SPECIAL REPORT VOLUME. 7 ISSUE. 4
Creating change is not always easy, but when you are inspired by vision for a better world, you know the importance of being a catalyst for good and you don’t let adversity stand in the way. Numerous change makers in our community are dedicated to translating their faith values into improving realities. Here are five women who are creating ripples of change, helping to transform their communities and society with their work.
by Krisheena Irwin & Tayyibah Taylor
MALIKA BILAL: THE JOURNALIST
Watch Malika Bilal co-host The Stream on Al Jazeera English and you might think she had set out to be a broadcast journalist. But this poised, articulate woman will tell you she just fell into journalism.
“I knew I was good at writing because I always had been told so,” she said. “Journalism seemed like a safe and normal option; I was good at writing, so it made sense to keep writing. Interestingly enough, I don’t write as much now that I am on television. That was a transition I wasn’t prepared for, but one that I am really happy happened, alhamdulillah.”
What she was prepared for was making a solid contribution to the Muslim American community. The second of three daughters, Ms. Bilal grew up in a household where both parents worked for Muslim organizations, so were actively involved with the community. “There was no pushing,” she says of her parents, “but it was expected that we would go to college, have careers and be involved in the community.”
Today, her older sister Nikia Bilal is the attorney who helped found the first Muslim women’s law group in the country. Her younger sister Alia Bilal, an executive associate with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), helps to organize the popular Takin’ It to the Streets festival, among her host of other responsibilities.
Throughout their education, Ms. Bilal and her sisters attended Universal School, a Muslim institution, where they gained a solid academic and religious footing; she recounts her years at the School as an experience she loved and recommends. After graduation, she stayed in her hometown of Chicago and attended Northwestern University’s School of Journalism.
She explains her journey to co-hosting The Stream; “I wasn’t thinking about television. My undergrad education was in newspaper print journalism. After college, the only job I could get was in radio, so I worked at Voice of America in Washington, DC as an intern, and that turned into a job writing. I had a friend who worked for Al Jazeera English in Doha, Qatar and he encouraged me to send my resume and apply for a job there. It was a stretch, but I did it anyway and alhamdulillah, I got a call.”
MUSLEMA PURMUL: THE SHAYKHAH
On a panel of scholars at a Ramadan night prayer session, Shaykhah Muslema Purmul received a probing question, “What is the legal ruling for women teaching men?” Although, everyone on the panel, including Ms. Purmul, held degrees in Islamic Studies from al-Azhar University, the questioner wanted confirmation. All on the panel of religious scholars (shuyukh) emphasized its permissibility, and judging from the audience’s tweets and posts about the session, the questioner’s hesitancy was not representative of the crowd, who showed they appreciated Ms. Purmul’s presence.
That ready acceptance of a woman on a panel of shuyukh is only one of the significant changes, Ms. Purmul has seen over the years in her work as a da’eah, someone who invites others to a God-concentric life. Her lectures across the country are filled with students and other seekers eager to learn from her wealth of knowledge; yet she is reluctant to accept the label of scholar.
“As someone who has studied in Egypt for a number of years and met scholars who have 30 plus years of research under their belts, I feel very shy to be referred to as a ‘scholar’,” she said. “In the western academic model the term may apply; while in the traditional model, I’m a continuing student. One of our teachers told us that after you’ve finished the Bachelors program in shariah at al-Azhar University (worth seven school years of study not counting learning Arabic first), you’ve really only just begun. I couldn’t agree more,” she says.