Post 308.

The story goes like this. On November 22, 1948, at the mosque on Prince Albert Street in San Fernando, a nineteen-year-old young lady, Sister Zarina Yusuf Mohammed, suggested to her aunt, Mrs. Ameena Rahamut, that they form a women’s association. At the time, electricity bills needed to be paid for the masjid, and the women were asked to respond with a financial solution.

From that moment until now, seventy years later, the San Fernando Muslim Women’s Association (SMWA) has been active on just about every front imaginable; from outings to fundraisers, charity, bazaars, iftar dinners, religious education, primary schooling, fashion shows and improvements to the masjid itself.  And, Sister Zarina is still an Association member.

I was humbled to be in the room with these honorable and humble ladies who have nurtured a women’s group for three generations, created a social space through which women could exercise leadership and form strong networks, and had an impact both within and outside the Muslim community through their support to students and children, care for the ill and poor, and much more.

I have a special love for Caribbean Muslim women’s organisations. You meet these women, who run battered women’s shelters or quietly support feminist struggles or work in children’s rights, and come face to face with some of the most hands-on community organisers in the country.

Sometimes, I’m intimidated. These women are proper in a way I’m not. They seem indefatigable, raising whole families of children and running their community like a dynasty, when I’m exhausted just trying to get through the day. They’re effective in a way I dream to be, making an impact, year after year for decades, that crosses class differences.

I was at the SMWA’s seventieth anniversary celebrations, wondering why they invited me as a speaker, for surely my public activism hasn’t put me in the movement for respectability as much as it has for respect for women’s rights. The two are not the same, and may at times be at odds.

I found myself thinking about our probable political differences in relation to reproductive rights and justice, sexual and gender diversity, and gender roles and responsibilities. More importantly, I found myself thinking that despite these likely differences in our feminisms, there was far more than I ever realized I could learn from these women.

Muslim women’s organisations in Trinidad have a long and resilient history. They should. Aisha, third wife of the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him), born at the turn of the seventh century, delivered public speeches, became directly involved in war and even battles, and was considered a stateswoman, scholar, mufti, and judge.

In Trinidad, from the 1930s, Muslim women were delivering lectures to mixed audiences, becoming members of elected mosque boards and councils, holding meetings to develop women’s groups, and participating in debates regarding women’s equality.

From the 1950s, the Young Muslim Women’s Association, the San Juan Muslim Ladies Organisation, and the Islamic Ladies Social and Cultural Association also began to be established. Muslim women in both the TML and Nur-E-Islam mosques also have a history of pushback against partitions narrowing their space for prayer in the masjid, and ASJA women have challenged their exclusion from voting in organizational elections when they perceived their association or jamaat being a “boys’ club”.

An “understated stridency” (to use Patricia Mohammed’s words) is at work here, despite stereotypes of Muslim Indian women as more passive, and even more oppressed. As I was reminded on Sunday, these women are formidable and fierce, they are generous and giving, and deeply committed to correct ways of living that create greater common good.

As I listened to their awards for earliest membership, longest service, and contribution after contribution, including by several women who are national award winners, I found myself dreaming that if I could help build and sustain a Caribbean feminist movement for seventy years, as they have for the SMWA, patriarchy and its harms might just be run out of town.

These are women from whom we can learn about the last half century of Muslim Indian women’s associational history. There’s capacity, connection, wisdom and will of steel to observe up close. Brother Kalamazad Mohammed is also an encouragingly progressive imam.

“It was essential to motivate women…into empowering themselves”, says Sister Zarina in an interview, “We were born to help the less fortunate. We were certainly not created to only dwell within the walls of our homes…”.

Sign me up, I thought. Alhamdulillah. I want to be a part.

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Post 225.

Most people don’t expect grandmotherly women in hijab to be leaders in Caribbean feminist movement building. Last Sunday’s Symposium on ‘Children at Risk’, which was collaboratively organized by Madinah House, the TML Ladies Association, the National Muslim Women’s Organisation of Trinidad,  and National Islamic Counseling Services, showed the limits of such typical expectations.

I have huge admiration for these experienced and committed women, whose consistent work to challenge and create alternatives to patriarchal domination and its harms might not seem to fit their respectability and religiosity as much as their other efforts to manage teas and celebratory functions for hajjis and hajjahs.

Yet, the history of such woman-centred public engagement dates back to the 1930s when Muslim women began to deliver lectures to mixed audiences, become members of elected mosque boards and councils, hold meetings to develop women’s groups, and participate in debates on a range of topics including, “Be it resolved that Muslim women deserve an equal social status with men”.

From the 1950s, within the Indo-Trinidadian community, the Young Muslim Women’s Association, the San Juan Muslim Ladies Organisation, and the Islamic Ladies Social and Cultural Association began to be established. The ASJA Ladies Association was represented at the first world conference on the status of women held in Mexico City in 1975. Muslim women also have a history of pushback against partitions narrowing their space for prayer in the masjid, and challenges to their exclusion from voting in organizational elections when they perceived their association or jamaat being a “boys’ club” for far too long.

Muslim women have also long been part of Caribbean feminist response to issues such as violence against women. Madinah House, a temporary shelter for women and children escaping domestic abuse, which began operations in 1999, and is run by Muslim women, is one such example.

Beyond services are also advocacy and consciousness-raising within the Muslim community and nationally, in collaboration with the wider women’s rights movement, to encourage men to more greatly share domestic work, to call for greater commitment to ending child abuse, and to insist on collective responsibility for families free from violence.

Sunday showed such larger work to break silences about the reality of incest, neglect and abuse in children’s lives, and to provide concrete understandings of vulnerability and risk.

Supported by the US Embassy, the symposium brought a range of powerful women to the mic, including Lt. Colonel Shareda Hosein, originally from Aranguez and now retired from the US Army. Sit with your children, listen to what works or doesn’t in the family, write down what should change, and commit to it as parents, she suggested.

The indomitable Natalie O’Brady, General Manager of the Rape Crisis Society of Trinidad and Tobago/Coalition Against Domestic Violence, reinforced the importance of stable homes, and parental time and attention. These are fundamental to child protection, resilience and rights.

Children’s Authority staff and clinical psychologist, Vandana Siew Sankar, highlighted that neglect and physical abuse is almost equally distributed amongst girls and boys, with their greatest vulnerabilities occurring before they are four years old, except in cases of sexual abuse, which become more common, especially for girls, with the onset of puberty.

Director of the Gender Affairs Division, Ms. Antoinette JackMartin pointed to the establishment of a Central Registry on Domestic Violence, precisely to address a need for accessible statistics.

Finally, Sharifa Ali-Abdullah, whose work to develop the Children’s Authority of Trinidad and Tobago is legendary, emphasised that we should take seriously the likelihood that oncoming economic decline and unemployment will increase the incidence of child abuse, which already spans from extreme and exceptional to everyday and normalized in the thousands of cases that come to the attention of the Authority, and which are largely inadequately addressed by social services.

These efforts to prioritize prevention of violence against women and children; to provide woman-run, woman-centred and community-supported services; and to publicly bring a message fundamentally grounded in a right to live free of domination, threat and fear are strengths on which the regional women’s rights movement was built over the last decades.

Consistent with such a history of Muslim women’s pious, yet path-breaking contributions to a Caribbean feminist vision, Sunday again offered lessons and inspiration.