Warrior of the gender jihad returns to her maker after a life well lived


By: Staff Reporter

Sunday, January 18, 1998

The silence after the prayers for Shamimah Shaikh, who died on January 8, is broken by tributes from family, friends and comrades. They talk about a defiance and a fighter’s spirit that will never die.

The Seido Karate Hall in Brixton, Johannesburg, is full. It is Saturday, the 16th day of Ramadan.

Shaikh, who was 37, comes alive in memory. Deeply spiritual, she sought justice and challenged whomever stood in its way.

Her activities are relived by her comrades who are here to tell her family what she meant to them. Her husband Na’eem and their two children, nine-year-old Minhaj and seven-year-old Shir’ah, her mother, her three sisters and two brothers are present.

Shaikh touched many lives. She was a member of the Muslim Youth Movement’s national executive committee; she edited the newspaper Al-Qalam for a while; she co-hosted Our Voices on The Voice, a Muslim radio station; and she chaired the station’s controlling body.

Her critics referred to her as “that mad Shaikh woman”. Not today, though. Mohamed Mahdavi, the Iranian ambassador, recalls the way she challenged him. “We had differences but I admired her. She was concerned about Islam and she tried to introduce Islam to the right way of doing things as she saw it. After the visit of female parliamentarians from Iran, Shaikh wrote articles illustrating that the public perception of Iran is wrong.”

Mahdavi commends her for introducing “this divine religion” to those who had no knowledge of it and for her attempts to revive the rights of half of “the community of suffering humanity”.

He says Islam came to the world 1 400 years ago, when the status of women was so low that men expressed their shame at having fathered a baby daughter by committing infanticide.

One after another, people take the podium. Farid Esack, the acting head of the Commission for Gender Equality, recalls how her dear friend challenged the Muslim Personal Law Board, a group of men who tried to rewrite Muslim personal law to make it applicable to South Africa.

Esack describes a deeply spiritual woman, stirred but not angered by injustice. She established study groups to reinterpret Muslim theology and tradition, and to retrieve “the subversive memories” about gender equality in the Islamic tradition.

Before her death, Shaikh requested that a woman friend read prayers at her memorial. Esack says this was the first time in several centuries that a Muslim woman’s funeral service was led by a woman. The service took place at home, before the service at the mosque.

Prayers were important to Shaikh and those who have come to say goodbye smile as they remember how she fought for equal access to the mosques.

They recall how, in 1994, she challenged the men of her community to allow women to enter the mosque on the Night of Power, the 27th night of Ramadan. The women ended up saying their prayers in a tent, but that they were allowed to say them at all is remarkable, says Esack.

Firoz Cachalia, a member of the Gauteng legislature, remembers “the exclusion, the vilification and the diminutions” to which Shaikh was subjected. Author and activist Julie Adams recalls the way that Shaikh “cracked the door of woman’s equity”.

A picture of Shaikh emerges: a fiery, beautiful woman who gave as well as fought. The battle she fought was the gender jihad. She was utterly without ambiguity in her cause.

Her sister Fatima says she was the sun around which the rest of the family revolved. The memory of her beautiful older sister makes her weep. Her friend Aisha Roberts remembers their journey to Mecca last year, where Shaikh broke down with joy at the sight of men and women praying side by side in the holy mosque.

The tears fall for the woman who refused to fight her cancer with chemotherapy once she found out the disease was terminal. The mourners wipe their eyes as they contemplate filling a gap left by a woman who was happy to return to her maker after a life well lived.

“Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, either man or woman. The one of you is of the other.” The quote from the Koran is embellished in large lettering; it stands boldly above the grieving faces.

Journey of Discovery:
A South African Hajj

by Shamima Shaikh and
Na'eem Jeenah


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