Complicating the Story of Women in the Nation of Islam

A Nation Can Rise No Higher Than Its Women: African American Muslim Women in the Movement for Black Self-Determination, 1950-1975

By Bayyinah S. Jeffries

Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014, 172 pp., $68.00, hardcover

Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam

By Dawn-Marie Gibson and Jamillah Karim

New York: New York University Press, 2014, 265 pp., $26.00, paperback

Reviewed by Juliane Hammer

What does it say about the academic study of women in African American Muslim movements that 2014 saw the publication of not one but two books on this topic? In her introduction to A Nation Can Rise No Higher Than Its Women, Bayyinah S. Jeffries notes, “This book reveals an unacknowledged agency of previously invisible and nameless Muslim women, as demonstrated in both their private roles as mothers and wives and their public roles as leaders, instructors, and business owners.” Similarly, Dawn-Marie Gibson and Jamillah Karim want to portray “women of the Nation of Islam from various perspectives, recognizing the group’s patriarchal dimensions and revealing how women have experienced and shaped the Nation.”

There has, until now, been a gap in our knowledge of the Original Nation of Islam (ONOI, the movement of the 1950s through the mid-1970s, as distinguished from the reconstituted Nation of Islam led by Louis Farrakhan since the early 1980s) and the African American Muslim organizations that followed: the roles and significance of women. Both books endeavor to change that situation, arguing that women’s contributions and experiences are inherently important and valuable, and should be recognized. Both books are based on interviews, engagement with Muslim organizational publications and, to varying degrees, the academic literature on the topic. The books differ in significant ways, both in their historical scope and in the ways in which they negotiate gender analysis and feminist theory.

Jeffries focuses her book on the ONOI, the early period of the Nation, and the book’s five chapters each take on a particular dimension of women’s participation. In her useful introduction, Jeffries surveys the existing literature on the Nation and highlights the sparse treatment of women in it. She offers a critique of such representation, which provides her with an opening for her own arguments and contributions.

Chapter 1 focuses on the role of education in the ONOI. According to Jeffries, the alternative educational system created by Clara Muhammad (the wife of ONOI leader Elijah Muhammad) was a significant part of the struggle for black self-determination, and Jeffries traces the development of what she calls an “Afro-Islamic discourse,” which was taught to all new members and aimed to transform their self-perceptions, civic practice, and personal conduct. It was in Muslim Girls Training (MGT), for women and girls, and Fruit of Islam (FOI), for men and boys, that ONOI’s complementary yet equal gender model was formulated and passed on.

In Chapter 2, using interview snippets that convey the diversity of ONOI women’s opinions and experiences, Jeffries examines what attracted women to the Nation, and how they perceived its benefits and its limitations. In Chapter 3, she surveys writings by and about women in Muhammad Speaks, the ONOI newspaper, which predictably focused on homemaking, health and food, motherhood and happy family relations, and dress and black body image. Here I wished for more extensive treatment of the publication and a somewhat more invested analysis of how women who were writing for women followed Elijah Muhammad’s gender discourse. Chapter 4 explores women’s (and Muslims’) roles in civil rights-era activism, with a focus on Clara Muhammad. Jeffries situates the agenda of the ONOI within the history of racial oppression as well as gendered exclusion, and provides valuable insight into and critique of the Black Power movement as male-centric. In chapter 5, she notes the transnational links of the ONOI, including in Bermuda, again with a focus on women.

Jamillah Karim and Dawn-Marie Gibson’s Women of the Nation is presented as a chronological history, chiefly based on interviews. However, the authors aim to provide more than a women-centered retelling of the story, explaining that “[w]omen’s accounts of the Nation of Islam vary, but generally they are far more positive than indicated by feminist critiques of the NOI and other scholarly and popular histories of the Nation.” They attribute what they call misperceptions of the Nation to two factors: first, that women’s experiences have been interpreted outside of the historical context; and second, that the full spectrum of women’s voices has not been heard. The authors defend their methodology, which accepts oral histories as “true” accounts, declaring, "No matter the extent to which women’s views of the Nation differ from one another or from scholarly analysis of NOI gender ideology as documented in NOI literature, women’s oral accounts are “psychologically true.”

There is more to be said, however, about the use of oral history in scholarship, which has been discussed as a method since the 1980s and recognized by feminist scholars as a potent but complicated tool, whose wielding requires recognition of power dynamics, political agendas, and hierarchical academic structures (see, for example, Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History, edited by Sherna Gluck and Daphne Patai [1991]). The women here are given voice by the authors; sometimes their experience is presented as unique to them, and other times as representative of broader trends. However, the authors pay little attention to how memories may change over time. I was reminded of my own forays into gathering oral histories when I interviewed expelled Palestinians of the 1948 generation who, in the face of oppression, discrimination, and expulsion, were in the process of formulating shared stories to pass on to future generations. I had to develop probing questions that went beyond simply asking my subjects to speak about their life histories. Despite these concerns, though, all three authors are to be commended for ensuring that the recollections and voices of these women are not lost to history—especially urgent in the case of the earliest generation of ONOI women.

Chapter 1 chronicles women in the pre-1975 ONOI, during the leadership of W. D. Fard, the Nation’s founder, and Elijah Muhammad, its long-time leader. The women explain why they joined the ONOI, and how they negotiated the group’s demands and expectations regarding dress, marriage, activism, education, and economic activities. Although Karim and Gibson cover some of the same ground that Jeffries does, they come to a different conclusion: they write that during the early period, women were excluded from Nation politics, and many had negative experiences.

The second chapter covers the years 1975 – 1980, when Wallace D. Muhammad (later Warith Deen Mohammed), Elijah Muhammad’s son, took over leadership of the organization after his father’s death. Gibson and Karim label this period one of transition to “Sunni Islam,” which they say was welcomed by many of their interviewees. There were changes in dress regulations, more flexibility in gender norms, and increased mobility within the organization. Karim and Gibson note that these changes were accepted by many members because they were gradual, especially in terms of gender norms, building on the previous roles and contributions of women as leaders and activists in the ONOI.

Chapter 3 discusses women’s experiences in the 1980s “resurrected Nation of Islam” under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan. The authors explain Farrakhan’s gender ideology, which resurrected the complementary model espoused by Elijah Muhammad, and argue that women in the NOI embraced the life model it offered, while battling the sexism that often accompanied it. Changes in dress codes created opportunities for women entrepreneurs to develop NOI fashion. NOI women who became leaders and activists faced mixed responses from their communities, while others fulfilled more traditional roles, focusing on education and the arts. In one of the most fascinating passages in the book, the authors discuss how women supported, helped finance, and promoted Farrakhan’s 1995 Million Man March, even though they were excluded from it. They interpreted their exclusion from the event as an expression of protective patriarchal impulses.

The last chapter offers a poignant analysis of the complicated relations between the Farrakhan-led NOI and W. D. Mohammed’s much larger movement from the 1990s onward. The authors argue that discussions of women’s roles in community and religious life, including women’s prayer leadership, have to be considered in the context of larger US Muslim conversations and dynamics, concluding that,

[f]eminist and womanist scholars have described Nation women as guilty of reproducing their own oppression because they accept traditional gender roles, including men as providers and women as homemakers. Yet Nation women have strategically embraced gender roles in the context of the broader struggle for racial equality.

Both of these books aim to demonstrate that women in African American Muslim movements actively shaped their roles in these movements as well as their individual lives—even as the larger structures of society, with their rampant and systemic racial and gender oppression, as well as the particular gender ideologies of their movements’ leaders, often limited their possibilities, opportunities, and realities. I appreciate the authors’ rejection of the old “false consciousness” thesis to explain why women’s memories of their lives in the NOI were more positive than previous scholarship indicated. I am struck, though, by the authors’ employment of dichotomies such as oppression vs. resistance, or equality vs. complementarity, to frame women’s experiences. The power of both books lies rather in the nuanced treatment of materials that demonstrate time and again that the realities of women in the Nation were more complex than such dichotomies. Furthermore, it does not make sense to me to reject feminist and/or womanist critiques of the NOI (or any other organization) without considering the complicated dynamics of feminist engagement with religion, and scholarly as well as public treatment of Islam and Muslims. Also, of course, some theorists and activists have taken supportive positions while others have been critical; it would be helpful to differentiate between these positions rather than indicting all feminists and/or womanists.

A small but significant concern of mine is with Jeffries’ use of the term “sect” to describe the ONOI. As a scholar of religion, I worry that this term may place the ONOI outside the boundaries of “orthodoxy” or an (imagined) Muslim mainstream. Gibson and Karim’s use of “Sunni Islam” similarly becomes shorthand for “real Islam” and continues a long and unfortunate history of representing the ONOI and other organizations, such as the Moorish Science Temple, as not quite Muslim, but rather proto-Islamic or syncretist. The underlying assumption of an existing and discernible “real Islam” is not only unsustainable but also reinforces the placement of African American Muslim movements at the margins of Islamic studies, American religion studies, and African American studies. Karim and Gibson, in particular, create a teleological narrative, implying that women will inevitably move toward “real” Sunni Islam. Even if that narrative were sustained by the interviews, it would still need to be analyzed rather than taken for granted.

Both books struggle with the challenge of creating women-centered “herstory” without either leaving men out (which would make no sense) or foregrounding them and telling women’s stories around them. Jeffries handles this challenge well, but Gibson and Karim tell a story from which the men just seem to be missing. Both books are based on so much empirical (and textual) material that I sometimes wished for more individual stories, rather than sociological trend analysis. (Carolyn Rouse’s Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam [2004] beautifully demonstrates the potential of ethnographic story-weaving.) Finally, both books follow much of the existing literature on Black Muslims in their treatment of African American Muslim movements as either political or religious. The labels are discussed as mutually exclusive, as though a political movement protesting racial discrimination and oppression could not also be religiously authentic. This logic not only distorts the public discourse on Muslim political movements, terrorism, and the “othering” of Muslims in general, but has also resulted in the marginalization of African American movements within US Muslim communities.

I end this review with an expression of deep appreciation and a note on privilege: both books make important contributions to the scholarly literature, as they preserve and present voices and experiences that deserve to be part of the story. They are obvious labors of love. My criticisms arise from my own participation in the production of knowledge on Islam, American Muslims, women, and gender. Because knowledge production is political, and never neutral, I want to acknowledge that my scholarship comes from a place of institutional and societal privilege. As a white Muslim woman scholar I have encountered some of the challenges the authors of the books faced, but not others. In offering my critique I do not intend to draw lines in the sand or diminish the efforts of other scholars. Instead, it is my hope that this review can further our exchange of ideas, our learning from one another, and the creation of a deeper understanding of the topic of women and gender in African American Muslim communities and movements.

Juliane Hammer is associate professor and Kenan Rifai Scholar in Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She specializes in the study of American Muslims, contemporary Muslim thought, women and gender in Islam, and Sufism. She is the author of Palestinians Born in Exile: Diaspora and the Search for a Homeland (2005) and American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer (2012), as well as the co-editor of A Jihad for Justice (with Kecia Ali and Laury Silvers, 2012) and the Cambridge Companion to American Islam (with Omid Safi, 2013). She is currently working on a book project focusing on American Muslim efforts against domestic violence, and on a larger project exploring American Muslim discourses on marriage, family, and sexuality.

 

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