If you met Nausheena Hussain today, you’d think she’d been organizing women forever.
In only a few short years, the executive director of Minneapolis-based Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment has helped create a safe space for Muslim women to learn how to engage in their communities and make change where they are. It’s a simple idea that’s had a huge impact—on the women themselves and the places they live and work. It all started after she looked around and thought, “Where are Muslim women? Why don’t we see them in leadership positions. We know they’re doing the work,” she said.
The hundreds of women now involved in RISE come from many cultures—members of the board alone are Ethiopian, Palestinian, Pakistani, Somali, African American and white—but they’re tied together by a common goal.
We’re all women, we all have the same faith and we’re all American,” Hussain said. “So the mission arises to amplify the voice and power of women and we’re all aligned on that mission and how to go about doing it.”
Hussain started her career in the corporate world, doing marketing for Best Buy. But she later felt called to activism.
“Now I feel like I am giving back to the community, but if I didn’t spend time in corporate I wouldn’t have gained those skills,” she said. “If I didn’t learn about strategy and what it means to have a brand and a presence—all those things I think have really helped me establish a nonprofit. It was meant to be.”
Hussain hung out with Rewire at RISE’s Minneapolis headquarters to talk about misperceptions and next steps for Muslim women in the U.S.
Rewire: Why start RISE?
Nausheena Hussain: Women in general, if you do the research and the stats, 4 percent of (Fortune 500) CEOs are women, (23 percent) are represented in government. That, coupled with 2015 when a lot of hate crimes started to happen, a lot of Islamophobia because the election cycle was going to begin. We notice that any time election cycles start, Islamophobia and hate crimes go up for the Muslim community, far more than post 9/11. All those things together were like, we gotta do something.
So I hosted a Muslim women community conversation and we talked about what is leadership, what are our barriers, why are we held back? We had conversations about community engagement and civic engagement. Besides voting, what are we doing?
One thing we figured out was there wasn’t really a network of Muslim women. I always say, “How can I be what I cannot see?” If I don’t see Muslim women out there in positions of power, it wouldn’t even dawn on me that, hey, that’s something I could go for.
We thought, let’s first build a network. Let’s just start to bring women together, kind of build that safe space, trusting one another, get to know one another. The way the patriarchy structure is, it keeps us apart, instead of us coming together and doing good work, we tend to be competitive and gripey. We wanted to break that, so we started to do little networking events: do a night out at dairy queen, night out at Panera bread, women could bring their kids and their spouses. We just wanted them to have that time to be able to get out and just hang out.
Rewire: What did the women you work with initially say was holding them back from getting more involved?
NH: Some was skill based: “I wish I knew how to be a better public speaker. I wish I knew how to network better. How do I tell my story without sounding like I’m braggy or arrogant?” Impostor syndrome was a big one.
And the other part was: “I don’t know where to show up.” We have learned if we tell them of the opportunities, they do it. We had a session on civic engagement. We wanted the women to hear civic engagement is beyond just voting or running for office. Theres this (feeling of), “I don’t know what’s in between. What can I do in my capacity?”
We put together a training on caucus. The power with women is they don’t go alone. Whenever they show up, they always bring people along. So that was a great example: They showed up at the caucuses and cast their vote, but they were also introducing resolutions, they were becoming precinct chairs, they were becoming delegates.
We wanted to showcase (that) anybody can do this. Yes, we all have our unique talents and skills but if you want to go for it, we’ll help you get there. The more places we tell them to plug in, they’ll do it.
Rewire: RISE is calling out the cool work in the community Muslim women are doing. What’s the purpose of showing these slices of life through your Muslim Sheroes series?
NH: We started to notice there were a lot of great Muslim women in the community and nobody knows about them or what they’re doing, because there’s no platform to like, scream and shout about the great work they’re doing. We realized we need to do some storytelling.
If you google Muslim women it’s all horrible images. Why are we allowing other people to tell our story? We should take this narrative back. We’re not monolithic–we wanted to show here’s a mom with kids, a single woman, here’s an immigrant, heres a refugee. Here’s all the different ways you can show up and tell your story.
(In the case of deaf activist Valerie Shirley,) the Muslim deaf community and the deaf community in general were really moved and touched by the work she’s doing because of her son. She was pushed into something. We’ve been able to interact more with that community (as a result). Now at events we’ll always make sure there’s an ASL interpreter. She’s opened up so much hope for the (Muslim deaf) community that they can do more.
(With outdoor adventure leader Sally Hassan,) that’s a huge stereotype we’re breaking. People think that Muslim women who are fully covered are oppressed, we don’t know how to do anything, we sit at home and have babies and cook. Here’s this woman who is doing these horseback riding trips—they just went camping last weekend. And when you hear Sally speak all you hear is a Minnesotan. We wanted to showcase that we might be modest but we still love the outdoors and that’s part of our faith.
The (video) coming up is the very first board president of an Islamic center in Minnesota. There’s not a single mosque (besides hers) that has a female board president.
We’re trying to uplift our own voices as Muslim women. On the other side we’re also trying to give the broader community an alternative perspective… Here’s who Muslim women are because we’re telling you how we live our lives.
Rewire: How has pushing for recognition changed how the women of RISE navigate their communities?
NH: The cool thing is now we’re pushing our allies to remember that, when they have events and speakers come in on their panels, do you have a Muslim women’s perspective and presence? Are you inviting them to your platforms? Are you welcoming them and including them?
We’ve seen a tremendous impact. When they need speakers they’ll ask us. We’ll place someone on their speaker panel and they’re always blown away. It’s helped us to really have a seat at the table. The more Muslim women see one another stepping up and stepping out, the more confidence they have that they have power the more they are able to do something.
Rewire: How does activism through RISE intertwine with your Muslim faith?
NH: (Within Islam,) we have a lot of cultural baggage that keeps women from engaging. There is misinterpretation of what the faith requires women to do and be, so they have this unconscious bias in them that says, “No, this is not what islam allows for.” That’s what we’re disrupting
We partnered with one Muslim female scholar, and she’s bringing back all this text and evidence and examples of Muslim women doing advocacy work, voting, having a say in things, women who fought battles. None of these stories are ever taught to us, because we were always taught by men and the way men interpreted scripture.
It really helps connect why service to the community is also service to God. We bridge that gap of, we need to serve our community and our community is not Muslim, it’s everyone—mankind, womankind, humankind.
Rewire: What’s the next step?
NH: We’re trying to get Muslim women on commissions in their cities. Public perception influences public policy. If there are policies in place because we’re not at the table to influence that perspective, how do we get you in at the table?
Watch all the Muslim Sheroes videos here.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.