September is a month of commemorations. I remember when I was a member of the Muslim Students Association (MSA) in the 1980s, we used to combine these commemorations into “martyrs’ month” events.
On 27 September 1969, Abdullah Haroon was murdered in detention. An imam (at Al-Jamia Masjid, Stegman Road, Cape Town) and anti-apartheid activist, he was arrested by the notorious Security Branch, detained and tortured before being martyred. He was the probably the first Muslim to forcefully articulate an anti-apartheid Islam.
Some 18 years later, on 12 September 1977, Stephen Bantu Biko died in a Pretoria prison after being driven at the back of a police van, naked and shackled, from Port Elizabeth. He had been severely beaten by Security Branch members, and had suffered brain injuries. Biko was the founder of the Black Consciousness movement, and one of South Africa’s most well-known anti-apartheid figures.
Three years before Imam Haroon’s martyrdom, Sayyid Qutb was hanged by Nasser’s Egyptian regime for his opposition to it and his revolutionary ideas about Islam as a force of change. Although his hanging took place on 29 August 1966, he was often included in these commemorations.
September, however, attained new meaning for me in 1985. On 4 September I was arrested (for the first time), and spent the next hours locked up in an office in Durban’s CR Swart Square with an exceptional woman. Signing our release documents, I realised that ten days later was her birthday – making it two new important days in September. She was Shamima Shaikh, and we were married two years later. Shamima became somewhat famous (some might say “notorious”) for her activism, especially on issues of women’s rights and Islam. Though not a martyr, her story is relevant to this month because the Muslim Youth Movement (MYM) will be hosting its inaugural “Shamima Shaikh Commemorative Lecture” on 20 September.
Previously a member of the MSA and the Azanian Peoples Organisation, Shamima joined the MYM in the late 1980s, and pursued her activism against apartheid and for an Islamic – democratic and just alternative – to apartheid. She became an MYM national executive member, its Gender Desk’s first national coordinator, chief editor of Al-Qalam, founder and first chairperson of the MYM’s Muslim Community Broadcast Trust, a founder of the Muslim Forum on Elections (in 1994), and a member of the Muslim Personal Law Board. It is fitting, therefore, that the MYM decided to institute an annual lecture in her name.
For my (many) sins, I was asked to edit the Commemorative Lecture booklet. Even I, who knew Shamima intimately, was struck by the depth of feeling that people still have for her.
Ebrahim Moosa, now a famous professor of Islamic Studies at Notre Dame University in the USA, and previously vice-president of the MYM, worked with Shamima in the Gender Desk. He had a strange relationship with Shamima: each regarded the other as a mentor. He calls the Lecture a “celebration in courage and leadership”. In the MYM, he recalls, “we collectively struggled through Qur’anic exegesis, legal texts, prophetic traditions and Islamic history to find the spaces in knowledge that would make gender justice thinkable… Yet, nothing would have been possible were it not for the effort of a few individuals, like Shamima, who took the plunge and were in the forefront of this work. I feel privileged to have lived in her time.”
Palestinian-American activist, and former spokesperson for the Muslim Women’s League in the USA, Laila al-Marayati, “discovered” Shamima only after her death. Yet, she wrote: “[Shamima] was one of those rare individuals endowed with grace, whose sincerity, devotion and clarity of vision compel the rest of us to follow.” Elsewhere, she called Shamima “A woman way ahead of her time.”
Another “admirer” who never met Shamima was Safiyyah Surtee, a lecturer at the University of Johannesburg, gender activist, and member of the Lecture’s convening committee, wrote warmly about her relationship with Shamima’s memory, to which she often resorts when she feels overwhelmed or in need of spiritual inspiration. “Shamima’s life,” Safiyyah wrote, “stands as a great testament to an Islam which provides the impetus for transformation. She was a trailblazer in the struggle for gender justice in the South African Muslim community, not only laying foundations, but also building the structures on which so many of us in the gender justice discourse are able to lean on today.”
US academic Tamara Sonn wrote of Shamima’s “magnanimous personality and charismatic example.” “She lived the Qur’anic truth that justice and equality are universal values.”
MYM president, Thandile Kona, lamented that he never met Shamima, but added: “Her greatest legacy is the courage she has inspired in many of us to confront the injustices that we face, armed with the knowledge that even if we do not succeed, Allah will be pleased with us for having, like Shamima, committed our entire beings to the task.” Echoing what others have said, he wrote: “We would do well to celebrate Shamima’s life by remembering that she had outgrown her ‘indianness’; she had, in fact, become black, Steve Biko black… Shamima had embraced her blackness when there was no gain to be had for openly identifying as black, no affirmative action appointments to be bestowed, and no Black Economic Empowerment to be enjoyed.”
In a touching message from Shamima’s family, her sister Fatemah wrote that Shamima was the family’s “sun (al-shams): bright, generous and beautiful”. A close friend, Zakiyya Ismail, picked up that theme. “The light that Shamima shone as a social justice activist was bright indeed. So bright that it remains shining as she continues to inspire young and old… The personal side of Shamima, the side only seen by her friends and coworkers, is the brighter side, the light that will always burn bright in the hearts of those who knew her personally.”
For UCT religious studies lecturer, Sa’diyya Shaikh, who was also associated with the MYM Gender Desk, “most distinctive were [Shamima’s] incredible qualities of courage and spunkiness; and it is with an abundance of both that she faced her meeting with her Creator.”
Poet and former MYM executive member Mphutlane Bofelo counts Shamima “among the handful of Muslims and progressive people who uncompromisingly ensured” that their “households and social networks were laboratories for the kind of egalitarian and humane society that they envisaged… unapologetic in reprimanding discriminatory, oppressive and exploitative behaviour and practices – irrespective of who the culprits were.”
And MYM president Kona asked: “What would Shamima make of us South African Muslims now, when we have retreated into ethnic, economic and social laagers?”