Prominent Muslim women’s voices are generally lacking in mainstream discourse. However, things are changing: Yasmin Mogahed, 32, an Egyptian born American – popular for her public speaking and writing – is defying all the odds.
Mogahed, who has a degree in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has struck a chord with many Muslims, especially young Muslims, with her ideas on love, relationships and spirituality – interrelated topics rarely discussed in conventional Islamic circles. “They’re not talked about enough. We have lost the heart of the religion,” she says over Skype, in a cafe near her home in Southern Carolina.
“We have focused too much on the rituals and compartmentalised our monotheism. We see God as having nothing to do with our relationships and attachments – and, ultimately, that’s why we suffer,” she says.
Mogahed recently toured the UK giving a series of spiritually uplifting talks. Her first book, Reclaim Your Heart, came out in August and is a collection of her writings over the last ten years. It’s a “manual of how to live in this life without being attached to it,” she says.
There is a problem with the way Islam is being taught to the youth, according to Mogahed – and, as a result, she believes “we are losing them”. The problem, she says, is that there’s too much emphasis on the outward aspects of religion and not enough on the inward; the God of wrath is being taught as opposed to the God of love. “At our Sunday schools we have been focusing too much on the do’s and don’ts, and we’re taught ‘if you do you this haram thing you’re going to hell’. What we need is spirituality,” she says.
At 14, Mogahed says there was a “spark” inside of her which led her to become more devout – she wanted to discover and nurture her Islamic identity; she began wearing the hijab and learning about her faith. For Mogahed, her hijab is a “statement” that she loves God more than “society’s standards of beauty and fashion.” “My submission is to something higher than those things. And in so doing, I’m forcing society to look at me for who I am, my heart and soul, because they can’t judge me by my body because it’s hidden.”
Mogahed isn’t the only Muslim voice who is attracting a youth audience. Mufti Ismael Menk, a Zimbabwean scholar whose teachings on Islam are simple and accessible and Nouman Ali Khan – founder of Bayinnah, an Islamic educational institution in the US, who often simplifies complex Islamic ideas – are also growing figures.
Mogahed’s popularity has risen considerably within the past year. While her Facebook, Twitter and YouTube numbers are relatively modest – her most popular video has around 40,000 views – they are rising. Mogahed is humbled by any assertion that she is a role model, but says: “I think there are a lack of female Muslim role models for sure. I sense the Muslim community is thirsty for one.”
Has she faced discrimination on her way? “There’s a minority who don’t support women being in the public sphere, but we’re not all going to have the same opinion. But overall I’ve received overwhelming support,” she says.
The same can be said about her sister, Dalia Mogahed, a social-scientist and advisor to Barack Obama. Upon being appointed by the White House, the reaction, even among the press, was one of exuberance.
Yasmin Mogahed is often one of the very few women to talk at Islamic events which are normally – or always – dominated by males, often influential ones too: Tariq Ramadan, Abdul Hakim Murad and others.
“In the past there maybe wasn’t a public forum for women to speak as much as there was for men,” says Mogahed. “People are refreshed to hear a woman’s perspective because, for the most part, it has been silent,” she adds.
With one of the Nobel Peace Prize’s in 2011 going to Tawakul Karman, a Muslim, Yemini journalist and activist, and with the rise of Islamic feminists like Amina Wadud and Asra Nomani – Muslim women, after centuries of patriarchy, are challenging the status-quo.