“Activism is difficult, and often thankless. Through the darkest times, I have been comforted by the fact that gender equality is an intrinsic part of my Islamic faith and that as a woman, we hold fundamental and irrevocable value and rights in the eyes of God,” Daisy Khan said.
Khan is the executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement. After Sept. 11, she worked to promote interfaith dialogue and to help others understand the similarities among the Abrahamic faiths. Her lecture, “WISE: Women at the Frontiers of Change,” was the second installation in the week’s afternoon theme, “Women Transcending Boundaries.”
In her words, Khan “was educated like a boy,” thanks to her grandfather, a progressive Muslim scholar and Harvard student. She went to the United States from Kashmir to study architectural design.
After Sept. 11, Khan had to think of herself as not just a woman but a Muslim woman. She was perceived through a lens shaped by politics and current events.
“As Americans became very curious and sometimes even fearful of Islam, they wanted me to tell them why, if Islam is based in truth and goodness, are women being (abused),” she said. “People wanted to know what I was doing about it.”
In 2006, she left her corporate career in architectural design. Her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, encouraged her to read books about her questions about Islam and to begin her own initiative to change the world.
She founded WISE: Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, which Khan describes as “a global, holistic, social justice movement” that integrates religion into its work.
“I gave it that name (WISE) precisely because I did not want us to be seen as just rebellious women,” Khan said. “I wanted people to know that we were wise women out to change the world.”
In 2009, a 200-member council hailing from 44 countries convened to discuss “What is the biggest barrier to the advancement of Muslim women?” More than 80 percent of the women in attendance agreed that distorted religious interpretation was an obstacle to progress. More than 90 percent of the women thought that women should be at the forefront of reinterpreting religious texts.
“We need to tell our own story,” Khan said. The women collected examples of Muslim women from history who made a difference and created slideshows online, from female rulers to female warriors to the female founder of the first university in the world.
“These are the untold stories,” Khan said. “So all the lies that they tell about women’s participation in society, that women can’t do this, women can’t do that — there’s enough historical evidence (to counter the lies). Just see it for yourself.”
To combat the gender issues born of misinterpreting holy texts, Khan helped to establish the first Muslim women’s council.
“I fundamentally believe that through scriptural education and social movement leadership and educational tools, such as the site that we’ve created, we can help women reclaim their rights in Islam, and create, ultimately, a just and flourishing society, just like we have here in the United States,” she said.
Khan described the shura council. The 22 women on the council concluded that violent extremism was the biggest issue that the whole world faced. To denounce such movements, they issued what Khan termed “a mini-fatwa” against extremism and domestic violence. The document has been translated into several languages.
“It will prove to you … there’s no justification for extremism in Islam,” she said. “It is a lie.”
The council chose a woman to give imams the information about important women’s issues; the woman hosted about 30 imams at a time. With her help, women began to be allowed to come to the mosque, something never done before. Women had their own section and selected a woman to lead it.
What they shared with these men had a real effect. One imam who studied what they offered refused to conduct a wedding between a would-be child bride and an older man. He concluded it was illegal and anti-Muslim.
Khan has been inspired by historic struggles in the United States, many of which were managed and advanced by women, from the anti-slavery movement to suffragette rights to the civil rights movement.
It’s time to support the Muslim women’s movement, Khan said.
“I know that our best chance for combating injustices and abuses to Muslim women lie in the collective ability to construct religiously grounded arguments that lift the truth of Islam, like it did in Afghanistan, and has inspired positive social change for over 1,400 years,” she said.
Religion is in a state of revitalization all over the world, and it is a paradigm through which more and more Muslim women want to define themselves. There are approximately 750 million Muslim women in the world.
Khan provided three options to promote education and leadership opportunities.
The first option is to drive for equal rights. Though this creates a vocal public outcry, there are people, including many Muslim women, who do not understand equal rights to be a legitimate Muslim approach to accomplishing change.
The second option is to push for international human rights. On the one hand, it raises Muslim organizations to the status of other international organizations. But such pleas often fall on deaf ears, which would characterize such rights as western ideas.
The third option is to support movements that are already happening. Groups that are already established and organized have momentum, Khan said. The opposition they face comes from those who believe they pose a significant threat to beliefs and prejudices and women and provoke wrath from those who would discriminate.
“As women of faith, we do not fear the discrimination of unenlightened Muslim men,” Khan declared.
She invited the audience to join her and WISE in Istanbul in October 2011.
“I believe this is our mandate,” she said. “This is our moment: a Muslim woman’s moment, a moment ripe for things to happen. … We must shatter the dominant perception that Muslim women remain passive victims.”
Daisy Khan is Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA), a non-profit organization dedicated to developing an American Muslim identity and to building bridges between the Muslim community and general public through dialogues in faith, identity, culture, and the arts. Ms. Khan mentors young Muslims on challenges of assimilation, gender, religion and modernity, and intergenerational differences. In the aftermath of 9/11, she created interfaith programs to emphasize commonalities among the Abrahamic faith traditions, such as a groundbreaking theater presentation, Same Difference, and the interfaith Cordoba Bread Fest.
To prioritize the improvement of Muslim-West relations and the advancement of Muslim women globally, Ms. Khan has launched two cutting edge intra-faith programs to start movements of change agents among the two disempowered majorities of the Muslim world: youth and women. The MLT: Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow and WISE: Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality programs were launched on an international scale in Doha (MLT) and in Malaysia (WISE). Both programs seek to convene, empower, and build networks in their target groups, and to facilitate the emergence of a leadership that speaks with a credible, humane, and equitable voice in the global Muslim community.
Ms. Khan frequently lectures and debates in the United States and internationally, having debated Christopher Hitchens on National Public Radio. After the Danish cartoon crisis, she moderated a discussion in Denmark between young Muslims and Flemming Rose, the original publisher of the controversial cartoons. In May 2007 she became the first Muslim woman to speak at Thanksgiving Square in Dallas, Texas on the National Day of Prayer. Ms. Khan frequently comments on important issues in the media, and has appeared on ABC, PBS, BBC World, CNN, Fox News, National Geographic, Al Jazeerah, and the Hallmark Channel. She has also been quoted in numerous print publications, such as Time Magazine, Newsweek, the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Saudi Gazette, The National and Khaleej Times. In July 2007 Ms. Khan appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine along with 40 members of ASMA. In the same issue of the magazine, she also co-wrote an article on the symmetry between core Islamic values and the constitution of the United States.
Daisy Khan is the recipient of many awards, including the Interfaith Center's Award for Promoting Peace and Interfaith Understanding, the Auburn Seminary's Lives of Commitment Award, Hunt Alternatives Prime Movers Award, and Women's E-News 21st Century Leaders for the 21st century. Born in Kashmir, India, she spent the first 25 years of her career as an interior architect at various Fortune 500 companies. In 2005 she decided to dedicate herself fully to elevating the discourse on Islam, and to improving the lives of Muslims and non-Muslims globally through ASMA and its sister organization, the Cordoba Initiative.