Leading by Example:
The Unique Leadership of Muslim African Women

In Power by Rika Mpogazi

CC: Romeo Luh

Muslim African women, lead by example. They rally the troops, cultivate awareness and inspire generations. They do not need to declare their presence and showcase their battle scars to command authority. In fact, most often, their sole objective isn’t to become warriors of a cause or the face of a movement.  Oftentimes, they become hypervisible figures after their identity is politicized.  After they become representatives of the margins because their position at the centre is a marginal representation of their society.  

Such disparities highlight a narrowing of opportunities for those who check too many ‘underrepresented’ boxes through their intersectionality. I’ve often deemed the multiplicity of facets that garnish one’s identity, and therefore perspective, as a sort of advantage. And for Muslim African women, the potential to embody multiple realities is precisely what makes them such multitalented leaders. Their leadership isn’t just about exercising power, it’s also about the act of empowering, either through explicit action or through implicit representation.

A primary embodiment of such a guiding light is scholar and educator Nana Asma’u Bint Usman ‘dan Fodio. Apart from being the daughter of the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, an expansive and prosperous Islamic state in West Africa, Nana Asma’u was also a remarkable scholar and one of the pioneers of African feminism. Back in the early 19th century, she applied her knowledge in Qur’anic studies and classical literature in Arabic, Fula, Hausa and Tamacheq Tuareg languages to the education of women and the training of women teachers known as Jajis. Her work became the point of entry into a scholarship for many women of the region. It helped cultivate a legacy of female scholars and academics in West Africa.

Over a century later, Muslim African women utilized the tools and frameworks provided by their pioneering predecessors in order to bring their knowledge to wider platforms. Some, like Senegalese politician Aminata Touré, created space by entering the domain of national politics. A prominent stateswoman with the finance and legal knack to be able to crackdown on injustice, Aminata Touré went from being a professional soccer player and militant feminist to earning the title of Justice Minister of Senegal. Throughout her career, she’s advocated for women’s empowerment and gender equality by putting women at the forefront of the discussion on human rights and the formulation of health programs. But her work was not restricted to the status of women or gender relations, she also became a leading force for the campaign against anti-corruption during which time she pursued an anti-corruption campaign against former and acting federal government officials before becoming Prime Minister in 2013. Although it might have alimented her drive to succeed, her sense of equity was not guided by gender, it was based on a sense of justice, which extended to all those who she represented.

Leadership or political agency isn’t restricted to the realm of electoral politics. One can become a political agent without necessarily being a member of a political party or organization. Political agency can be exercised through the act of militancy, activism, advocacy, that is to say, through the reinforced effort of shedding light on an issue or enhancing the voice of others. The intersection of being female and Muslim, in many environments, presents an anomaly that becomes the subject of many debates. Sometimes, it even brings attention to the individual’s identity more than the issues they are trying to communicate. Take the example of CBC presenter Ginella Massa, a Canadian woman of Afro-Panamanian descent who became the first hijabi woman to ever anchor a major newscast in Canada. Her aspirations to lead the discussion on a national stage weren’t guided by any particular ambitions of becoming a historical figure, but her identity placed her in the inevitable category. 

Alaa Salah, a Sudanese activist most known for her active role in the nation-wide anti-government protests organized in early 2019, during the aftermath of the Sudanese revolution in late December 2018 is a clear example of the contemporary political agency of Muslim African women. Salah is a member of MANSAM or Women of Sudanese Civic and Political Group, a network of Sudanese women who represent the Forces of Freedom and Change alliance, a political coalition fighting for democratic freedom in Sudan by advocating for the equal representation of women in the political sphere. Her civil demonstration is representative of many who share her social category. And so the symbolism of her valiant act reflects the pursuit of something much greater than her individual predicament, or even solely of those who shared her identity, her act was justified by a pursuit of “Freedom, Peace and Equality” for all her compatriots.

Muslim African women who lead ensure that all those who they represent, support or provide for have equal access to resources in their community. Since many of the spaces they navigate are often gendered, they often serve as direct links to build up young women who follow in their footsteps. Emithall Mahmoud, a young poet from Sudan and Sona Jobarteh, a griot music composer from the Gambia are also amongst the many young muslim women renegotiating modernity and pushing back against those who seek to constrain their agency in the name of rigid patriarchy. They are renewing their traditions and building on the legacies of women who came before them. 

Faced with the turmoil of today, Muslim women of Africa are reclaiming agency within a mainstream discourse on what it means to be a political agent, an advocate, and, most importantly, a leader.