March is Women’s History Month, and to honor the occasion, we’re creating space for the women history forgot. For the women who deserve a place in our textbooks. For the women whose voices should echo. This series is for them.
This article has been updated with additional reporting by Kitty Lindsay.
It’s undeniable: 2018 will surely go down in history as “the Year of the Woman.” From the historic midterm election wins for women to the launch of the Time’s Up movement to combat sexual harassment in the workplace to Christine Blasey Ford’s powerful testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, women stepped up, fought hard, and changed the world.
But when it comes to rebelling, truth-telling, and taking action to make the world a better place, women have been doing their part—and then some—for centuries. And women of color, in particular, have often led the charge, challenging white supremacist patriarchy even before we had a name for it. Sadly, their notable contributions to arts, science, sports, and politics frequently go unacknowledged, or worse, are entirely erased.
For women of Islamic faith, though, their Muslim identity adds a uniquely painful dimension to the experience of oppression in a post-9/11 world. And unfortunately, historical erasure is just par for the course.
But we’ll be damned if Muslim women like Rashida Tlaib and Ibtihaj Muhammad don’t get their historical due.
So, in honor of Women’s History Month, we want to celebrate the Muslim women whose persistence, resilience, and ingenuity changed the course of history, shaped modern society, and paved the way for women across industries, disciplines, and time.
1Malala Yousafzai (July 1997-present)
Malala Yousafzai loved school. The daughter of a teacher who ran a girls’ school in Pakistan, Yousafzai learned at an early age the critical importance of girls’ access to education. So when the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley and banned girls from going to school, Yousafzai spoke out on behalf of girls and their right to learn.
Unfortunately, Yousafzai’s education advocacy put her in the Taliban’s crosshairs, and in 2012, a gunman working for the Taliban shot Yousafzai as she was on her way to school. Yousafzai was only 15 years old.
But she survived. And in 2013, she and her dad founded the Malala Fund to advocate for every girl’s right to an education.
In addition to being a published author, Yousafzai is the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Yousafzai was named after Pashtun heroine Malalai, and many believe she is destined to do (even more!) great things. We think so, too.
2Warsan Shire (1988-present)
Remember that goosebump-inducing poetry Beyoncé recited in between songs on 2016’s Lemonade? Warsan Shire wrote it.
The Kenyan-born, British-bred wordsmith’s big break came in 2013 when she won Brunel University’s first African Poetry Prize. A year later, at 25 years old, Shire was named the first Young Poet Laureate for London, and chosen as Queensland, Australia’s poet-in-residence. Shire’s celebrated poetry—published in journals, magazines, and her own chapbooks—covers a wide range of issues and challenges cultural assumptions about gender, war, sex, and more. If you’re like us, her words stay with you. Most importantly, her poems give audiences a fuller understanding of Muslim womanhood, and help women—and Muslim women, in particular—feel a sense of belonging.
3Fatima Al-Fihri (Died in 880 CE)
Fun fact: the oldest university still in operation was founded by a Muslim woman. In 859 CE, Fatima Al-Fihri founded the University of Al-Qarawiyyin in Fes, Morocco. The hallowed institution began as a mosque but soon expanded into a full-service university. In fact, it has educated hundreds of thousands of students across centuries, and it was the first institution of its kind ever to award degrees. What’s more, in medieval times, the University of Al-Qarawiyyin played a crucial role in the cultural exchange and transfer of knowledge between Muslims and Europeans. For example, it is believed that Pope Sylvester II, a University of Al-Qarawiyyin alum, brought the use of zero and Arabic numerals to Europe following his studies there.
And for extra credit: the Al-Qarawiyyin Library still stands as the oldest in the world, and houses Islam’s most valuable manuscripts.
4Nana Asma’u (1793-1864)
A poet, princess, and teacher, Nana Asma’u is widely considered the foremother of modern feminism in Africa. The daughter of the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, an Islamic Sunni Caliphate in West Africa, Asma’u received a first-class education and was fluent in four languages—Arabic, Fula, Hausa, and Tamacheq Taureg—and literate in three. But her poetry really put her on the map, in part because many of her poems advocated for women leaders and women’s rights. In fact, Asma’u used her own poems as a teaching tool, training a large network of women as educators in her native Nigeria. The women, known collectively as Yan Taru, then traveled to rural villages within the Caliphate and educated women, providing them knowledge that they could then pass on to other women.
Nigeria has honored Asma’u and her remarkable contributions to women’s education by naming a number of Islamic women’s organizations, schools, and meeting halls after her. No doubt, she dedicated her life to uplifting the minds of her fellow women.
5Zaha Hadid (October 1950-March 2016)
Born in Iraq and educated in Britain, Zaha Hadid—dubbed “the queen of curve”—burst onto the architecture scene in 1983 when she won an international design competition to create a new leisure and recreation center in Hong Kong. Though her imaginative “horizontal skyscraper” design—called “The Peak”—was never built, more opportunities to realize her radical designs came her way. But it was her design and execution of the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Ohio that solidified her reputation as a true visionary. In fact, in 2004, a year after the art center opened its doors, Hadid became the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize (aka architecture’s Nobel).
But that’s not all. In honor of her countless achievements in architecture, in 2012, Hadid was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, one of Britain’s highest honors. She was also the first woman in her own right to receive the Royal Institute of British Architects’s Royal Gold Medal in 2016.
Did we mention she taught architecture at Harvard and Yale? Color us impressed.
6Dr. Amina Wadud (1952-present)
Born Mary Teasley in Bethesda, Maryland in 1953 and raised Methodist, Dr. Amina Wadud converted to Islam in 1972 and soon after, officially changed her name. A scholar of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Wadud specialized in gender and Qur’anic concentrations. She was also a professor of religion and and philosophy until 2008 when she retired from teaching.
Well, retired from teaching in a classroom, anyway. Today, Wadud delivers keynote addresses at universities, grassroots events, and government forums around the world. She’s a published author, too, and wrote the book Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective in 1992.
But Wadud cuts a controversial figure in the Islamic community because she advocates for Muslim women to lead prayer services, a ritual almost always reserved for men. In 2005, Wadud led prayer service for Muslims in New York City, challenging the long-standing rule that bars women from leading prayers. And she continues to lead prayers for mixed congregations around the globe. Pointing to her academic research, Wadud argues that the customs of the Prophet Muhammad show no evidence that women are prohibited from performing the special and vital community service. She even argues that the Prophet Muhammad would approve of such practices. Talk about bold!
Wadud’s views, as controversial as they may be among practicing Muslims, let people know that not all Muslims think the same. Whether or not one agrees with her interpretation of the Qu’ran, her out-of-the-box thinking proves Islam is not monolithic, and that within one faith, there exists a diversity of perspectives.
7Dr. Hawa Abdi (May 1947-present)
Born in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1947, Dr. Hawa Abdi grew up in poverty. Her mother died when Abdi was 12 years old, and Abdi was put in charge of raising her four sisters. In 1964, she received a scholarship to study medicine in Kiev, Ukraine and soon became Somalia’s first female gynecologist. But Abdi wanted more, and later, she earned a degree in law, too. Oh, and she also became a professor of medicine, at the same institution where she studied law. She even opened a clinic on her family’s ancestral farmland to provide free health care for her community, and funded the clinic with the farm’s profits.
Today, Abdi continues to serve her community via the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation (DHAF), which “promotes a more peaceful, equitable Somalia by providing health care, education, shelter, and access to sanitation to hundreds of displaced families.”
Did we mention Abdi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012? Real talk: We think she should’ve won!
8Noor Inayat Khan (January 1914-September 1944)
Educated in Paris, Noor Inayat Khan escaped to England and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in 1940, following the fall of France to German forces. Two years later, Khan became the Special Operations Executive’s first female radio operator, and was deployed back to France in 1943 to transmit messages to England about what was happening on the ground in the Nazi-occupied nation. She managed to evade capture for a time, but then in October 1943, Khan was betrayed by a Frenchwoman and arrested by the Gestapo. In 1944, after suffering months of imprisonment and torture at Dachau, the German Gestapo shot and killed her.
Her final word as the firing squad raised their weapons? “Liberté.”
To honor her bravery, she was awarded the George Cross posthumously. The distinction, awarded “for acts of the greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstance of extreme danger,” is one of the highest civilian decorations the United Kingdom bestows. France recognized her with the Croix de Guerre, too. And in 2012, a memorial commemorating her service was erected in London.
9Sameera Moussa (March 1917-August 1952)
First female Egyptian nuclear scientist. First woman to earn a doctorate in atomic radiation from Cairo University. First woman to hold a professional academic post at the university, too. Sameera Moussa was such a nuclear whiz that while in the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship, she became the first U.S. noncitizen to tour American atomic energy facilities (which caused quite the stir).
Moussa believed medical use of nuclear technology was the wave of the future, and she wanted to make it accessible. She famously said, “I’ll make nuclear treatment as available and as cheap as Aspirin.” But she wanted to protect against nuclear hazards, too. So she organized the International Atomic Energy for Peace Conference and invited prominent scientists to brainstorm solutions.
Though the circumstances surrounding her sudden death in 1952 remain a mystery, one thing’s for sure: Moussa’s contributions to the field of nuclear science are remarkable.
10Tawakkol Karman (Februrary 1979-present)
Known as “Mother of the Revolution” in her native Yemen, Tawakkol Karman became the public face of the Yemeni uprising in 2011. A journalist and human rights advocate, Karman founded Women Journalists Without Chains (WJWC) in 2005 to promote freedom of expression and democratic rights, and provide media skills to journalists. The organization also produces regular reports on human rights abuses in Yemen. To date, the WJWC has documented more than 50 cases of attacks and unjust sentences against newspapers and journalists.
In 2011, Karman became the first Yemeni, the first Arab woman, and the second Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of her work advocating on behalf of women and their full participation in the peace-building process in Yemen. She is also one of the youngest recipients of the Nobel, second only to Malala Yousafzai.