She’s Using the Quran to Fight the Patriarchy - OZY | A Modern Media Company

She’s Using the Quran to Fight the Patriarchy

She’s Using the Quran to Fight the Patriarchy

By Anne Kidmose

Khadija Omari Kayanda


Because she’s creating a model for Muslim women’s empowerment.

By Anne Kidmose

  • The Pink Hijab Initiatives, launched by Khadija Omari Kayanda, is guiding hundreds of Muslim women in business careers, a daring act in Tanzania.
  • A devoted Muslim, Kayanda says the Quran supports women’s rights, an interpretation at direct odds with that of traditionalists.

Khadija Omari Kayanda was busy tending to a newborn son and a promising career when her mother-in-law began a campaign to end Kayanda’s marriage. Kayanda had moved to Tanzania from neighboring Kenya a few years earlier, married a Tanzanian man and pursued her career as a secretary at a community health organization. Her mother-in-law was far from impressed.

“She had a problem with my education,” says Kayanda, her voice becoming thick with emotion. “In Islam, some think that a woman cannot be more educated than a man, so you have to bring the woman down.”

Both her husband and the local Islamic scholar took the side of her mother-in-law, who argued that Kayanda was unfit for the role of wife. After years of fighting to keep both her career and her marriage, in 2013, Kayanda gave in. As she accepted the divorce, she wondered how many women had gone through something similar

Seven years after her divorce, Kayanda, 41, is spearheading a movement that supports Muslim women’s rights and encourages women to pursue their career ambitions.

Muslim women are left behind because they don’t have a platform that can speak for them and their rights.

Khadija Omari Kayanda

Founded in 2016, Kayanda’s organization, Pink Hijab Initiatives, has approximately 800 members in Tanzania. Three hundred Muslim women attend regular seminars on growing their businesses. Pink Hijab Initiatives also sets up income-generating activities for Muslim women and distributes sanitary napkins, which are often unavailable to girls, to 1,500 young women in a district south of Dar es Salaam.

Kayanda recently recruited 25 women on Pemba, an island off the Tanzanian coast, to start a production plant for beauty products made from seaweed. Divorced and unemployed, the women were left to provide for their children by themselves. In some divorce cases in Muslim communities, women receive next to nothing after settling in a religious court.

“Muslim women are left behind because they don’t have a platform that can speak for them and their rights,” says Kayanda. Her desk is covered in papers; she removes a stack of project descriptions and reveals the Quran. Wearing a red hijab and a floral-print dress, she simultaneously embodies a pious Muslim and a fierce rights defender.

While Kayanda argues that the Quran supports women’s rights, she is facing opposition from more-traditional interpretations of Islam. According to Natana DeLong-Bas, a professor of theology at Boston College who has done extensive research on Islamic law and gender, Kayanda’s analysis of the Quran is accurate.

“In theory, men and women were to have an equal right to divorce. Those rights have been protected in Islamic law,” DeLong-Bad explains. “But in practice, patriarchy is overwriting the law.”

As more Muslim women gain literacy in the Quran and challenge male interpretations, things are slowly changing. In Tanzania, Kayanda is one of the few Muslim women who are openly confronting stereotypes of what a woman and wife should be in Islam.

“There is a perception in Tanzania that Muslim women are not fit for leadership or successful businesses,” says Chiku Mariam Semfuko, a gender specialist at the International Labor Organization in Dar es Salaam. “Khadija links small-scale businesswomen with experienced business partners and that kind of mentorship is crucial.”

Still, gender norms remain an obstacle for Kayanda’s Pink Hijab Initiatives. Taught to stay at home, tend to their children and be dutiful wives, many Muslim women are unaware of their rights, and real change will first and foremost require a new mindset, Semfuko says. “Society needs to understand that women can participate in economic activities and still have families,” she says. According to a 2014 survey — the most recent data available — by Tanzania’s National Bureau of Statistics, only 28 percent of employees in the private sector were women. 

Kayanda knows how difficult it can be to make it as a woman in East Africa. When she graduated from secondary school in 1998, her father bought her a one-way ticket to Dar es Salaam, where her mother lived. But once Kayanda arrived, her mother told her to stay elsewhere. Kayanda moved in with an aunt and worked up from tutoring local children to working as a receptionist at a truck dealership and, later, obtaining a diploma in secretarial practice. “All my other sisters in Kenya had to marry early because they failed to find work,” she says.

Today, Kayanda has remarried and works at leading Tanzanian policy think tank Research on Poverty Alleviation (REPOA), where she manages events and partnerships, in addition to her her work at Pink Hijab Initiatives. When she needs a speaker for an event, it’s not unusual for her to contact the country’s first-ever female vice president, Samia Suluhu.

“She is beyond daring,” says Blandina Kilama, a researcher at REPOA. “She brings these big speakers and has a way of organizing that is beyond [that of] a normal person.”

As part of a global interfaith network, Kayanda works with other East African human rights activists. Starting in 2022, she aims to expand Pink Hijab Initiatives to other countries, including Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Sudan.

“She has the capacity to do it,” Kilama says. “She has fought so hard to be independent and wants to see other women who are too.”

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