Rana Abdelhamid, Founder and CEO of the International Muslim Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment (IMWISE or WISE), has dedicated her life path to advancing human rights and creating communal spaces for Muslim women at a time of peak contention. Enshrined by institutional policy and public opinion, gender-based violence is a global problem that transcends all bounds. Following 9/11, the shifting perception and politicization of Islam has increased the vulnerability of Muslim communities and women in particular.
At 15, Rana Abdelhamid experienced such violent prejudices firsthand when a man attacked her, pulling her hijab from behind. In 2010, she founded WISE and began providing a comprehensive learning program of self-defense, leadership, and entrepreneurship to Muslim women. A black belt in Shotokan Karate herself, Rana incorporated martial arts from the beginning.The community-driven initiative has since grown into an international network that empowers women to become agents of change. In discussion, she provides her perspective on community building, the movement for women’s empowerment, social justice, and how WISE is evolving as a global force for impact.
The concept of economic agency is a core component of WISE. How does teaching entrepreneurial skills contribute to the greater mission of addressing gender-based violence?
Basically, the rationale behind our focus on entrepreneurship and economic empowerment comes from our belief that it’s embedded and inherent to Muslim women empowerment. There is a legacy of Khadījah, who’s an inspirational Muslim woman leader, businesswoman and very important to the tradition as the first person to convert to Islam—to believe in the message, and to support and carry out the message. She had her own business, managed a ton of peoplein a time when women were being buried alive. Women support and prop most of informal economies around the world anyway. We’re not teaching a new skill that women don’t already possess. But how do we translate and systemize these skills so that women can create a support network for each other and also have access to tools and skill sets that are being professionalized, that can support the work that they’re doing or beginning to do.
In leadership and as an individual, how do you think about human identity?
We’re organizing around an identity, around the concept or the notion that Muslim women around the world face similar issues, but the core value of our mission is justice: a diversity in equity perspective. Even though we all say we’re Muslim women, there’s so much nuance to what that means… Our team constantly has to deconstruct what it means to be a Muslim woman internally, so that we make sure that we’re not presenting a homogeneous narrative externally. We recognize that within the European and US context, the Muslim identity is racialized in a way that does homogenize us, and we’ve capitalized on that by developing this movement out of that racialization. We don’t want it to be detrimental in erasing our differences as well. It’s also hard because we become reactionary. We’re reactive. It’s difficult because we’re using the language of people who are homogenizing us, but in a way, that’s empowering to us.
WISE addresses a broad range of gender-based violence, including how the state can be both its cause and a contributing factor. How do policies and state leaders perpetuate violence?
We recognize that there are multiple levels. The reason why people engage in hate-based or interpersonal violence, for both gender-based violence and hate crimes, is because it’s perpetuated by state-based violence. States are either negligent of important policies that could be set up to support women of colour, Muslim women and women generally in terms of their own personal security. Those policies also allow for the perpetuation of misogynistic principles. A lot of politicians are engaging in very sexist practices or are pursuing policies that control and police women’s bodies — that perpetuates a culture of violence. The same thing goes for hate-based violence: policies casting a particular group of people in a very negative light. State-based policies like surveillance, profiling, incarceration of particular groups and counter extremism policy that follows particular groups, perpetuate the narrative that society needs to be wary of a certain group of people, to be afraid of them, and therefore allows this group to be dehumanized. WISE tries to push back against these power structures by developing power within the communities we work with, and organize change both on a social level and a political level.
“Every single woman that will come into our space has experienced some level of trauma, and so to be able to heal, she has to be able to feel fully secure in a space, to be able to unpack her experiences.”
What’s your perspective on the importance of creating specific spaces to address the needs of a community? There’s a shallow but popular criticism of exclusion towards programs that are seen as focusing on the needs of a singular group.
That’s something really common we hear: Why don’t you open this to all women or to men so that they can be engaged in the conversation? But this goes back to our theory of change: the first level of power we’re trying to cultivate is the power within. In order to develop power within, the women that we’re working with need to be able to heal from the violence they’ve experienced. In order for us to do so, we need to control for certain variables. And one of the variables is say: alright, a Muslim woman is more likely to talk about her issues that in a space where everyone is a Muslim woman. She doesn’t feel like she’ll be judged, or stereotyped, which is oftentimes what happens, or ostracized, isolated… That’s why our central demographic is Muslim women and why we center all our program around Muslim women.
Anti-violence initiatives seem naturally intersectional and collaborative.
That’s one of the reasons why we extend our work beyond Muslim women when we have the capacity to. Right after the election, we got dozens of calls from various marginalized groups, LGBTQ communities, Black Lives Matters groups, women’s groups, the Jewish community — to do self-defense classes. It showed me how much everyone is feeling insecure regardless of whether they’re a Muslim woman, or a trans black woman. Everyone is in this kind of area of trying to preserve their own personal safety, which I think on a hierarchy of needs, is such a fundamental right, that it’s horrifying that that’s where we’re at.
Last year, I did a self-defense class for a group of Jewish and Muslim women. After the class, a Jewish woman approached me: “Rana, I was really afraid before this class because I had been wearing a headscarf — a head wrap — before I came to the US but since I came to the US, I’ve taken it off, because I don’t want people to mistake me for a Muslim. I guess I don’t want them to know I’m Jewish, either.” That really captured the importance of being allies for each other, because we’re all facing very, very similar challenges. I never thought a Jewish woman, like a Muslim woman who wears the hijab, would wake up in the morning and be like, should I wrap my hair to practice my religious faith?
“It’s why we work in mosques — we want to reclaim mosques through the process, and reclaim what it means to be a Muslim woman in the process.”
What sort of criticism have you encountered from Muslim communities?
We’ve had pushback from the beginning when we’ve started. The language for hate crimes and hate-based violence as an issue faced by Muslim women, wasn’t there. Self-defense wasn’t as hip in certain parts of the Muslim community. I know black Muslims have always been using self-defense, but immigrant Muslim communities, and new generations — newcomers to the US — would say: why is this girl trying to teach self-defense? They thought it was absurd. It took me a long time to find a space that was accommodating, or women and parents who would send their children, especially young girls. Any startup or movement, to getting a cultural change and people to understand and recognize the issue and develop urgency around the issue has experiences setbacks.
We also get pushback because we’re inclusive of LGBTQI-identifying folks stating, “that’s not in line with Islamic values.” We’re not here to police what Islam is. We’re not a religious organisation — we’re an organisation that works with religious communities. We don’t interpret faith. Anyone who identifies as a woman and a Muslim is welcome.
How can social conservatives be engaged on these issues? What sort of dialogue do you think is part of that process?
I think it’s dialogue; communication. It’s hard because you can’t expect an LGBTQ-identifying person to go explain their humanity to a mosque, why they deserve to be in a mosque space. If I were a black Muslim, do I want to explain to you, in my mosque, when I’m supposed to go reflect and pray, why you shouldn’t be racist to me? No, I don’t want to have that dialogue. I think dialogue, depending on context and space, is the solution.
When we do our organising summit at Harvard every year. When we bring 50 Muslim women together, we’re very intentional to emphasize and select women who have historically been marginalized.
In terms of bridging the gap between conservative and liberal: We’re very presumptuous. I remember being like, “oh, this is an imam — he’s an enemy.” But that’s not really the case, oftentimes. The guy with the beard and long thobe is sometimes the best ally that I could ever imagine. So, I think it’s breaking these biases on both ends and understanding that conversation needs to happen, but not everyone should have to be in those conversations if they don‘t want to.
“That’s my leadership: when I’m not doing the work, that’s when I’m most of a leader, because that means someone else has built the leadership to do the work for their own community.”
As a leader, what are some of your guiding principles and how have they influenced WISE as an organisation?
It’s about organising and developing capacity of a community to organise, which is how we’ve been able to run for so many years without any funding, and how we’ve been able to build such a robust network of leaders across the country, across the world, because we really want people to have ownership over the organisation. In terms of leadership: I’m not doing everything — ever. Letting people have ownership over their own community. Recognizing there’s nuance in communities: I have to train people from Dallas, train people from Madrid, from Tunisia. When there’s more and more women brought into the narrative and brought into the organisation and the movement, that’s when I think my leadership is most effective. If you think of the image of a snowflake: The beauty of the snowflake doesn’t come from the center, it comes from everything around the center — that’s kind of the idea: we draw our strength and uniqueness and distinctiveness from the diversity of everything beyond the core of our team.
How is WISE growing and what do you envision for its future?
I’ve been able to bring amazing talent onto the team, of folks who are really helping us build out the sustainability and scalability of the organisation. Our long-term vision is that we really want to build a world, from a grassroots level, where every single Muslim woman in the world feels like she has capacity to create change for her life, her community, and her world. Every single Muslim woman can live a life free of violence with dignity and respect. It’s unfortunate that that’s not the world we live in today, but that’s what we’re working to do right now.
Throughout your experiences as an advocate and beyond, what’s a core belief of yours that changed?
My organisation started on the streets of New York. I was reading Malcolm X, so I was in this mindset that was very adversarial — us versus them. I think my experience, and with age, my idea of who is us and who is them has been very much nuanced. Growing up in Queens, I had a very prescriptive narrative that I had built in my mind. I’ve taken the role on myself to constantly educate. I feel because I’m so visible in my role I’ve built a lot of patience, empathy, and love just listening to people and started to realize that they’re not hateful, they just don’t understand, they’re scared. The idea is working on my own biases and understanding that everyone has biases, how do we identify what those biases are, and consistently work to not be prejudiced and racist, and consistently work to not be homophobic, misogynistic, Islamophobic. It’s like a constant activity of deep reflection but it’s important in a position of leadership, when I’m going to be working with 14-year old girls who are looking up to me. That’s kind of it: not being too hard on myself, not being too hard on other people — constantly working and growing together.