Redefining the Role of Women in Islam

Shaykha Reima Yosif; photo: Rachael Bongiorno

Shaykhas, or female scholars, have a beautiful legacy in Islam,” says Reima Yosif. “Right back to the time of Prophet Mohammed, Aisha (the Prophet’s wife) taught men. And if you go back historically, you see a lot of the famous imams had women teachers.”

As one of America’s most prominent shaykhasYosif is passionate about facilitating opportunities for women’s leadership and making Islamic education accessible to women.

“Education is key,” she asserts.  “I cannot stress education enough and women knowing their faith.”

But despite the rich history of female Muslim scholarship, Yosif says female leadership in Islam has been sidelined in recent history. Even the term shaykha, the female equivalent of a sheikh, a teacher or religious scholar, can be seen as controversial.

“When we were doing our Shaykha Fest for the first time in 2012, some people were very uncomfortable with the word and they said ‘well we don’t want to advertise the event because a woman can’t be a shaykha’.”

But Yosif says after the event there was an overwhelmingly positive response from those who attended and a proud revival of the term “shaykha.”

Read a related feature in our online magazine New York’s Muslim Geography, from Apartment Mosques to Prayers in the Street

Yosif explains that you won’t hear shaykha as frequently as sheikh or imam (leaders of a mosque or a renowned scholar) because there is no official position for women at a mosque. “But on the fringe we have these female scholars that are on par with their male counterparts and they’re shaykha’s.”

The Shaykha Fest is an annual conference that seeks to draw attention to female scholarship in historical and contemporary Islamic discourse.  It is one of the flagship events organized by Al-Rawiya Foundation—an initiative founded by Yosif and a team of dedicated Muslim women who seek to empower women through education, arts and social justice-based interfaith initiatives.

Speakers at the annual Shaykha Fest, hosted by Al-Rawiya Foundation

Yosif feels that knowing their faith and history enables women to better understand what they practice and allows them to differentiate between what Yosif sees as the true essence of the religion and any cultural practices or patriarchal practices that are contrary to that essence.

“Sometimes religion is used as a way to shut women up, or to push them to the peripheries,” Yosif says. “The idea of a barrier in the mosque, where women are put behind a wall in prayer for example, this didn’t exist during the Prophet Mohammed’s time.”

Yosif’s parents migrated to the U.S as students and she grew up in Virginia until age 10. She was raised in a Muslim household where she enjoyed a childhood with few limits and a fair dose of 1980s American pop culture.

“I watched Saturday-morning cartoons with my bowl of Cap’n Crunch cereal, adored Punky Brewster, and eventually transitioned from that to swooning and screeching over 80s boy band New Kids On The Block, as my mom cooked couscous in the background.”

When she moved to North Africa with her mother, things started to change for Yosif, and she would often be told not to do certain things. When she asked why, she was told, “It’s Islamic prohibited, you’re a girl, you can’t do that.”

“As I dug up Islamic books and read them, I found a contradiction between what I was being told and what was written in the original sources of information,” Yosif says.

“There was nowhere in there that said that, as a woman I can’t mingle or preach. So I thought, the only way to combat this is if I myself get classically trained,’”

Drawing inspiration from her grandfather who was a prominent sheikh and mufti (an Islamic scholar who interprets Islamic law) for the North African region, Yosif left her family to pursue a classical Islamic education in Egypt.

Eager to share her knowledge, Yosif established Al Rawiya Foundation in 2005 and Al Rawiya College in 2014.

After conducting a survey among women, Al Rawiya found that the majority of women were getting their Islamic information from YouTube. So Yosif and her colleagues set up online courses to give women access to an Islamic education, which has accreditation from Mecca Al-Mukarramah Institute in Saudi Arabia and pending accreditation from Middlesex University in London.

“It’s been great,” Yosif beams. “We have women logging in from around the U.S to small villages in Kenya.’”

She says that a number of her students are now starting their own women-led initiatives.

One of Yosif’s student’s is Hasna Maznavi, who was inspired to start an initiative called Women’s Mosque of America. They plan to hold their first women-led Friday prayer (Jumma) and sermon this January in Los Angeles.

“This project makes women’s educational and spiritual needs the central focus and creates an atmosphere for women that is conducive to their spiritual growth and inclusion.”

As their teacher, Yosif couldn’t be more proud, “When people ask me what I think of success? I say ‘success is women sharing, success is women going out and starting something.”

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, and the Nicholas B. Ottaway Foundation.

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AboutRachael Bongiorno
Rachael Bongiorno is a New York City based multimedia journalist and media educator from Melbourne, Australia. Her work has been broadcast on NPR, WNYC, ABC Australia’s Radio National, Deutsche Welle, Democracy Now!, SBS Australia, Free Speech Radio News (FSRN), and 3CR Radio. She holds a BA with postgraduate Honours from The University of Melbourne and an MA in media studies from The New School. Her stories and projects are available at