BLOG: “Living My Namesake” by Aisha Rahman, executive director of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights
Living My Namesake
Aisha Rahman, Esq., Executive Director,
KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights
[EDITOR’S NOTE: In our work supporting/empowering local religious leaders to make their voices heard in public debates, we can attest to the great number of women (and men) working within every faith tradition to bring about greater gender equity within their communities. This blog is Aisha Rahman’s story of the inspiration behind her life’s work promoting gender equity in Islam.]
This Women’s History Month, I feel compelled to write about the source of my femininity—the source of my faith—the source of my continued commitment to working for social justice and human rights. That source rests solely, and almost exclusively, in my mother. My mother is a force, and her story is definitely one to be told. I will save that for another time, and focus now on one of the many gifts that my mother gave me—my name.
When I was young, my favorite place to hide and play was my closet. I could spend hours there—I would take my friends there and we would talk and tell each other stories. Much to everyone’s surprise, these friends of mine were imaginary. But to me, they were real.
One day, I’m talking to my friend and she asks me, “what does your name mean?” I replied in a whisper, “I don’t know.”
My mom was walking by at this moment. She used to listen in every now and then. After all, she had a daughter who would talk to herself for hours at a time. When she heard this exchange, she decided it was time that I learn about my namesake, Aisha (RA), the wife of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
They say that the first school a child has is her mother’s lap. Nothing could be truer in my case. That day, I laid my head in her lap while she regaled me with stories of Aisha. She told me that Aisha was a scholar—she taught the companions of the Prophet after his death. Aisha challenged the Prophet—she bantered with him. Aisha was a warrior—she led men in battle. Aisha was a romantic and full of life. When a troop of Ethiopian dancers came to the village, she asked to watch them with the Prophet. And so they did—she watched on with her chin perched on his forearm.
Do we still tell these stories? If we do, I am not sure why I don’t see their application in our community.
Let me explain. A couple of years ago I received an email from an imam friend of mine. He is a part of a network of imams in the U.S. They have a national conference every year and this particular year, the theme was: “Contemporary Topics Related to Muslim Women.” These were some of the questions that they were addressing at the conference:
1. Is it permissible for women to lecture to a mixed crowd of men and women? Does she have to be behind a screen? Could she respond to questions from both women and men?
2. It is permissible for a woman to nominate herself to be the head of an Islamic Center or a member of its board?
3. Is it allowed for women to be nominated for parliament or congress?
4. Is it permissible for women to work in judicial fields or be part of the army?
Is this the message that we are sending to our young girls and boys in the Muslim community? Or even to our adults? Are these the serious and urgent issues plaguing our community?
Our community is stuck. It is stuck on patriarchal interpretations of our beautiful faith that are rooted in cultural practices and norms. I, for one, am not willing to let these people tell my story.
I am the Executive Director of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights. My work everyday is to promote traditional scholarship on Islam—rooted in the Qur’an and the words and example of the Prophet Muhammad (“sunnah”)—that tells the story of gender equity in Islam.
Through KARAMAH I want to highlight the stories of our shared history. I want to share the story of Khadija who employed the Prophet, who was older than him, had been married before him, was independently wealthy, and was a business owner. She proposed to him! I want to tell the story of the old woman who stood up before the Calipha Umar, in the presence of her community both men and women, when he proposed to put a cap of the mahr (marital gift given to the bride at the time of marriage). She cried out, “you cannot take away what God has given us!” I want to tell the story of Zainab. Zainab who was captured with the other women of the house of the Prophet Muhammad. Zainab who repeatedly spoke out in a loud and unwavering voice in a court where men were too fearful to speak. And I want to tell the stories of modern scholars and leaders like Dr. Azizah al-Hibri, and Founder of KARAMAH, who was the first female Muslim law professor in the US. She started a national publication and was appointed by President Obama to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. She is a renowned scholar of Islam educating women and men all over the world.
At a critical moment in my childhood my mother made a choice to teach me about our collective history. She could have let the moment pass—but she didn’t. That moment helped me form my foundation but it is a message that the entire Muslim and non-Muslim community should hear and know. In my little closet lived amazing stories of Muslim women and men, our legacies, our examples of how to live life. When I left and saw the community, I was confused but yet empowered. Empowered because I knew my parents were not lying to me. Empowered still because through scholarship of Islam, evidenced in the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet, I knew they were not wrong. Through education and learning of these principles is how we are going to unstick our community and restore it. Let’s not let Aisha’s story act as a bookend. Let’s take her story off the shelf.