March is Women’s History Month and, to honor the occasion, we’d like to create a space for all the women history forgot. For the women who deserve a place in our textbooks. For the women whose voices should echo. This piece — just one in a series — is for them.
This list, as I mention throughout this piece, is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Muslim women have contributed to the world. Writing this allowed me to do research and discover things even I didn’t know. These are all independent women (shout out to Destiny’s Child) who took charge and did things on their own terms. I encourage you, eager reader, with your kind eyes (I’m just assuming) and open heart (you probably do have one if you decided to read this) to further explore the lives of these women.
Also, I specifically chose not to number this list, since no one is more important than the other. If anything, at least now you’ll be able to spice up your small talk game in elevators and at awkward dinner parties.
Malala Yousafzai (July 1997-Present)
She was an obvious choice. According to the Malala Fund page, her father Ziauddin was a teacher and a huge advocate for education. Using the pen name Gul Makai (“grief-stricken”) to protect herself against the Taliban, Malala wrote blog entries for BBC Urdu. Almost a year later, a gunman working for the Taliban entered a school bus, asking specifically for her. He shot her and the bullet went through her hand, neck, and shoulder. This tragedy didn’t stop her and eventually, with her dad, she created the Malala Fund.
Along with being a published author, she is the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps Malala was always destined to do great things, since she’s named after Malalai, a Pashtun heroine.
Amal Clooney (February 1978-Present)
Amal is a human rights lawyer, whose clients include Julian Assange (Wikileaks founder) and Yulia Tymoshenko (former Ukrainian Prime Minister). Despite graduating from Oxford, being trilingual (French, English, Arabic), working as an adviser to former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and working on a UN inquiry into the use of drones, people seem to be almost solely fixated on her famous husband, George Clooney.
If you google her name, the first page of results are almost exclusively about how cool her pregnancy style is. Yet, as a lawyer and human rights advocate, Amal has a direct impact on politics and policy. Truth be told, this Tina Fey and Amy Poehler joke from the Golden Globes is the most succinct way of describing it.
Warsan Shire (1988-Present)
Remember that goosebump-inducing poetry Beyoncé was reciting in between songs on Lemonade? That came from this talented woman.
The Kenyan-born, British-bred wordsmith was also a winner of the Brunei University African Poetry Prize and won the Young Poet Laureate for London prize at 25. Her poetry covers a wide range of issues including race, religion, and female sexuality. In her poem “Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Center),” she writes, “my home is the mouth of a shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun.” These words humanize ‘the immigrant,’ whose perception is clearly distorted, by reiterating the very obvious fact that rarely do people want to leave a place they truly call home.
In “Beauty,” she addresses her sister’s affair with the neighbor’s husband in a beautifully haunting, but non-judgmental, way: “It’s 4 a.m. and she winks at me, bending over the sink, her small breasts bruised from sucking. She smiles, pops her gum before saying boys are haram, don’t ever forget that.” Warsan’s words have an impact and stay with you. Her poems give you a fuller view of Muslim women. She lets you know that just like you, Muslim women struggle with self-esteem, finding a sense of belonging, and can explore their sexuality (sometimes in self-destructive ways). Her work is timeless.
Did I mention she’s only 28?!
Fatima Al-Fihri (Died in 880)
Did you know that the oldest university (still in operation) was founded by a Muslim woman? As recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records and UNESCO, Fatima and her sister Mariam inherited a fortune and set out to better their community. Mariam created the Al-Andalus Mosque and Fatima built the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque. Eventually, Al-Qarawiyyin mosque expanded into a university. Pope Sylvester II, who is recognized for having introduced zero and Arabic numerals to Europe, learned this at the Moroccan university. With this in mind, one can see that Fatima is a real leader whose contributions to the modern world flip the stereotype of the ignorant, uncivilized Muslim on its head.
Nana Asma’u (1793-1864)
The Nigerian scholar was quadrilingual (Arabic, Fululde, Hausa, and Tamacheq) and had a good grasp of the Arabic, Greek, and Latin classics. When her brother took over the Sokoto Caliphate, she became his adviser and often debated with the political elite (governors and princes).
Probably the most impressive thing about her life is how she got a group of female teachers together and traveled across Nigeria, including rural villages, with the goal of educating other women. Ultimately, Nana Asma’u is someone who dedicated her life to uplifting the minds of her fellow women.
Zaha Hadid (October 1950-March 2016)
Born in Iraq, but having studied in Britain, Zaha Hadid was the first female to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize. The Vitra Fire Station in Germany was her first big project, but it wasn’t until the Lois and Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati was built that her work was put on the map.
Hadid won the London Design Museum’s Design of the Year for the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan. Additionally, 2012 was a big year for her since she designed the London Aquatics Center for the 2012 Olympics, designed the Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, and became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Did I mention she also taught architecture at Harvard and Yale? Hadid is truly a remarkable person and this list of her accolades and accomplishments doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Check out her work here!
Dr. Amina Wadud (1952-Present)
Dr. Wadud converted to Islam at 20, but was born into a Methodist family. Wadud is a professor of Religion and Philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University. In 1994, at a mosque in Cape Town, Dr. Wadud delivered a sermon at Friday prayer, a responsibility that is almost exclusively reserved for just men. She continues to lead prayers of mixed congregations globally.
Wadud’s views, as controversial as they seem, let people know that not all Muslims think the same. Whether you agree with her interpretations of Islam or not, these interpretations reinforce the fact Muslims are not a monolith and within a faith, there is diversity of thought.
Dr. Hawa Abdi (May 1947-Present)
After losing her mom to childbirth-related issues, Dr. Abdi gravitated towards medicine and received her degree in 1971. Following her grandmother’s death, Abdi had learned of the restrictive inheritance laws for females in her home country of Somalia and this inspired her to study law. While working during the day as a doctor, she continued her legal studies at night and eventually earned a law degree in 1979 from Somali National University. So let’s all REALLY take a moment to acknowledge the fact that she was a wife, mother, and a doctor who was studying to be a lawyer!
Abdi also used her farm to create a tiny clinic that (with the help of other international organizations recognizing her great work) went from helping 800 internally displaced families to a 400-bed hospital, school, and nutrition center. Did I mention her daughters are both doctors, too? In 2012, she was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Noor Inayat Khan (January 1914-September 1944)
Before joining the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and the SOE (Special Operations Executive), Khan studied medicine and music. She remained loyal and kept working, even after suspicions of a Nazi spy infiltration put her at risk of being arrested by the Gestapo. The Russian-born, British-bred spy was betrayed, arrested, tortured and later shot in 1944 at the Dachau concentration camp.
Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross and France’s Croix de Guerre. To honor her bravery, there is an annual ceremony and a statue built near her home. Her story is important, since rarely do people of color get acknowledged for their sacrifices during WWII.
Sameera Moussa (March 1917-August 1952)
Not only did she have a doctorate in atomic radiation and create the Atomic Energy for Peace conference (one of the goals being to create a pro-nuclear hazards protection committee), but Moussa also received a Fulbright scholarship at the University of California, Berkeley. She was also an advocate for making the medical use of nuclear technology accessible to all.
Since she was a leader in nuclear research, the Egyptian scientist was given access to secret U.S. atomic facilities. This created an uproar because she was the first “alien” to be granted access. Additionally, Egypt was always close to her heart — so much so that she turned down American citizenship.
Unfortunately, Moussa’s life was cut short in a car accident. Many people believe she was assassinated because only her body was found — not her driver’s.
Rahinah Ibrahim (1968- Present)
Rahinah’s story is one that is all too familiar. In 2005, the mother of four was boarding a flight from the United States to Malaysia and was informed she was on a no-fly (terrorist watch) list. She wasn’t informed of the reason and had her visa taken away. This made continuing her studies at Stanford University harder (she eventually received her doctorate from there). In 2006, she sued the US government and almost a decade later, Rahinah is the only person to get off the no-fly list. Her persistence and patience is inspiring.
Tawakkol Karmran (Februrary 1979-Present)
Karmran is a journalist, mother to three kids, and a human rights advocate. She founded the WJWCC (Women Journalists Without Chains) to provide journalists with a platform to advocate for their freedoms by reporting human rights abuses in her home country of Yemen. At the age of 32, she was the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate (but was replaced by Malala).
By shaping her own society on her own terms, Karmran flips the idea of the White Savior Narrative on its head. Like many others in Yemen, she is a proactive, outspoken figure who rises to the occasion herself. She does not need to be “saved.”