By Tandile Kona
“The late Shamima Shaikh lived a life of solidarity and empathy. She identified with the oppressed and downtrodden, especially women, children and black people. She championed their struggles which were also hers.”
This was the message shared by San Francisco State University-based Palestinian academic and activist, Professor Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi, who was delivering the fourth Shamima Shaikh Memorial lecture in Durban on Saturday, October 14.
Shamima Shaikh was one of South Africa’s foremost Muslim women’s rights activist and journalist. She died in January 1998, having lived with cancer for almost four years.
Professor Abdulhadi sketched her own activism in the struggle for the liberation of Palestine and the backlash she continues to receive for her commitment to and solidarity with struggles for justice around the world.
Speaking on the theme: “Combating Islamophobia, Orientalism and Zionism: Feminist anti-Colonial Solidarities from Durban to Palestine,” Prof Abdulhadi shared her experiences in the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980’s United States and how solidarity between exiled South Africans and Palestinians was the basis of much of the activist work that they were involved in at the time. The two anti-apartheid movements (South African and Palestinian) supported each other and activists on both sides shared experiences and tactics to advance their causes.
She also drew parallels between the trials that she currently faces in her work as an activist in the United States against racism in all its manifestations and wherever it rears its ugly head, and those Shamima faced during her lifetime when she challenged patriarchal discriminative practices and tendencies in all their guises. Although they never met, the Professor says that she and Shamima are bound by a common thread of struggle alongside their people against injustice.
Insisting that she was a “mere housewife,” according to her husband Na’eem Jeenah, who also spoke at the event, Shamima also held a firm belief that she was “God’s favoured child” and it is that belief that shaped her outlook on life and spurred her on to struggle for social justice until she took her last breath.
Although the struggle for justice was personal to her, Shamima’s humility did not allow her to make everything about her. It is in that vein she never claimed personal glory or sought praise for any of the small but ground shifting victories she achieved during her short but fully lived life.
*Shamima took her activism to the heart of the Muslim community. Courageously advocating for the right of Muslim women to have a voice and to participate on equal terms with men in community life, she became the first National Co-ordinator of the Muslim Youth Movement (MYM) Gender Desk, where she organised workshops, seminars and campaigns. She spearheaded the MYM’s “Campaign for a Just Muslim Personal Law”, the “Equal Access to Mosques” campaign amongst others.
In 1994, she was diagnosed with breast cancer but continued working while being treated. She was one of the founder members of The Voice radio.
She made the pilgrimage to Mecca with her husband and wrote a book together about that experience: “Journey of Discovery: A South African Hajj” published in 2000.
At the end of 1997, Shamima completed her final public engagement. She delivered a paper, Women & Islam – The Gender Struggle in South Africa: The Ideological Struggle. During a period of remission, she had decided that should the cancer return she would not undergo the chemotherapy again preferring to die with dignity, and 17 days later, on the 8 January 1998 / 9 Ramadan 1418, Shamima Shaikh passed away leaving not only a great sadness among those who loved her but a valuable testimony of life for generations of South Africans and people around the world.