Rehmah Kasule, Founder CEDA International
Rehmah Kasule, Founder CEDA International

Veiling & Shattering The Glass Ceiling

I am part of a group that many people seem to think is shrouded in mystery. Yet for us the intricacies of our lifestyle are our norm as they are guided by our belief and faith in who we are. We are Black Muslim Women who wear the veil. Globally, the image of a Muslim woman is one of an Arab woman in a long black dress with her head bowed down, walking two steps behind her husband. We have disrupted that dominant narrative and perception.

Black Muslim Women (BMW) are one of the most diverse sub-groups amongst people of African descent. A BMW is not bound to one country, one tribe or culture; what is central to her being is her gender, way of life and her actions are anchored in the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). A BMW also has a great example in Khadija, the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, who was a prolific serial entrepreneur in the male-dominated Arab world. So, it’s not taboo to embrace being both a world-class leader and a great Muslim woman. That said, I can’t speak for any other BMW. Sharing my story and examples of women I admire, we shall hopefully change the conversation about Muslim women and join voices that bring a new narrative to the world.

I grew up in Uganda, in a village comprised of people of different religious denominations, mostly Christians. A small commonwealth, Uganda is one of the most tribally diverse countries in Africa, with a patriarchal society and strong social norms that mix religion and culture. In my community, a girl is expected to be soft-spoken and subservient to males, elders and all authority. She is expected to be modest and respectful with a lowered gaze, walking with small soft steps. That is what is considered good marriage material. If she breaks those gender, social and religious norms, she is deemed masculine — ‘a rebel’ and ‘uncultured,’ even derided as a ‘male daughter.’ With no voice and sense of agency, those labels exacerbate gender stereotypes, biases and prejudices. In many cultures around the world girls are groomed to be caring and soft, whereas boys are raised to be courageous and strong. Although parents mean well, these labels and expectations can become barriers to a woman’s ability to live a fulfilled life.

The rise of global movements such as the “Me Too” campaign and the push for gender equality is a wave catapulting the next iteration of feminism. This new movement transcends race, religion, culture, politics, workplaces, communities, shifting the way people live, see and deal with each other. At the recent Generation Equality Forum in Paris, women from around the world launched a 5-year action plan for gender equality with $40 billion in financial commitment. We are also witnessing a crucible moment in our lives when more women are voicing their narratives and bringing the world into their lives. Black Muslim Women are no different. Today, more than ever, more Black Muslim Women are standing for public office and excelling in sports. Supermodels grace Vogue covers wearing a hijab; we are seeing more veiled women in public.

And the impact of their activism and service doesn’t stop there. It is setting an example across society, especially for young girls to know that they are enough in their identity.  Although the media often portrays Muslim women as oppressed for wearing the hijab dress and head veil, Muslim women dress this way as a symbol of modesty, to fulfill their faith and openly profess who they are.  

“Tellingly, the only positive portrayals of Muslim women describe them as liberated by their lack of Hijab or veil.”  – Laura Navarro

Many BMWs who dress like me share their daily struggle in public and at work, where they are denied a seat at the table. Personally, the fundamental belief in the power of dreams and hope allowed me to rise above the negative voices, gender discriminations and cultural limitations. To pay it forward to support other girls and women navigate these complexities, I founded CEDA International, an organization with a mission of empowering youth and women to gain economic independence, social stability and active citizenship. With a strong passion and commitment to gender equality, we have impacted over 186,000 youth and women in Africa. My work has won several awards, including being recognized by President Barack Obama as well as being named one of Africa’s Most Influential Women in Civil Society and Government.

As a consultant and thought leader in gender, strategic communication and social impact, I have witnessed firsthand the discriminatory laws, policies and organizational cultures that impede women from living up to their full potential. I often find myself the only woman with a veil in a room full of so-called inclusive communities. Even while I do this work, I am well aware that my veil sometimes is contradictory to society’s stereotypical view of an empowered woman. However, due to the recently growing number of strong stories of Black Muslim Women, the narratives have drastically shifted from side looks of pity to the realization that those women have choices, big dreams and contributions to bring to the world. My mission is to continue the movement of holding organizations more accountable for their diversity and inclusion programs to include more Black Muslim women in decision-making positions. This echoes Verna Myers’ words, “Diversity is being invited to the party, Inclusion is being asked to dance, and Belonging is being let to choose the music.” Black Muslim women need diverse and inclusive communities where they can freely belong without being asked why they veil, why they pray so many times or why they don’t drink alcohol.

Every story has a lesson. Here are stories of six extraordinary powerful Black Muslim Women that have smashed the religious, gender and social shackles to become global leaders. What these women have in common is tenacity, courage, strong will, integrity, resilience and commitment to service. These women have turned every stumbling block into a stepping-stone and used those very stones to build rock-solid careers. They have navigated personal and professional challenges, from mere survival to success and ultimately significance. They have become role models, key influencers, disrupters and lighthouses that are creating new narratives and footprints for other Black Muslim women to follow. There is: the President, the Congress Woman, the US Army Officer, the Olympic Athlete, the Supermodel, and the Influencer. They simultaneously veil and shatter the glass ceiling. They are disruptors and trailblazers who leave lasting footprints.

“Mama” Samia Suluhu Hassan, President of The Republic of Tanzania

The President

Samia Suluhu Hassan became the first woman President of Tanzania on March 17th, 2021, after the sudden death of her predecessor, President “The Bulldozer” John Pombe Magufuli. Her transition to power reads like a John Le Carre spy novel — a palace plot to replace “The Bulldozer” with someone malleable, a hijab-wearing politician holding up a Quran in defense of the country’s constitution.

It’s still unclear whether Hassan, who many Tanzanians already affectionately call “Mama Samia”, will maintain all the controversial policies of her predecessor. Taking the country away from the ‘there is no virus’ rhetoric and embracing vaccination shows a massive change in the political winds. Leading by example, Madame President was the first recipient of the COVID 19 vaccine in Tanzania, on July 28th, 2021.    

Hassan was born in the Sultanate of Zanzibar in 1960 and quickly took an interest in politics. In 2005, while Minister of Labor, Gender Development and Children, she advocated for a policy that paved the way for young mothers to return to school after giving birth. This policy was crucial in ensuring that more women across the Global South had an opportunity to receive an education.

There have been tribulations. Even after holding political office for over 20 years, including ministerial and legislative positions, Mama Samia’s religion had never come to light until she took up the highest office in the land. Further, her leadership as an empowered woman has been questioned due to her status in a polygamous marriage. In an interview, she told the BBC, “It’s possible that some people take my soft-spoken nature as a sign of weakness, but to make them understand doesn’t require shouting.” President Hassan’s dedication to public service proves her abilities as a national leader are irrespective of her religion or gender. Hassan is a strong black Muslim Woman who has come to the global spotlight and prominence with a bang. Another black woman, the American Vice President Kamala Harris tweeted congratulations for President Hassan. That is the power of a strong woman recognizing the strength of another strong women’s success.

Ilhan Omar, official portrait, 116th Congress, Photo by Kristie Boyd; U.S. House Office of Photoraphy

The Congresswoman

Ilhan Omar

If there is a Black Muslim woman consistently at the forefront of the news cycle, it is Congresswoman Ilhan Abdullahi Omar, the US Representative for the 5th Congressional District of Minnesota for the last two years. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has shattered the glass ceiling as the first naturalized African and first Somali American in the United States Congress making her the first woman of color to represent Minnesota. She is also the first US House member to wear hijab, which marked a 181-year old ban preventing any kind of headwear in the chamber. The Congresswoman has expressed that it is important for her to wear hijab as a visual representation of her faith and to help people gain a better understanding of Muslims.

Omar is part of “The Squad”, a group of six Democratic members of the U.S House of Representatives considered left-wing that represent the progressive policies of a younger generation, such as Medicare for All and The Green New Deal. Fearless about voicing her opinion, Omar has been criticized for her tweet that compared the actions of the United States and Israel to those of Hamas and the Taliban. However, she has also introduced and/or supported political bills such as guaranteed income, wiping out student debt and decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level.

A huge motivation for Congresswoman Omar in her public life is sensitization towards Islam. In her memoir “This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman,” she recounts how she made it from Somalia with her family at age 6, living as a refugee and finally attaining asylum in the US. As Rep. Omar navigates the dynamics of her position in the American political firmament, it is certain that she has come a long way, bringing a diverse life experience into the highest echelons of power.

Saibatu Mansaray, Photo Courtesy of Louisiana Youth Seminar

The US Army Officer

Saibatu Mansaray is a women’s empowerment devotee, a Licensed Physicians Assistant and decorated United States Army Officer (R.). And she just happens to wear a hijab.

In her 26-year solid career, she never compromised who she was and proudly dressed with her veil on her head. Mansaray has worked in executive and organizational leadership, including within the Military. She became the first woman to be assigned to the White House by the Army to serve as a White House Physician Assistant to President Obama as well as the first Medical Officer to ever serve as a Military Aide to two Vice Presidents of the United States. Her track record in health policy and humanitarian efforts, international diplomacy and protocol, strategy development, operations planning and public speaking makes her a black Muslim role model, par excellence.

Mansaray is at present grateful to be back in Sierra Leone. She has embarked on a Journey to address her country’s maternal mortality crisis where, 1 in 73 mothers die from preventable childbirth complications. As part of her mission of creating new narratives, she started The Saibatu Mansaray Journey podcast, which amplifies women’s voices from around the world. On her visits to communities, she stops to inspire young people to dream big and work hard. Through the Mansaray Foundation, she works tirelessly on women’s empowerment efforts and spearheading development opportunities in Africa.

Ibtihaj Muhammad, Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

The Olympic Athlete

Ibtihaj Muhammad shot to global fame when she became the first woman to wear the hijab while representing the USA in the 2016 Olympics. There, she won the bronze medal for Sabre Fencing. She is a sports ambassador working with the US Department of State (DOS) to empower girls and women through sports.

As the first Muslim American to win an Olympic medal, Muhammad is a trailblazer for Muslim Americans and a role model for girls worldwide. Muhammad achieved Barbie status by having a doll made in her likeness. She is also being featured in Barbie’s Role Models collection along with Amelia Earhart, Ava DuVernay, Misty Copeland, and Ashley Graham.

With Muhammad literally embodying Mattel’s tagline for the collection “You Can Be Anything”, she has gone on to author a New York Times bestseller, “The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family.” Detailing how her two sisters wore the hijab on their first day of school. In addition, she narrated the Audible’s six-part series Rebel Girls Go for Gold, which showcases the most impressive performances in Olympics history. She is the face of a major Nike campaign and has launched Louella, an affordable modest fashion line she created with her siblings.

Even while she has received criticism for her 2016 statement that she did not feel safe in the US due to the country’s increased anti-Muslim rhetoric, this New Jersey native continues to advocate for the hijab she wears. She recounts getting into fencing as a sport because it was the only sport where the uniform allowed her to observe her religion, covering her arms, legs, and head. Winning an Olympic medal later in life for a decision she made as a high-school girl is a memorable achievement. This is indeed a narrative to share with little girls everywhere, to know that they too can achieve great things when they authentically show up. 

Supermodel Halima Aden wearing Stella McCartney Hijab during Paris Fashion Week Autumn Winter 2019ijab

The Supermodel

Halima Aden conquered the New York runways wearing modest fashion, always elegantly veiled in hijab. Her dignity and positive image have inspired many young Muslim women to aspire after a similar greatness. After making her Sports Illustrated Swimsuit debut in 2019, fully swathed in burkini and hijab, designed by iconic American fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, Aden later announced that she was quitting modeling. Shooting for Sports Illustrated at a luxurious beach in a country where she had last been a refugee at the Kakuma Refugee Camp was just not enough to entice this Black Muslim woman into a life of glitz and glamour. Her spirituality was questioned, making her the first Black Muslim Woman to walk away from a deal of this magnitude.

Aden had always acknowledged the double-edged sword when she went into a business that was obviously not perceived as suitable for a Muslim woman. “It was incompatible with her Muslim religion,” she concluded in 2020. Nevertheless, despite quitting, she remains a pioneer — the first woman to wear hijab in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant. After landing as a semi-finalist in that pageant, she signed with top agency IMG that represents celebrities such as Teyana Taylor, Iman, Wiz Khalifa, and Naomi Osaka. Leveraging her global visibility, Aden was appointed by UNICEF as a global ambassador to protect the rights of every child.

As her popularity rose, her true north wasn’t in alignment. She questioned the fame that comes with working with people that made her hijab smaller and smaller, going against the gradient of her beliefs and that of her family and community. Finally, Aden made the tough decision, and she chose the hijab over the runway. At 23, she has already accomplished so much in her youth, and the future is bright for this Black Muslim woman who once-upon-a-time rocked the runway.

Safya Drissi , IG: @blackmarroccan

The Influencer @blackmaroccan

Safya Drissi is a Paris-based Moroccan fashion influencer and community leader that has created a platform to leverage fashion as a tool for sensitization around the hijab as well as inclusion for Black Muslim Women. As a member of Generation Z, Safya shifts effortlessly between the digital and physical worlds, working with consumer brands when not curating and producing online content.

Drissi’s social media features elegantly styled modest fashion content as she (always in hijab) shares beauty and style tips, DIY fashion hacks, adventures at gourmet marketplaces and much more. With a following of 18K followers on her IG account @blackmaroccan, it’s evident there is an appetite for a modern covered-up style. According to Vogue, there are 1.8 million posts with the hashtag #modestfashion.

France prohibited wearing Islamic headscarves in state schools in 2004, with subsequent bans of the niqab — the full-face Islamic veil — in public places. In April 2021, France amended the “anti-separatism” bill designed to unify French cultural and social identity, which fully banned the veil for anyone under 18 years old. Employing the #PasToucheAMonHijab or #HandsOffMyHijab hash-tags that went viral globally, Drissi actively tweeted on the subject with influencers like Amani al-Khatahtbeh, founder of Muslim Women’s Day.

Authenticity is important. As McKinsey & Company claims of Gen Z, their quest for authenticity is  “all anchored in one element: this generation’s search for truth.” This is manifested in Safya bringing the world into her lifestyle, into her lived experiences as a black Muslim woman. Safya collaborates with a myriad of brands and cool curatorial projects, like a recent production with Yard. The digital magazine provided a safe space for hijab-wearing influencers to share their experiences. In being public and in being authentic, the “otherness” of “Muslim” and “woman,” could be de-stigmatized of stereotyping. For Safya, “the internet and social media allow people to know us. We, Black Muslim Women, are never at the decisions-making tables. I am humbled to have a voice to advocate for the inclusion of the Black Muslim Woman.” 

Rehmah Kasule, born a village girl, refused to become a village woman. Her big dreams have taken her from Uganda to the White House. She recently completed the Advanced Leadership Fellowship at Harvard University. She is a serial entrepreneur, an author, a motivational speaker, an international award winner and a consultant working at the intersection of gender, policy, social impact, and development. Her commitment to social change is advancing girls’ education, women’s leadership, and creating employment pathways for youth. She is empowering young people who had no hope to gain a sense of autonomy and agency to dream big and break inter-generational cycles of poverty.  

(twitter : rehmah1, instagram: rehmah1)

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