Badass Ladies of History: Shamima Shaikh

“Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, either man or woman. The one of you is of the other.” – Qur’an

Shamima Shaikh was a woman whose life was dedicated to the struggle for justice, as well as continuing the deep commitment she held to upholding what she believed was the true message of the Qur’an: justice, peace and love. She considered herself an Islamic feminist, and worked within Muslim communities for women’s rights as both an activist and a journalist.

She was born in 1960, in what was then known as Louis Trichardt (today known as Limpopo Province) in South Africa. She was the second oldest sibling out of six. Her parents, Salahuddin and Mariam Shaikh, raised her quietly in Pietersburg until she completed her matriculation in 1978. She would head off to  the University of Durban-Westville, where she would spend a year, only to return to home for unknown reasons. She later returned to university, where she studied Arabic and Psychology, as well as awakening her desire to become involved in social justice. At the time of her return to university, the political climate of Durban-Westville had been charged, mostly due to the new apartheid reforms that had been passed in South Africa. She became involved in the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO), where members had been working towards ending the oppressive environment in the academic environment. She would only stay with AZAPO for two years after completing her time at university and would go on to teach at primary and secondary schools located in Pietersburg, as well as marry her partner Na’eem.

In 1989, Shamima and her family would move to Durban, where she would become involved with al-Qalam, the Muslim Youth Movement of South Africa‘s community paper, writing and editing for them. She began venturing into other opportunities with the organization, including her involvement with the 1989-1990 protests against the Tricameral Parliament election. At the time, the Tricameral Parliament was against any sort of visibility of political power for the Coloured and Indian racial minorities, and launched a campaign to keep the parliament “free” from any presence of these racial groups. The campaigns focused on ending the oppressive political regime, as well as causing awareness of the racism that defined much of the social climate in South Africa.

Shamima and her husband. Image courtesy of Commemorative site for Shamima Shaikh

Her organizing with the MYMSA caught the attention of many people, and she was elected the Transvaal Regional Chairperson of the Muslim Youth Movement.  This defined her as member of its National Executive, and she became the second woman to hold this position.  With her work continuing to get noticed, as well as gaining speed, Shaikh launched a “women in the mosque” campaign, in which women involved in MYM were organized to attend the tarawih prayer, a service only available to men. This protest launched her into the national limelight and caused clashes between her and many male members of the MYM.

This, however, would not stop her. She became the first National Coordinator of the Muslim Youth Movement Gender Desk, an organization that spoke out on behalf of gender identity and women’s rights in Muslim communities. She would hold this leadership position till 1996, spearheading campaigns like the “Access to Mosques” for women and “Campaign for a Just Muslim Personal Law.” Her position also allowed her to become involved in the Muslim Forum on Elections, a group that was dedicated to helping Muslim communities access voting in the first democratic elections in the country. Her work continued on through many other organizations, such as the Muslim Community Broadcasting Trust and the Muslim Personal Law Board of South Africa.

Shamima at a meeting for the Muslim Youth Movement. Image courtesy of the Commemorative site for Shamima Shaikh

In 1994, her life would change drastically, not only due to the Muslim Personal Law Board of South Africa being shut down by United Ulama Council of South Africa, but Shamima discovering that she had breast cancer. She resigned from her leadership positions to use all her energy to aggressively fighting the cancer. A year after her diagnosis, she would find that her cancer had spread throughout her body. While fighting this second round of cancer, she would be appointed the Managing Editor of Al-Qalam, where she would guide the paper in a direction of progressive Islam that would later come to define what the paper represented. Her cancer, would return one final time after this victory, to which Shamina refused treatment. During her last months, she would perform the hajj for the first time in her life, publish a book with her husband on this experience, and complete her final work entitled, “Women & Islam ““ The Gender Struggle in South Africa: The Ideological Struggle.” She would die seventeen days later, during Ramadan.

Her work leaves behind a legacy that loved and challenged Islam, revered and changed tradition and above all, was true to justice for all. At her funeral, her husband said during her burial, “If this be madness God, give us all the courage to be mad,” a final goodbye and thank you to her courage and tireless work. May we all have the courage to be this mad and to honor this badass lady of history.

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