Recalling the Legacy of a Fierce and Compassionate Warrior

15 June 2016

by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

When we talk about Islamic Feminisms and activisms for women rights in Islam, there are some names that have a well deserved place in the collective feminist mind: Amina Wadud, Fatima Mernissi, Shirin Ebadi, Asma Lamrabet, Kecia Ali, among others. Most of them belong to the academic world. Through their books, they have installed the cause of Muslim Feminists as a legitimate and visible struggle, both inside and outside of Islam.

Aisha Bewley in her book "Islam, the Power of Women" says that Muslim women excelled in the history of humanity, especially as warriors. And while this author includes a list of names of thousand years ago, I believe with all conviction that Shamima Shaikh was one of the most fierce, tireless, compassionate and brave Muslim warriors of our time.

Shamima's name is unknown on this side of the world, used to identify Islamic feminism with Arab women. Shamima Shaikh was the most famous advocate for the rights of Muslim women in South Africa, prominent Islamic feminist of Indian origin, journalist, radio producer, movement builder, trailblazer, fearless activist and, above all, crazy, very crazy. Crazy enough to challenge the patriartchy of her time and fight to the end for the Gender Jihad she believed in.

On this day, the ninth of the month of Ramadan 1998 (This year June 15th) Shamima lost the battle against breast cancer; That battle she fought, like others in her life, with all her strength until the end. She was born on September 14, 1960 in the current province of Limpopo, South Africa; she was the second of six siblings.

Shaikh studied at the University of Durban-Westville, Which at that time was reserved, under the apartheid laws of South Africa, for students of Indian descent. She graduated in Arts with a specialization in Arabic and Psychology. She was an activist who made her way from and towards the grass roots. During those difficult years, she got involved in the Azanian People's Organization (AZAPO) denouncing racism and oppression in university environments.

On the 4th September 1985, she was arrested for distributing pamphlets that called for a consumer boycott of white-owned businesses in Durban. The boycott had been called by the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu), the largest trade union federation in the country and supported by the Muslim Students Association of South Africa (MSA), which had organised this particular pamphlet blitz. Shaikh spent the next few hours locked up at Durban's CR Swart Police Station (now Durban Central Police Station) with the president of the MSA, Na'eem Jeenah. This was their first meeting and they would marry 2 years later.

"That Crazy Woman Shaikh"

Shamima was a pioneer of her time in promoting Inclusive Mosques. She introduced the Campaign "Women in the Mosque". She firmly believed that our presence in these spaces was necessary and indispensable:

"It is important for women to be at mosques because they are the most important centres of Islam. Decisions are taken, direction is given. It is where people meet to pray together and it promotes consultation."

The indomitable spirit of Shamima didn´t go unnoticed by the patriarchy of her time. Like all rebellious and challenging women in history, Shamima was the subject of ridicule. Her feminist resistance was pathologized from that hegemony to which, silence and submissive acceptance are still the desirable norm for being a "good and wonderful woman".

Indeed, the 27th of Ramadan 1994 an event occurred from which she would be stigmatized as "That crazy woman shakih".

Upon arriving at the mosque in Johannesburg with the aim of participating in the ritual prayers that night, Shamima found that the space traditionally designated for women had been occupied by men and then, females have had "located" to pray to some tents on the street.

This is a common practice, even today, in many mosques. Shamima moved to claim the right she was entitled to equally with all the believers and according to the Quran: The right to pray in the Mosque.

Accompanied by a small group of women from tents set up outside, Shamima made attempts to reclaim their legitimate space, causing resentment from some members of the community, who thought the presence of women was unnecessary.

Encouraged by this event, Shaikh formed, eventually, an alternative congregation, based in progressive values and with gender equality perspective.

The commitment of Shamima to the Gender Jihad, served as echo for the efforts of today to install inclusive mosques, like those in Canada, the United States, France, Germany, Netherlands and United Kingdom, offering space to all Muslims - young or old, male or female, straight or gay - to pray and participate side by side on an equal footing.

The struggle against patriarchy was parallel with the fight against cancer. In 1994, already diagnosed with the disease, she is appointed editor of the newspaper Al-Qalam, which becomes the communication channel of progressive Muslims in South Africa.

In 1997 she performed with her husband, family and friends, the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca. Upon their return, the couple wrote the book "Journey of Discovery: A South African Hajj," published in 2000.

On December 22th in 1997, Shaikh completed her final public engagement with the presentation of the lecture: "Women and Islam - The Gender Struggle in South Africa: The Ideological Struggle"

In the current context, where Islamophobia has become a gender issue that has its counterpart in the misogynist narratives of those portrayed as "official" Islam's spokespeople, Shamima's words are alive, essencial and on point:

"After 1400 years it appears that there is still confusion and conflict as to the status of women in Islam, and the role that gender plays in an individual’s worth in terms of status, position, potential and constitution. Despite the overwhelming and strong position of Muslims that Islam liberated women 1400 years ago, you still find there’s a problem. Some thought and practice within Muslim society does not reflect this conviction, giving rise to the accusation that Islam oppresses women, to which the Muslim community reacts emotionally with denial and animosity, without reflecting inwardly and addressing the existing problems."

17 days later, she returned to God. One of the four funeral prayers made in her name, was led by her friend Farhana Ismail, with women and men - according to the request of Shaikh. Her service at a mosque in Johannesburg and Claremont Mosque in Cape Town as wel her funeral, were attended by many women.

Her Legacy for Women like Us

Shamima Shaikh's life is proof that Islamic feminism contains a message of equality for all people and is a path and a perspective useful to restore gender justice wherever is necessary.

Shamima taught us that muslim feminists are not limited by the frame of our faith and stand up for all oppressed and against all oppressors. She broke the stereotypes that still persist about Muslim women in general and Indian women in particular.

In the words of Zakiyya Ismail, from South Africa

"If there was someone who was a model of how to be strong and compassionate at the same time was Shamima. Especially strong, which among Indian women is not as common, you know, that upbringing to be "always nice" ... 18 years after she left us her influence still persists”

The tireless struggle led by Shamina, was a fierce and compassionate jihad which makes clear that activists can and must take radical and unswerving option for justice. For Muslim feminists, to live according to the values of Islam, is a life devoted to the search, building and defense of justice, in every action and every word, with compassion for all beings of creation. A struggle to be adress without shame, without fear and without rest, even if it has negative consequences for ourselves, like be branded as crazy.

From the perspective of time, Shamina Shakih was the kind of feminist that I, personally, miss in activisms today: The one which does not accommodate the tone of her voice to the ear of the oppressors, the one who does not stop at obstacles and the one who does not negotiate her convictions.

May her soul rests in peace upon the work accomplished.

May her name remain in our memory and his life be a light in our path through history.

May her indomitable spirit inspires us to be those women that no structure can subject, because we are an earthquake; women that no fire can burn, because we are the fire; women who the oppressor could not silence, because we are the thunder; crazy enough, blissfully and proudly crazy to claim the part of heaven that belongs to us, here and now.

May the Divinity bless us with more fierce and compassionate warriors as Shamima Shaikh

Visit her conmemorative site HERE


Journey of Discovery:
A South African Hajj

by Shamima Shaikh and
Na'eem Jeenah


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