As the curator for the International Museum of Women’s new global exhibition, Muslima: Muslim Women’s Art & Voices, the one question I’m repeatedly asked is, “What common trait do Muslim women artists and leaders around the world share that strikes you?”
My answer: their courage.
The sad reality is that many of us have grown accustomed to –and comfortable with –seeing Muslim women portrayed as victims.
Yet brave women around the world undertake heroic acts every day. Many do so without anyone bearing witness.
To even out that ledger, I want to share the heroic stories of three women I interviewed for Muslima. It’s just a small glimpse of what you’ll see in the upcoming exhibition, which just launched.
Dr. Shirin Ebadi is the first Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. For more than 40 years, Dr. Ebadi has worked to improve the lives of women and children in Iran.
Trained as a lawyer, Dr. Ebadi has represented families of writers and intellectuals who have been killed; she’s exposed conspirators behind an attack by pro-clergy assailants on students at Tehran University; and she’s represented the mother of a nine-year-old girl, Arian Golshani, who was tragically beaten to death by her father and stepmother. In this last case, Dr. Ebadi hoped to change Iranian custody laws that favor fathers over mothers.
Her life’s work to bring justice to victims has led to Dr. Ebadi being jailed, to having her life threatened countless times, and to the confiscation of her Nobel Prize medal by Tehran’s Revolutionary Court.
Undeterred, in 2006, Dr. Ebadi helped forge the Nobel Women’s Initiative to magnify the power and visibility of women working for peace.
Fahima Hashim is part of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Hashim is the director of Salamah Women’s Resource Center in Sudan, whose most successful campaign has been to reform laws on rape that, in their current form, prevent the survivors of sexual violence from accessing justice. Sudanese laws currently grant conditional immunity to officials, especially police and security forces, many of whom have been accused of rape.
Because of Hashim’s efforts through Salamah, the campaign against rape is becoming a national movement. As a result, Fahima has been interrogated repeatedly by the Sudanese security – one can only believe that it’s with the intention of scaring her into silence. It hasn’t worked.
Maria Bashir, the only female Prosecutor General in Afghanistan, has taken on the mission of educating and empowering the women in her community of Herat. Knowledge about their rights gives women courage, Bashir believes. Doubters have only to look at the numbers to see she’s right. Herat has the highest rate of crimes against women recorded. Why? The knowledge Bashir is imparting is empowering women to file police reports and claim their right to safety and equal treatment.
The sad irony is that while Maria Bashir protects women and children, her own life is under threat from both the local government and the Taliban. Bashir has sent her children out of the country to keep them safe while she moves from safe house to safe house, never stopping her work to advance women’s rights.
My hope is that this exhibition will begin a new discussion about the realities of what it means to be a Muslim woman today. And perhaps, in the process, it might even redefine what it means to be courageous.
Samina Ali is the curator of Muslima: Muslim Women's Arts & Voices, a groundbreaking online exhibition from the International Museum of Women. Ali's debut novel, "Madras on Rainy Days," was awarded the Prix Premier Roman Etranger 2005 Award in France. She is also the founder of Daughters of Hajar, a Muslim American feminist organization.
Via The Huffington Post