Prominent Muslim women’s voices are generally lacking in mainstream discourse. This is particularly the case when it comes to controversial and emotional topics such as marriage and relationships. Whilst there is an array of scholars ready to give fatwas on marital relationships, advice on Muslim’s seeking spouses, and words of wisdom to those getting divorced, the female voice on these topics is generally unheard. However, with the spectacular rise of Yasmin Mogahed, 34, an Egyptian born American, things are changing.
Mogahed, who holds a degree in psychology, has struck a chord with many Muslims, especially young Muslim women, with her ideas on love, relationships and spirituality – interrelated topics rarely discussed in conventional Islamic circles. ‘They’re not talked about enough. We have lost the heart of the religion,’ she says over Skype, in a cafe near her home in Southern Carolina.
‘We have focused too much on the rituals and compartmentalised our monotheism. We see God as having nothing to do with our relationships and attachments – and, ultimately, that’s why we suffer,’ she says.
Mogahed has toured the UK over the past couple of years, giving a series of talks on love and spirituality. Her first book, Reclaim Your Heart, released in 2012, is a collection of her writings over the past ten years. It has become a huge hit amongst Muslim women right across the world. It’s a ‘manual of how to live in this life without being attached to it,’ she says. She discusses how we can transform our personal relationships from destructive pursuits into spiritual endeavors, always returning to the same, core message; if God is not at the centre of our relationships, and if we are attached to worldly ideals, emptiness and dissatisfaction will always follow. Yet this fundamental and recurring message is masked in understandable, practical and relatable ways for Mogahed’s reader.
Filled with inspirational messages of faith, hope and empowerment, Mogahed often receives heartfelt messages from people whose lives have been changed after reading her book, her articles and/or listening to her lectures. She is currently working on her second book, a collection of her best quotes.
‘I’ve read Reclaim Your Heart twice now,’ says Zarreen Hadadi, 23, from London. ‘She is popular with young female Muslims as a role model, and I wonder whether brothers would be stigmatised for reading the book, they shouldn’t! I’d recommend the book to anyone who is going through a difficult chapter in their life,’ she says.
Mogahed also battles the understanding of feminism in her book, a flaming topic amongst young Muslims today. To her fellow women, Mogahed places an important reminder in her book: ‘As Muslim women…we don’t need society’s standard of beauty or fashion, to define our worth. We don’t need to become just like men to be honored, and we don’t need to wait for a prince to save or complete us.’ And to those who are suffering she says: ‘This world cannot break you, unless you give it permission. And it cannot own you, unless you hand it the keys.’
Naturally, with Mogahed’s fans finding out about her through the likes of Facebook, Twitter (platforms where she has hundreds of thousands of followers) and Youtube, many of her avid followers are young. However, Mogahed believes there is a problem with the way Islam is being taught to the youth, and, as a result, she believes ‘we are losing them’. The problem is, she says, that there’s too much emphasis on the outward aspects of religion and not enough on the inward; the God of wrath is being taught as opposed to the God of love. The new generation of Muslims needs relatable and realistic answers to the problems they are facing today, and the majority of these problems – whether: relationship problems; haram relationships; sex; or becoming too attached to this world – are what Mogahed addresses.
‘At our Sunday schools we have been focusing too much on the do’s and don’ts, and we’re taught ‘if you do you this haram thing you’re going to hell’. What we need is spirituality,’ she says.
At 14, Mogahed says there was a ‘spark’ inside her which led her to become more devout – she wanted to discover and nurture her Islamic identity; she began wearing the hijab and learning about her faith. For Mogahed, her hijab is a ‘statement’ declaring that she loves God more than ‘society’s standards of beauty and fashion.’
Mogahed’s popularity has risen over the past few years. She’s now a regular speaker at many Islamic conferences, such as Reviving the Islamic Spirit [RIS], a popular annual convention in North America. Mogahed is often one of the very few women to talk at Islamic events which are almost always dominated by males. ‘In the past, there maybe wasn’t a public forum for women to speak as much as there was for men,’ says Mogahed. ‘People are refreshed to hear a woman’s perspective because, for the most part, it has been silent,’ she adds.
Has she faced discrimination on her way? ‘There’s a minority who don’t support women being in the public sphere, but we’re not all going to have the same opinion. But overall I’ve received overwhelming support,’ she says.
The same can be said about her sister, Dalia Mogahed, a social-scientist, who, in 2010, was selected as an advisor to Barack Obama. Upon being appointed by the White House, the reaction, even among the press, was one of exuberance.
Mogahed is humbled by any assertion that she is a role model, but says: ‘I think there are a lack of female Muslim role models for sure. I sense the Muslim community is thirsty for one.’
Mogahed is part of a growing wave of some of the new, exciting trends taking place in Islam. The rise of female Muslim speakers is certainly one of them. Although Islamic scholarship is dominated by men, Mogahed is an example that Muslim women can rise to positions of authority, too. Indeed, if Muslims wanted to present a case that Muslim women are not oppressed in Islam, figures like Mogahed are doing the job.