Muslim women speak out about feminism, racism and spirituality

Posted: June 25, 2019Categories: ,

Muslim women speak out about feminism, racism and spirituality

AWC forum hears that refugees feared to leave their homes after the Christchurch attacks.


A Muslim woman – Fatima al-Fihri – founded the world’s oldest university, in Morocco in 859CE. Two centuries earlier, the first-ever Muslim woman Khadijah bint Khuwaylid was a
merchant 15 years older than the prophet Muhammed: she was his employer before she became his wife. “My reading of this is that being a businesswoman is encouraged [by
Islam],” said panellist and journalist Mahvash Ali at last month’s Celebrating Muslim Women AWC public forum, gleefully adding her accountant mother would be proud of her for saying that.
The panellists used such snippets of history to help undermine stereotypes while discussing feminism, racism and spirituality. Panellists’ colleagues and families, including refugee advocate councillor Fahima Saeid’s two daughters (studying law and medicine) and writer Latifa Daud’s grandfather, were among the warm audience on the cold night at the Freemans Bay Community Hall, and among those watching online via live stream (the video is available on the Auckland Women’s Centre Facebook page).



Stand out quotes

We are as wild and wonderful as any other community.
– Australian senator Mehreen Faruqi, quoted by moderator Carol Hirschfeld

The word ‘refugee’ probably changed my life forever.
– Fahima Saeid

I want to leave you uncomfortable, because right now we all live in a world where ethnic cleansing, and words that reflect the idea of ethnic cleansing, are acceptable.
– Mahvash Ali

True practitioners of Islam understand that a woman is a human being with her own free will, and she can have a career if she wants… she can have children if she wants….. Respect is a touchstone of the religion, irrespective of gender.
– Mahvash

We absolutely love her!
– Fahima, on Muslim-heritage MP Golriz Ghahraman

Together, I hope we can make my generation the last that’s too afraid to speak their truth, one  conversation at a time.
– Latifa Daud



Moderated by Carol Hirschfeld, speeches from Mahvash, Fahima and Latifa all touched on the effects of religious and racial discrimination. Fahima (who graduated as a medical doctor in Kabul in 1988) noted that she and her two sisters were given opportunities equal to those of their three brothers to pursue careers. She presented her research on older Muslim refugee women in New Zealand: Islamophobia makes their lives more difficult, including decreasing their job opportunities.

For many of the women in her study, the hijab symbolises empowerment, as well as religious commitment, resistance against the imposition of Western culture, and a display of the Islamic identity that they want to pass on to their children.

Latifa talked of her great-great-grandfather who migrated from Gujurat to Port Waikato in 1908. For generations, she said, Muslims have “avoided rocking the boat for fear of backlash or looking ungrateful” yet New Zealand as well as India is the home of her ancestors: “This is where they are buried.” She added the discrimination got worse after 9/11 as the community faced collective blame: “Eight-year-old me was now listening to bomb jokes.”

Mahvash directly tackled the deliberate spread of Islamophobic lies and pointed out that the attitude of “I don’t mind Muslims as long as they’re not here” is promoting ethnic cleansing. Later, the panel discussed the aftermath of the 15 March Christchurch attacks – Fahima mentioned that for weeks, many refugees didn’t feel safe enough to leave their own homes; one 75 yearold woman didn’t do any shopping for two weeks. Latifa acknowledged Māori Muslims, who were under attack in their own lands.


Panellists’ recommendations to increase cross-cultural understanding
  • “Break the echo chambers.” – Latifa. Read books and listen to music from people with different backgrounds from yours; watch news produced in
    different countries.
  • Employing people? A main issue for long-settled refugee women is lack of NZ work experience. “Let’s take a risk and give them a chance” – Fahima. Do not dismiss a candidate because of their name or their hijab.
  • Volunteer to work with refugees: “I would like to encourage all of us to …make ourselves available to these communities.” – Fahima.
  • Ensure March 15 isn’t forgotten and swept under the carpet – Mahvash. “Where were you when you heard the news about the Christchurch attacks?” can be a conversation opener with anyone, keeping memories alive about the victims, the greeting of “welcome, brother” and the 51 lives lost.
  • A better question than “where are you from?” is “what’s your cultural background?”
  • Don’t expect members of minority groups to be the spokesperson for everybody who looks like them. Latifa (speaking about being in a wheelchair): “People are just so confused because you don’t behave the way you should based on how you look so everything you say is gospel, which is problematic in some ways.” Mahvash: “[Contrary to expectations,] I do not have an opinion on the Crusaders’ name change.”


Mahvash was pleased her employer allowed her to go to Christchurch as a journalist, and the panel were touched by the initial outpouring of grief and concern, but they also expressed scepticism about society’s long-term commitment to change. For example, subtle racism is a problem because it’s easy to deny (“you can’t fix a problem that you don’t even acknowledge exists”).

Relatedly, the panellists perceive a lack of understanding for any religion within secular New Zealand. “You often hear people say ‘keep it at home, you don’t have to talk about it all the time’,” said Latifa. “I think there is religious intolerance in that way. People find it uncomfortable.”

Later, from the floor, Mary, a colleague of Fahima’s and refugee counsellor of Catholic heritage, noted that the refugees’ faith was central to their well-being: “the faith is what has sustained them.” Commonwealth Young Leader Fatumata Bah sent a video pepeha and a discussion of feminism from New York. She mentioned that it’s important for Muslim women to have spaces to pray and yet not all mosques in Auckland have such spaces, and that Islamic feminists place a high importance on motherhood (while she also acknowledged that not all women want or have the opportunity to have children).

Mahvash picked up the importance of motherhood later on, quoting a “hadith” (a saying of the prophet Mohammed): “Your heaven lies under the feet of your mother”, which Mahvash explained as “You want to earn paradise? Go and listen to your Mum… Mum knows best.” She added that Islam does not demand that women cook or clean – and they can ask their husbands to pay them to breastfeed. Instead, whether through motherhood and/or contributing to society in other ways, Islam gives women the responsibility to make a difference to the ummah – the community: “That is the biggest responsibility.”

A shared sense of community allows Mahvash to feel a sense of camaraderie when covering Māori stories as a journalist. “It’s down to connection with the whanau. You are not alone; you are part of a community.”