CHICAGO (WOMENSENEWS)–As the national spokesperson for the Chicago-based Nation of Islam, Ava Muhammad is the highest-ranking woman in the history of her religion. Her current job is among the most prominent in the nation–a post formerly held by Malcolm X and current Nation leader Louis Farrakhan–and since 1998 she has also served as minister of the Atlanta mosque, one of the country’s largest.
By doing so, she put a public face to former Nation leader Elijah Muhammad’s adage that a “nation can rise only as high as its woman.”
She remains the only female minister in a religion founded in 1930 by African Americans looking for an alternative to Christianity–which founders saw as historically dominated by whites–and as a way to reunite a black community disrupted by the slave trade.
“I’m asked about that a lot,” she said in an interview with Women’s eNews, when asked about women’s leadership role in the religion. “My response has always been that the role of women in the Nation of Islam is really no different than it is in any other religion. Christianity, Judaism and Islam–all of which are necessary for the enlightenment of humanity–all suffer from a similar affliction of being overly male-dominant, even in the interpretation of scripture. As the world becomes more conscious, and the Internet and other things level the playing field of knowledge, that’s going to continue to change.”
Greeted With Loud Applause
Ava Muhammad, who keeps a fairly steady schedule of speaking engagements, came to Chicago earlier this summer to give the keynote address at a conference for African American women. The mostly female audience greeted her with loud applause.
“She’s opened so many doors for women, and showed that women can head a mosque and do many of the same things that men do,” said C’Lisa Muhammad, a conference attendee from East St. Louis, Ill. “It takes away from the misconception that Islam makes you subservient or that women are being put down in Islam. Her being a minister proves wrong a lot of those negative connotations that the media or the West have about it.”
In her role as national spokesperson for the religion, Ava Muhammad, who is based in Atlanta, has been a vocal critic of the war in Iraq and the abuse of prisoners at both Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and has spoken about these issues around the world.
With a law degree from Georgetown and a membership in the New York Bar Association, she’s also the legal adviser to Farrakhan.
“She represents so many things: a leader, a minister and a lawyer, but also a wife and mother,” said Naimah Latif, co-host of a Chicago cable TV program on African American issues. She is not a member of the Nation. “Women need to see that their roles are multidimensional and it’s not an either-or scenario where you can’t be a professional if you’re a wife and mother or you can’t be a woman and be a spiritual leader.”
Other Women Move Up
While Ava Muhammad is the top female spiritual leader in the Nation, other women have recently moved into prominent roles, both inside the religion and without.
Dora Muhammad, who in 2003 became the first female editor on the staff of Farrakhan’s Chicago-based newspaper, The Final Call, is now that paper’s managing editor. Nisa Islam Muhammad, an author and Final Call writer, is the founder and CEO of the Wedded Bliss Foundation, a Washington-based organization focused on healthy marriages in the black community.
“Owing to the Nation’s focus on African Americans and the doctrine that suggests they are a kind of ‘chosen people,’ women play a specifically important role because they are the mothers of future generations,” said Dr. Martha Lee, a political science professor at the University of Windsor and author of the 1996 book “The Nation of Islam: An American Millenarian Movement.”
Lee says women are also drawn to the religion because it focuses on the family, which the Nation’s theology, she says, considers critical to the survival of African Americans.
Then there’s the Millions More Movement, which is planning an Oct. 15 march on Washington to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Nation-organized, Farrakhan-led Million Man March.
The original 1995 march specifically organized men around issues such as fulfilling their roles as fathers, the importance of the black male vote and the development of business in the black community. While some women participated in the event, its focus on men drew criticism from some who saw the event as too male-centric.
This time, Nation leadership has called for women and children–as well as gays, lesbians and members of other faiths–to become active participants.
As Ava Muhammad and other women become more prominent, they’re putting a new face on their religion whose membership figures, while not given out, are usually assessed by media reports as at least 10,000.
The event is supported by black leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, although Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League has asked them to reconsider their support for the upcoming march. In a May letter, the director of the league–which has long criticized Farrakhan for comments the group deems anti-Semitic–argued that the positive message would be tainted by Farrakhan’s involvement.
The Nation and Farrakhan have long been controversial due to their teachings that the black race is the original and superior race, though they have historically reached out to Muslims of other races and black leaders from other faiths.
Traditional Gender Roles
The Nation of Islam still maintains rules such as a ban on interracial dating, a dress code for women (including head coverings and no makeup or tight clothing) and a focus on traditional gender roles within the family. While women often work outside the home, they are generally expected to take the lead role in running the household and raising the children.
The religion splits with the more widespread form of Islam in many ways, including its exclusive racial makeup. The Nation prohibits the abuse and brutalization of women allowed under select interpretations of Islam, such as Pakistan’s Hudood laws or the Sharia law as practiced in countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.
“Too often, we confuse the religion of Islam with Middle East culture,” Ava Muhammad said. “People in the Middle East and in parts of Africa can practice cultures that are very sexist and the cultures become projected as the religion itself. But when you go into these books, actually study the Koran, the Bible, the Torah, you don’t see the same things you see out in the culture.
“But of course the Nation, like everything else, is made up of the people who are in it,” Muhammad said. “If a man is without comprehension and he interprets Islam as meaning he should exert authority over his wife so she doesn’t have equal rights with him, that’s his damaged perception of the theology.”
Muhammad points to Hillary Clinton as helping to redefine what women can accomplish in a male-dominated field. She adds that women will continue advancing in the Nation as they are in the nation as a whole.
“I think that’s true anytime people are fighting against any form of prejudice or discrimination,” she said.
Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based journalist. He has worked as an editorial fellow at Mother Jones, a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and the national op/ed and politics editor for U-Wire.
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