Background: As a scholar, lecturer, and blogger on race, gender, and Islam in the United States, Jamillah Karim participated in the Berkley Center’s Women, Religion, and the Family project. She came to Washington, D.C. to be a panelist at an event on faith and feminism on September 24, 2014 and spoke with Crystal Corman the following day. The following conversation traces Karim’s motivation to study gender and race within Islam in the United States, as well as her experience researching this topic with immigrant communities. Her lived experience and research highlight the diversity within Islam in the United States, as well as, more specifically, perceptions toward African American Muslims. Karim also offers insight into working with Muslim women in development projects and contexts.
What drew you to study gender and race within Islam in the United States?
Growing up in a community with roots in the Nation of Islam, I understood Islam as a faith that could uplift and elevate communities. That’s the meaning that Islam had for people in the Nation of Islam; they were coming to this movement that was going to improve their lives economically, in particular. People were attracted to the way they were nation building, establishing their own businesses and schools. And also the positive racial message of Islam was obviously relevant at the time when African Americans were seen as inferior. Growing up, this is what I repeatedly heard, that Islam can be socially elevating.
The focus on women came in because they were always at the center, and were important role models for me. It wasn’t until graduate school, however, that I understood this importance. I told my grad advisors that I wanted to focus on Islam and race for the reasons I just described. They then said that I had to do something about women. I responded, “Why?” I had very little knowledge of feminism and actually thought it was something to be avoided. I thought feminism was against religion. I’d also heard people use the narrative that Islam was oppressive to women; by the time of graduate school, I wanted to distance myself from that narrative because I didn’t see it as true. I imagined that focusing on women would mean that I’d be playing into that narrative.
It was my professor miriam cooke who helped me understand that this could be an opportunity to show that in fact Muslim women are empowered by their faith. She was working on a project making this case and took from the work of a black feminist scholar. She suggested that I also look at black feminist thought.
The work of black feminists—who look at the ways in which discrimination against black women occurs at the intersection of race and gender constructs—became very influential. When I was learning about black feminist thought, the faith piece came up, because my faith has always been an important part of who I am. I wanted to look at the intersection of race and gender identities for Muslim women. I also wanted to respond to Paula Giddings, a visiting scholar at Duke who taught my course on black feminism, who was saying that the Nation of Islam was oppressive. It was an opportunity to engage that popular belief.
Can you explain if there is overlap between black feminists and womanists?
There is definitely overlap. Black women scholars who led the way in theorizing about the impact of sexism on black women’s lives found that mainstream white feminism did not speak to the experiences of black women. Most early white feminists were racist and did not envision black women as part of the movement. Black women scholars found it necessary to develop their own theories with varying degrees of comfort with using the label feminist to describe their approach to black women’s liberation. Many felt that the only way to talk about a form of feminism for black women without the influence of ideas that did not apply to the realities of black women’s lives and communities was to define and name their own approach. Womanist is the result of this redefining and renaming. But the theories of black women scholars who appropriate either term feminist or womanist certainly overlap as they both situate black women’s struggles at the center of analysis.
How did you come to focus on race and ethnicity of Muslims in the United States?
In college at Duke University, the majority of the students in the Muslim Student Association (MSA) were the children of immigrants and didn’t have a lot experience with African American Muslims. They were kind and welcoming, but I don’t think they were prepared for the type of African American Muslims that we were (vocal about our Nation of Islam heritage). All of us were Sunni, but these students were associating our community with the Nation of Islam. We didn’t like this, because they saw the history of the Nation of Islam primarily in a negative way. They felt that we were too black, or we cared too much about our black issues, and we needed to think more broadly about what they saw as the really important issues in the ummah. We resisted this and constantly had conversations around these issues, and I felt like we did a lot of educating. (Years later Sherman Jackson’s book Islam and the Blackamerican had influence among second generation American Muslims who finally acknowledged, “Yeah, the Nation of Islam is important.”)
Given the diversity among Muslims on campus, did your interactions with the children of immigrant Muslims influence your faith life?
The children of immigrants were learning from us African American Muslims at Duke University, but we were also learning from them. They definitely influenced my change in Muslim dress. I used to wear the head wrap that a lot of African American women wear. Now, there’s a diversity of hair covering in the black community because of the influence of all these different cultures. But still we tend to show our ears and our neck. So I started to cover my hair differently because I was considering the various interpretations of dress. I wouldn’t say others were doing it wrong, but I was starting to think that possibly this is the way that I should cover.
When I traveled to Cairo, I wanted to fit in so I started to cover this way (with scarf draped down across neck), and I actually preferred this look. When I came back to the U.S., I decided to continue this style. I also saw that it gave me even further passport into the immigrant community. If I went to a masjid, no one was looking at me a certain way; no one’s tucking my hair under my scarf, because it’s a major complaint among African Americans. In some mosques, when you go in there are women who start rearranging your clothes for you! Some black women take it personally and think it only happens to us. But just the other day my mom and I were somewhere with a diversity of Muslims and it was a Pakistani woman who had a piece of her hair come out of her scarf and another Pakistani woman was pushing her hair under her scarf because we were about to pray. So I said to my mother, “See! It doesn’t just happen to the black women.”
I found that when I covered like them, just like in Cairo, people think you’re one of them. I could really pass in Cairo—as long as I didn’t talk—because some of them were my complexion. So that was one of the things that I learned to do to better fit in during my research, which was important for me because I wanted to get authentic information. So the more comfortable women felt with me, I was able to achieve and it really worked well.
Your research includes Muslim women in the United States from various ethnic backgrounds, not just African American. How did women react to you and your study?
I think women of all ethnicities welcomed me. They were very happy to see a woman who was pursuing her doctorate, especially one in Islamic studies. So women were not hesitant to talk to me. They welcomed me. They were proud of me, and they wanted to assist me. But second, I think women did want to speak to me about their experiences. They’re not often given that opportunity regularly.
I was looking at race and ethnic divides but also ways that they were crossing divides. For my first book, I was focusing mainly on South Asian women. But also I was interacting with a lot of Arab women and some East African or other African immigrants, both the first and second generation. I was coming from an African American community so I hadn’t had that interaction prior, but going to school at Duke really helped prepare me.
Do you have examples from your research where attitudes based on ethnicity or race surprised you?
I’ll never forget how I was invited to a South Asian woman’s home. I had met this second generation South Asian American woman at the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) Office; IMAN is known for bringing a diverse group of Muslim youth to do inner city work. They work in Latino, black, and Arab neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago. She and I set a date for me to meet her family, to come to her home in Bridgeview, which is an Arab Muslim suburb.
The daughter spoke quite differently compared to her mom (you can see this in my book). Her mother was talking about why she didn’t send her kids to public school or why they moved to the suburbs. She was explaining these reasons, including that black kids were mean and would fight her kids. Her daughter told me later that she disagreed with that. She said that it was the white kids who were the meanest; they were mean in ways that you couldn’t imagine. I came across this repeatedly where young Indian/Pakistani Muslim Americans would say they were really traumatized by their experience in public schools as minorities. That was new for me, because I wasn’t familiar with their particular forms of discrimination.
Later at the same home, the husband started to speak very negatively about Imam W. Mohammed, in a way that he wouldn’t have spoken if he knew where I was coming from. It showed the insensitivity and the arrogance to not even consider that I was part of that community. It shows that he didn’t really understand the black community, wasn’t familiar with it, or didn’t care enough to even think about the possibility that I come from that community, which has the largest following of African American Muslims.
During my research, I had this mixture of very pleasant, loving, and enlightening interactions with the children of immigrants, second generation Americans, and also times of really feeling like I had to fight to educate about African American Muslims, convincing that we are real Muslims, and that we are following the faith.
How have people reacted to your research? Has it resonated with any particular communities?
Recently I gave a talk at a library that was sponsored by a Somali refugee woman; there is a large refugee community in Atlanta. Conversing with her, I saw how my work could also be relevant to her particular community—and also the relevance of looking at race and faith. She told me how African American and Somalis are actually pitted against each other, similar to what we hear about Latinos and African American immigrants.
In the case of the Somalis and African Americans in her Atlanta suburb community, she noticed there is a lot of social outreach from Emory students targeting Somalis. These are mostly white students presenting this work as “multicultural social work to fight racism.” African Americans in the community feel that the Somalis are taking away their resources. This created tensions between two communities that could actually benefit from working together, because Somali young men are inexperienced in the realities of being seen as black men in America. They need to know how to navigate that.
Based on your research, how can immigrant Muslims arriving in the U.S. learn from African American Muslims?
Muslim women immigrants are trying to navigate how to be a Muslim woman and how to negotiate their culture with American culture. How do you use your faith or become more educated in your faith to figure out what things are cultural and what things are not? Muslim immigrant women are doing this independent of us, but they can benefit a lot from African American Muslim women. But because of such tensions, it’s very difficult to do that.
I think there is interest in how groups are collaborating and how they’re not in certain spaces and why. That kind of study is important because these are all minority groups, and sometimes they live in the same neighborhoods. In the United States, Indians are the minority group most clustered with whites, and they’re least likely to be clustered together. Generally Indian Americans are more likely to not live in ethnic enclaves and they’re able to live with white people. But immigrants living in the same neighborhoods with blacks are more likely to create moments of solidarity.
Your research points to the complexities and challenges of diversity within Islam [in the U.S.], but what about the concept of the “ummah”?
This is the whole impetus behind my first book; we make up this ummah—this community—and there’s a lot of rhetoric about how we’re supposed to be united. We’re one ummah, right? For a lot of reasons, historically and culturally, this has symbolic significance for Muslims. But given this religious solidarity, why are we separated?
In the U.S., it’s because of the race and class dynamics and inequalities that existed before Muslim Americans came to this country. This influences how we’re able to connect as one ummah. In the U.S., most Indian and South Asian immigrants are professional. They came over through the 1965 Immigration Act, which preferred professionals and technocrats, so they are mostly wealthy immigrants. They’re not going to live in the same neighborhoods with African Americans. Toni Morrison and others have written about the ways immigrants are taught to despise African Americans and distance themselves from African Americans as part of the acculturation process.
Gender is important in many development strategies. How do you see Muslim women within development settings and in such projects?
The topic of Muslim women on a global level is being looked at critically. As an example, this summer at an event at Yale University, another scholar spoke about her work with women in Afghanistan. She spoke about the narrative of elevating or liberating Afghani women and the critique that this narrative is used to justify current wars. But it had also been used during European colonial rule; elevating or liberating Muslim women has always been a part of the colonial project and justified the colonial project. We’re just seeing that reoccurring now, it’s nothing new.
This scholar went on to critique the way Western women feel they have to save these women. She watched Western women speaking at a meeting in Afghanistan to women, speaking down to them. Speaking slowly, like the same thing that immigrants talk about happening here where they’re assumed to be unintelligent or un-American because they’re immigrants. But in reality, these Afghani women were doctors, lawyers; they were educated women.
How can non-Muslim Westerners better work with women and girls in Muslim majority contexts?
I think that Western women need training and cultural sensitivity and humility, trying to really understand culture and going beyond to see how they can benefit from these women. But also to re-read how we imagine these women’s empowerment or lack of empowerment.
It’s also important to look at how we teach about Islam. The Yale event was a conference for high school teachers about how to teach students about Islam. It had different professors to talk about everything from Sufism to Islamic art to Islamic politics. I was invited to talk about women. One scholar, a South Asian Canadian woman, spoke about the global piece, especially her work in Afghanistan, and I talked about the work here in the U.S. This combination was great.
I talked about how Muslim women in the U.S. are redefining what the hijab means for them. I referenced the lyrics of rapper MissUndastood. Her lyrics, which are really witty, include great lines about our modesty. For example, why do women in Islam seem oppressed when we look like Mary? She’s responding to this narrative that we’re oppressed and flipping it around and saying that we’re empowered. I was able to have the audience rethink the hijab and the way it means something different and is liberating.
Why do you think storytelling about Muslim women is important?
In my academic work, I’ve been reporting what happens in my Muslim community and mosque, and people are amazed! I’m simply talking about amazing black Muslim women, but people are just not used to thinking of Islam and black women in that way! I’m writing their stories and analyzing it in an academic way.
There is a need for a platform for our Muslim women’s voices. If not at Friday Jum’ah, we need it in other spaces in the mosque. The second book, Women of the Nation, it looks at the way that Imam Mohammed was very gender progressive and in fact, he appointed the first woman minister to the Nation of Islam. Women who followed his advice to step up in local communities were met with resistance. I want to further those discussions as I have book talks in the community. I’m doing a webinar with women of my generation soon to talk about the book, and I’m interested to get their feedback.
What do you hope to do next in your career and what kind of impact do you hope to have?
I want to branch out and reach a larger audience. I’m very grateful for my experience in academia to provide me with the tools to write about race, gender, class, Muslim women, and faith, but I do feel that because of the misconceptions about Muslim women in the popular culture, we need more voices in that arena to challenge the narrative in popular culture. So I want to branch beyond academic books and speaking to academic audiences.
I want to target non-Muslim communities since there is already a lot of empowerment in the African American Muslim community. They are already challenging the narrative of oppressed Muslim women.