying Arabic and Psychology at University Ms Shaikh became involved with the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO), a political group which was inspired by the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) which was founded in the 1960s to fight apartheid in South Africa.
In 1985 Ms Shaikh was elected to the executive committee of her university’s Islamic Society. The society supported a call for a general boycott by the Federation of South African Trade Unions through the Muslim Students Association of South Africa group. On 4th September Ms Shaikh was arrested for distributing pamphlets encouraging a boycott of Durban white-owned businesses. Ms Shaikh was held in a cell with the President of the MSA, Na’een Jeenah, and from this time they development a personal relationship. Neither were charged, and in 1987 they married and eventually had two children.
After her graduation in 1985 Ms Shaikh followed a career in education, taking a position as Teacher at Taxila Primary and Secondary School Pietersburg. In 1989 Ms Shaikh joined the Muslim Youth Movement and her activism increased; attending and speaking at numerous rallies and events against apartheid, notably the specific campaigns against the Tricameral Parliament elections for the “Indian” and “Coloured” race groups and the defiance campaign of the Mass Democratic Movement.
In 1993 she was elected MYM Chairperson for the Transvaal region, only the second woman to hold the position. In that year she began the campaign that was to make her famous; “Women in the Mosque”. Ms Shaikh and some other women within MYM encouraged women to attend the tarawih prayers at the 23rd Street Mosque in Fietas in Johannesburg. This led to clashes between her and in particular the male members of the mosque committee and gained much media coverage, the majority negative.
In the same year she became National Coordinator of the MYM Gender Desk, a position she held until 1996. Ms Shaikh organised various workshops, seminars and campaigns through her position with the MYM. She spearheaded the MYM’s “Campaign for a Just Muslim Personal Law”, the “Equal Access to Mosques” campaign and various others. The organisation rapidly became the leading organisation in Islamic Feminism in South Africa. Although apartheid officially ended in 1990, it was not until 1994 elections were held. Ms Shaikh was active in campaigns to encourage voters to opt for parties which had always fought apartheid through the Muslim Forum on Elections.
By 1994 Ms Shaikh had helped found and become the first Chairperson of the Muslim Community Broadcasting Trust, a position she held until her death. She also helped establish the Muslim Personal Law Board of South Africa, which sought to apply Islamic law alongside South African law for Islamic people. The Board proved fraught, with divisions arising within it and clashes with South African law, and it was eventually closed down by the United Ulama Council of South Africa.
An eventful year, 1994 was the year Ms Shaikh was first diagnosed with breast cancer. After 12 months of gruelling and invasive treatments she entered remission, but vowed not to be treated again if cancer came back, stating she preferred to live a life of quality and die with dignity at home. Whilst battling cancer Ms Shaikh became Managing Editor of Al-Qalam, which developed into a beacon of modern Islamic expression throughout South Africa.
In 1996 Ms Shaikh’s cancer came back. In 1997 Ms Shaikh completed a hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) with her husband, as part of her journey through living with cancer. The experience led to a book, Journey of Discovery: A South African Hajj, published in 2000.
In August of 1997 Ms Shaikh was head of the newly-launched Muslim community radio station, The Voice. Ms Shaikh delivered a paper entitled “Women & Islam – The Gender Struggle in South Africa: The Ideological Struggle” at the 21st Islamic Tarbiyyah Programme of the Muslim Youth Movement, at the As Salaam Educational Institute, on 22nd December 1997. This was to be her final public engagement and on 8th January 1998, the 9 Ramadan 1418, Ms Shaikh passed away.
In her husband’s words: “Shamima’s mission in life was to struggle for justice; whether against white racists propping up apartheid or Muslim misogynists who wanted to ‘keep women in their place’.”
By her husband, filed under Al-Qalam: http://alqalam.co.za/remembering-shamima-shaikh/
Adapted from the author’s post at: https://www.facebook.com/notes/this-is-what-a-feminist-looks-like/fotw-11-feb-2013-shamima-shaikh/538682936171964
* See the author’s blog at http://fromthemindoftinapj.wordpress.com/