Muslim Matrimonials and More

Articles and Essays on Marriage and Family in Islam


Challenges and Opportunities Facing American Muslim Women

Part One: Introduction and Moderator: Dr. Laila Al-Marayati, and History of Muslims in America: Asifa Quraishi

Edited Transcript of speeches given at a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Workshop by Muslim Women’s League
and Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights

presented by:
Dr. Laila Al-Marayati, Asifa Quraishi,
Samer Hathout, and Dr. Azizah Al-Hibri
NGO Forum, United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women
Huairou, China, September 7, 1995; reprinted from

Sections of this article:
Part 1
Part 2

Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Part One: Introduction and Moderator: Dr. Laila Al-Marayati

Salamu Alaikum, may peace be with you.

My name is Laila Al-Marayati, and I am the president of a group called the Muslim Women’s League, which is based in Los Angeles, California. The Muslim Women’s League is an organization that focuses on disseminating accurate information about Islam and Muslims. It is also currently is working on a publication regarding gender in Islam and other issues of concern to American Muslim women. This workshop is also sponsored by Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, which is a charitable, educational organization focusing on domestic and global issues for Muslims.

The topic of this workshop is "Challenges and Opportunities Facing American Muslim Women." In coming to this conference, we thought that it would be important to share with women from other countries some of the challenges that we face living in our own. This is why we chose to focus on our experiences, as opposed to broader issues, although we will discuss quite a few things.

I would like to introduce the rest of our panel. First, myself--as I said, I am Laila Al-Marayati. I am president of the Muslim Women’s League; I happen to be an obstetrician-gynecologist and an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles. I also have served on the Board of Directors at our Islamic Center, our mosque in southern California, for three years. I am married, and the mother of two small boys, and am very happy to be here.

Asifa Quraishi is very active in several Muslim organizations in the United States. She is a member of the board of Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, and she is an associate of the Muslim Women’s League. Ms. Quraishi is cofounder and an active member of the steering committee of a group called ‘AMILA, which stands for American Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism, a San Francisco bay area Muslim organization of second generation Muslims. They organize regular seminars and lectures by Muslim scholars from around the country; they have done human rights workshops, and provide assistance teaching Islam to local middle and secondary schools in the area. She has also been very involved in youth counseling and education. She works as an attorney, as a Death Penalty Law Clerk for the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, in San Francisco.

Samer Hathout received her bachelor’s degree from UCLA in sociology, and then studied law at the University of Southern California. She has been very involved and served in the Hail Moot Court Honor’s Program, and received honorable mention at that program. She has also received the Miller Johnson Equal Justice Award. She has made two trips with the Muslim Women’s League to Croatia to investigate the status of Bosnian refugees, particularly women war refugees, and she interned at the De Paul University International Human Rights Law Institute where she compiled data on concentration camps to be used by the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Samer has worked as a crisis counselor on a rape hotline. She was the founding president of the Muslim Women’s League, for which she is an active member right now, and is the Vice-Chairperson of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. Currently she works as a criminal prosecutor in Los Angeles.

And finally our last introduction is Dr. Azizah Al-Hibri. She is a law professor at the T.C. Williams School of Law, University of Richmond, in Virginia, and a former professor of philosophy. She is the founder and president of Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, co-founder of the Muslim American Bar Association, member of the advisory board of the American Muslim Council, and the Virginia State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She has edited a number of books, and contributed to them, including books on: logic, women in Islam, and religious and ethical perspectives on population issues. Her recent articles include a critique of personal status codes in select Muslim countries, Islamic constitutionalism, the concept of democracy, and marriage laws in Muslim countries. She practiced law on Wall Street for many years before she returned to teaching in the University.

I would like to welcome all of our guests on the panel, and turn it over now to our speakers.

History of Muslims in America: Asifa Quraishi

Good Morning. I am going to start off with a basic overview of the history of Muslims in America. Samer is then going to take it from there with some of the challenges we face, and then I will come back to discuss opportunities we have in the United States to address these challenges.

I would like to ask each of you to conjure up in your head right now the image of an American. Just put a picture in your head. Now, put a picture in your head of the image of a Muslim. Do they look the same? I don’t know, they might . . . they might not . . . but they should be. In America, Muslims look just like any other American. In fact, when I asked you the question of imagining an American, I could have asked you to imagine an African person, an Asian person, an Arab person, a European person, a Central Asian person . . . because America is a collection of immigrants from all over. And, in fact, the face of America looks very much like the face of the women at this conference--you see all different kinds of Americans. And Muslims in America also share that cross section of colors and faces and perspectives.


The estimated Muslim population throughout the world is about one billion, and there are about five million living in North America, which includes the United States, according to 1991 reports. In the pink folders that we have for you, there is a pie chart which gives you an idea of the distribution. Just to get an idea, the largest section here is African American, 42%. The next largest is South Asian, which is 24%, and the next 12% is Arabs, and then the rest, including American White, Southeast Asians, Turks, Iranians, Africans, make up a number of small minorities of the Muslims in America. By far the majority of Muslims in America is African American and South Asian together, and African American make up a very large percentage of that.

Origins of American Muslims

Muslims in America trace back in roughly three waves. First, in early exploration of America. The earliest document we could find was something called a Chinese Sung document which recorded the voyage of Muslim sailors to America back as far as 1178. There are also reports of black Muslims, the Moors, who were living among the Spanish explorers who came and introduced Islam to the "new world." Some say that the first Muslim to cross to the continent was a guide from Morocco (Estevanico of Azamor) who came with Marcos de Niza in 1539. So there are a lot of examples of rare reports of various people coming over from the Muslim world to America during the period of early, early American exploration.

Then, of course you’ve heard of the slavery of Africans in America, and that is probably the next largest wave, occurring from about the 16th century to the 18th century. Basically the ancestors of most African Americans today were Africans brought over as slaves to the United States. They were uprooted from their homes and stripped of whatever cultural and religious identity that they had. It is estimated that about thirty percent of those people were Muslims.

The next wave was immigrants as unskilled laborers who sought educational and economic opportunities in the United States. This is around 1871 to 1930. These were mostly Arabian immigrants -- greater Syria, Lebanon, Palestine. Again, many of these immigrants lost their cultural and religious identities and basically assimilated into American and Canadian culture. There are records indicating that the first American mosque was built in 1922 in Detroit, Michigan. Canada’s first mosque was built in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1938. Then there are some smaller waves of similar immigration--Palestine, Yugoslavia, Asia, India.

Moving into the present, you see that there is a large proportion of converts in America--people converting to Islam in America. From the chart you can tell that a very large portion of that are African Americans. You have probably heard of the Nation of Islam, or Black Muslims, or similar terminology. There is a large percentage of Muslims in the United States that are African American, and that is an indigenous Muslim movement, started in America. It goes back to 1913, a gentleman by the name of Noble Drew Ali established a Moorish Science Temple in Newark, New Jersey. His temple was sort of a combination of Black nationalism, Christian revivalism, and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)--whom we believe in as our last prophet. That movement later was led by Elijah Muhammad, who you may have heard of. He gained his knowledge of Islam through someone called Wallace Fard. Then, in 1933, the movement became known as the Nation of Islam. It was one of the most significant organizations in American Muslim history, and it has a place in American history as well. This movement was very effective in rehabilitating the black community in comparison with other civil rights movements in America at the time. You may have heard of Malcolm X; he was one of the very famous black Muslim leaders of this organization, as well as Muhammad Ali who also belonged to this group. In 1975 after Elijah Muhammad’s death, his son Warith Dean Muhammad succeeded him and began to reconstruct the movement and bring it closer to what we would call "orthodox" Islam, and a lot of the black nationalism element left. In 1976 the Nation of Islam went through a number of name changes and eventually was called the American Muslim Mission. Another segment of that movement splintered and is now led by Minister Louis Farakhan, whom you may have also heard of. That is a very brief history of the African American Muslims in the United States.

Overall, Muslims in the United States today are immigrants, converts, and the children of both. Muslims in America are of both Sunni and Shii schools of thought, but most actually don’t identify with any particular school of thought, preferring instead to call themselves simply Muslims. There are also some other groups in America that would be identified with the same background: Ahmadi, Ismaili, etc.

American Muslim Presence

Because of the losing of identity and culture that happened in the earlier waves, the Muslims in later waves and in recent history have focused primarily on trying to maintain their Muslim identity and Islamic culture, and a lot of the focus was therefore internal. There was a lot of energy dedicated to building mosques and schools, trying to bring the Muslim community together, to try to build an atmosphere of unity and support. Only recently have American Muslims begun to become active more in the public arena: politics, media, etc. In 1988, for example, the American Muslim Council was founded, dedicated to lobbying for Muslim concerns in Washington, D.C. The Muslim Public Affairs Council in 1988 sent Muslim delegates to the Democratic Convention. There has also been a lot of effort recently to dialogue with Christians and Jews to foster a common understanding of various issues, especially on things like Bosnia, Palestine, etc. And, on university campuses in the United States you will find huge Muslim student organizations, very active, wanting to get very involved.

Basically, early on, Americans knew nothing about Islam. Muslims, on the other hand, were so preoccupied with internal struggles and building their own communities that ignorance about Islam prevailed. The terms Arab and Muslim were used interchangeably--up until the Iranian revolution, but there is still a lot of confusion about that. As you can tell from the demographics in the chart, Arabs are not synonymous with Muslims, and that is true even worldwide. Muslims lacking public relations skills and unaware of their own constitutional rights haven’t really succeeded in defining Islam as a religion to Americans. Many Americans still don’t know much about Islam or Muslims other than what is portrayed by the media, or a few personal contacts. Ignorance about Islam in general and Muslim women in particular provides a lot of fertile ground for discussion and education between Muslim and non-Muslim Americans. And with that, I will turn it over to a discussion of some of the challenges that American Muslim women face in particular.

Sections of this article:
Part 1
Part 2

Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Articles Muslim Matrimonials and More