Making history in a man's world - Mail & Guardian

Shamima Shaikh is the first women to hold the senior position of chairman of the Transvaal region of the Muslim Youth Movement - just one sign of changes in the community, writes Farouk Chothia

A group of 25 women enter a mosque in Mayfair, adamant that they will pray there. Bearded men yell at the women for having the audacity to leave their homes - and worse, to enter a man's world, the House of Allah. The women stand their ground, forcing the men to back off.

This was the scene at a Mayfair mosque earlier this year when the Islamic month of Ramadaan started. It was the first time South African women had staged such defiant action in protest against their exclusion from mosques.

Behind their action was Shamima Shaikh, a 33-year-old firebrand activist who has made history for another reason - she is the first woman to hold the senior position of chairman of the Muslim Youth Movement's Transvaal region.

Said to be "sharp and dynamic", Shaikh is a University of Durban Westville BA graduate and mother of two. There are hints of feminism in the fact that she retained her own surname - her husband is Naeem Jeenah, editor of the MYM's mouthpiece, Al-Qalam.

Recalling the mosque incident this week, she said: "It was very intimidating at first, but our perseverence saw us through. The protests (from the men) fizzled out as the nights went by."

But it was a partial victory: the women were not allowed to pray in the front rows of the mosque and had to stand at the back and pray behind the men.

Shaikh hopes that Muslim men will eventually come to accept women can do more than pray in mosques; they can also be Imams. "There are cases in Islamic history when women led prayers. One was at the funeral of Imam Shafi (a respected Muslim scholar). Another was the case of an elderly woman whom the Prophet (Muhammad) used to visit - the male servant used to give the Azaan (the call to prayer) while the women led the prayer," she said.

Shaikh does not say it, but she implies that the Prophet used to pray behind the elderly woman. The suggestion would set more bearded mouths foaming. This weekend Shaikh will come face to face with representatives of the broader Muslim community - including theologians cosidered extremely conservative - to debate important issues related to the April 27 elections. Not wanting to antagonise the theologians on her first encounter with them, Shaikh will swop militancy for diplomacy. She said she would "keep quiet - if necessary".

Muslims are preparing for elections, and Shaikh said mosques would be used as a platform to embark on voter education. The problem is that mosques - with some exceptions in the Cape - are open to men only. "This means that women will be dependant on the grace of their husbands. We will try to overcome this problem by ensuring that there are door-to-door campaigns," said Shaikh.

With South African Muslims having divided political loyalties, the MYM will adopt a position of "positive neutrality." "But we will urge people not to vote for the oppressor. They should vote for the liberation movements," Shaikh added.

How did Shaikh come to occupy such a key position in the MYM - and with such strong support? At a regional assembly in May, she won the highest number of votes.

"It (her election) was on merit - I hope. I have been quite active in the MYM for a number of years," she said. The rest of her regional executive is made up of men.

"The MYM is a progressive organisation and there has been interaction between men and women for a long time. I haven't really had any problems," Shaikh said.

Her election would make traditionalists baulk for another reason: she is not a theologian, and traditionalists argue that she cannot be a leader. Shaikh believes that women are not theologians because men have kept education - both Islamic and secular - largely for themselves. She is concerned that the absence of women thelogians could have a negative effect on women's rights in a democratic South Africa.

A future constitution is expected to recognise Muslim Personal Law, meaning the Islamic marriages and divorces, for example, would be recognised. A body of thelogians is likely to be formed to advise a future government on implementation.

"We need women ulama (theologians) on the advisory board. At present, the (male) ulama say that only a husband can divorce the wife. The question is: can a wife give a divorce ?

"Some say they can and others say they can't. This is an important area that needs to be looked at," said Shaikh.

Shaikh's rise to prominence is not the only sign of sea-change in the MYM. She said that since 1990 the movement has made a particular effort to reach out to African Muslims.

"The future of Islam (in South Africa) lies in the hands of Africans. It is important that in Africa it should be Africanised," Shaikh said.

"There was no resistance but I won't be romantic and say that there were no difficulties in adapting to the change in emphasis and programmes," Shaikh added.

Three years ago the MYM elected its first African president, Tahir Sitoto, a resident of Uitenhage's kwa-Nobuhle township.

Sitoto recalled this week that his election had caused a stir at the time. " There was a lot of reaction accross the board. It came as a shock to the so-called Indian Muslim community and in the so-called African Muslim community people saw it as a window-dressing manoeuvre."

Sitoto believes that the influx of Africans into Islam started in the mid-1970's - but the appeal came from the Middle East.

"We saw Islam in the Middle East as a liberating and revolutionary force. The Palestinian struggle and the Iranian revolution were examples of this," said Sitoto.

African Muslims still idolise men like Yasser Arafat and Ayatollah Khomeini, and many African Muslims name their children after the Middle Eastern leaders.

A Black Consciousness activist at the time he converted to Islam in the 1970's, Sitoto said he had "lost complete faith in the church".

"We, the youth, perceived Christianity as a tool which was being used to blind us from the injustices that were going on," added Sitoto.

Yet, Sitoto faced a rude shock when he embraced Islam. "We were on the margins, those of us from an African background."

"We were constantly treated as newcomers; as new babies in the house of Islam," he said.

Although inspired by Islamic revolutions elsewhere, he does not believe an Islamic Party should be formed in South Africa to contest the elections. He argued that it would be "political suicide" to do so , as Muslims constituted only two percent of the country's people.

"Muslims are an integral part of South African society and as such they should position themselves within the liberation movements and articulate their positions there.

"Being exclusivist won't serve any purpose."

Journey of Discovery:
A South African Hajj

by Shamima Shaikh and
Na'eem Jeenah


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