SHAMIMA SHAIKH (37), South Africa's leading Muslim gender equality activist, passed away
in the early hours of January 8 at her home in Mayfair, Johannesburg. She had cancer.
Shaikh left behind her husband, Naeem Jeenah, and two sons Minhaj (9) and Shir'ah (7).
Shaikh was a member of the national executive committee of the Muslim Youth Movement
and former editor of the progressive Muslim monthly Al-Qalam. More recently, when
other Muslims were denying women the right to be on air, she served as chair of the Muslim
Community Broadcasting Trust, which runs The Voice, a Johannesburg Muslim community
It was, however, as a gender activist within the Muslim community that she made her
mark. She spearheaded the formation and headed the gender desk of the Muslim Youth
Movement. In this capacity, she rapidly became a thorn in the flesh of conservative Muslim
clerics on the now defunct Muslim Personal Law Board, who were keen to develop and
implement a set of laws which would entrench gender inequality.
In an event that drew widespread controversy in the Muslim community, she led a
rebellion of Muslim women worshippers at the 23rd Street mosque in Fietas in 1994.
Throughout the month of Ramadan she and a number of other women prayed upstairs in the
mosque. On the 27th night, the most spiritually significant one for Muslims, when she
arrived the upstairs section was occupied by men and a tent was set up outside for women.
Braving numerous angry offended men with tiny egos, she led a group of women to
re-occupy their space. By then she had acquired the well-deserved description of
"that mad Shaikh woman". Yet to friend and foe, Shaikh was the epitomy of
gentleness and politeness.
In the same way that for anyone committed to gender justice, a woman's place cannot be
confined to bedrooms and kitchens, she ultimately became frustrated with being an
"upstairs" woman. In a little-known move, and an unprecedented one in the
Islamic world, she and a number of comrades -- male and female -- started an
"alternative" congregation where gender equality and all its implications for
Islamic thought and practice were the norm.
Shaikh first learned that she had cancer about three years ago. Nothing had changed for
her. Her life was full of laughter, courage and the will to change the world and she
"If the last hour strikes and finds you carrying a sapling to the grove for
planting," said the Prophet Muhammed, "go ahead and plant it." Her hour had
struck but her planting continued unabated. Knowing that her life was rapidly ebbing away,
she delivered a lecture in Durban three weeks ago on the "Qur'an and Woman".
She inspired us and taught us that there is nothing inevitable in life. She insisted
that while death may be inevitable, we are free to shape our responses to it. She chose
not to undergo various forms of chemotherapy and, other than resorting to some traditional
and homeopathic options, she was determined not to return to her Lord kicking and
The day of her death and burial was a day of relentless pushing of the religio-cultural
limits. Shaikh's death was a testimony to the Qur'anic verse which says "Do not say
about those who are slain in the path of God that they are dead; nay they are alive
She asked that a close female friend lead her funeral prayers (as part of her obsession
with retrieving subversive theological and juristic memories which accorded women a more
just place in Islam, she had come across a report that the funeral prayers for Imam Idris
bin Shafi, a revered Muslim jurist, was lead by a woman).
Thus, for the first time in the last few centuries a Muslim's funeral service, albeit
at her home, was led by a woman.
At another service in the nearby mosque later, her husband led the prayer despite the
presence of a number of theologians and clerics. In what is possibly unprecendented in the
contemporary Islamic world, a large number of women attended the funeral prayers at the
mosque. And no, they did not go upstairs, nor to an outside tent.
When her physical remains arrived at her final earthly resting place, in Pietersburg,
the place where she was reared, the women were there again to offer the funeral prayers.
While a narrow pathway separated the women mourners (mostly clad in black) from the men
(mostly clad in white) who surrounded the grave, it was nevertheless an historic occasion.
"If this be madness, God," her husband Na'eem prayed at her funeral service,
"give us all the courage to be mad."
Faried Esack is the acting chief executive officer of the Commission on Gender Equality
-- Mail&Guardian, January 20, 1998.