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What Being A Black Muslim Woman Means

“It’s not easy being a black Muslim woman – especially in hijab. It’s sort of like people want to create an identity for you,” health journalist Nelisiwe Msomi says in an interview with The Daily Vox.

Last year, The Daily Vox published Msomi’s blog post highlighting the discrimination she faces as a visibly Muslim black South African woman both from the Indian Muslim community and the black South African one. Msomi speaks to The Daily Vox in a Facebook live interview of her experiences.

Msomi grew up a small Indian community in Springs called Bakerton. She attended a nursery school with predominantly Muslim Indian people. “This was my first interaction with Muslim Indians. I had to fight my way into the system and try to be like them and less of me. I think that was the most challenging thing being in that environment for 14 years. I won’t say this was only my experience because a lot of the black kids that came to my school afterwards experienced something similar. You don’t feel like you’re good enough, you don’t feel like you’re intelligent enough, you always felt undermined. You always felt like you had to make that extra effort so you could be seen,” she says.

Recalling the games she used to play as a child, Msomi says: “My first encounter was when we were playing house and automatically I was the domestic worker. These are four or five year old kids. I was never the bride. I always had the desire to be the mother of the house but I never got that because I was always what they termed the maid.”

Msomi also faced challenges that come with being a revert into the Islamic faith and having to attend an Islamic school which provided little or no support. “My parents were reverts, my mother did not know how to read Arabic. At school, I was expected to perform the same way as my Indian counterparts who come from Islamic backgrounds, whose parents have been through the whole process of Madressah (school that teaches Islamic practices). When it comes to practising Quran at home, I didn’t have anyone to help me. Teachers did not understand that. Nobody thought that these kids come from backgrounds where their parents don’t know so what support can we give them?” Msomi says.

Msomi speaks of the conflation of religion and culture, where Indian Muslims behave like they are the custodians of Islam and what it means to be Muslim. “Being black is seen as haraam (forbidden by Islam). If I have to dress in a certain way without abaya (loose robe-like garment typically worn in the Middle East), it’s not called hijab. If I have to wear something with my Zulu beads, no it’s bid’ah (innovation, heretical doctrine). I can’t culturally express my Zuluness as a Zulu Muslim but if someone has to wear a punjabi or a garara (Southeast Asian garments) that’s fine. When it comes to food, Indian food is called Muslim food. But isn’t Muslim food halaal? It’s all of those things that make me a black Muslim that was looked at as taboo instead of it being integrated into Islam,” Msomi says.

Being a black Muslim is very much an adapt or die situation, Msomi says. She adds that many black people leave Islam because of the rejection from the society they want to belong to and that support structures are very important.

Fixing the discrimination within the Indian Muslim community starts at the very beginning – at home. “I remember when we grew up some of my friends used to call their domestic workers at home ‘girl’. These are woman who could have been their mothers – these are women who are their mothers because they practically raised them. Indian Muslims need to teach their children that an adult deserves respect – regardless of their race – because of who they are. Domestic workers are probably Indian children’s first encounter of black people and once you teach them to respect the first black people in their lives, they’ll start to respect other black people,” says Msomi.

She also says her experience having been made to play the domestic worker at nursery school is a reflection of what Indian children were taught in their homes.

However, her experience with black South Africans is not much better. “I use taxis, when I’m in a taxi people talk about me thinking that I don’t understand what they’re saying. Sometimes when that happens I’ll call my mom and I’ll start speaking Zulu and then they get the shock of their lives. When that happens people start asking you question: So, you’re Zulu, you speak Zulu? Are you Muslim? Are you married to an Indian person? Are you married to a Bangladeshi person? Is your husband a shop owner? Are you from another African country? People always want to dictate your identity for you and they don’t want to hear exactly who you are. They want to build you into their image,” Msomi says.

She also says that she believes as a Muslim woman, she has it tougher than her male counterparts. “Black Muslim men are not visible like us. They don’t go into the township and have people looking at you like you’re some foreign object, they don’t get talked about behind their backs, they are not at risk of xenophobic attacks because people assume that we are not from here. When xenophobic attacks break out, I freak out because I know I’m a possible target. Everybody has an opinion about you and what you should do with you and nobody does that to black Muslim men,” Msomi says.

The Politics Of The Other: Being A Black Muslim In South Africa

Msomi has a message for Indian Muslims – and everyone else: “When I give you salaam (greetings of peace), please return it. I find it hard to believe that people just like rejecting salaam just because you don’t fit into their description of what a Muslim should be. Treat me like a human, don’t try to fit me into some box. I’m not an object. And stop asking me where I’m from – it’s not your business.”

You can watch the interview here.

Featured image by Sipho Hlongwane
4 Comments
  1. Petrus Civis says

    What I love about the Daily Vox is that almost all of your articles get 0 comments. Even your own tiny little Woke echo-chamber isn’t interested in you.

  2. sam singh says

    But why are you labeling the entire Indian Muslim community with an experience you had at Bakerton. That’s the problem with people, please don’t generalize.

    Discrimination against poor Indian Muslims who are the majority have always been treated exactly like our sister, Nelisiwe Msomi.
    So welcome to the world of Indian Muslims, dont feel bad we used to it. The majority of the Muslim that are poor are the so-called Urdu so-called speaking Muslims who always discriminated by these elite rich Muslims. Its easy to make them out by the following criteria :

    -Surnames like Paruks, Lockhats, Seedats,Moolla,Soni,Desai,
    -Language – Gujarati
    -They all are Business men with many of their own companies -look at the management staff is all family members
    -They kids attend private schools
    -They live in exclusive suburbs
    -Build their own exclusive Mosques
    -Don’t attend mass gathering of the poor Muslims
    -Wont allow you to marry their sons and daughters.
    -If you work in the company you well never climb the corporate ladder due to all the positions of management occupied by family memebers.

    So please trod amongst the poor Indians in Chatsworth and Phoenix and see what we experience.

    So please don’t paint all the Indian Muslims with the same brush.

  3. Saads says

    The beauty of Islam lies in your connection with Allah, not with people. Whether they accept you or not is irrelevant in comparison to whether Allah has accept you. If you feel like changing your religion because People don’t accept you, then you need to question the strength of your faith.

    Complaining on social media and generalising about the intent of Indian people when they ask you questions about yourself, isn’t helpful to you, neither the ummah. Since there is a generally larger population of Indian muslims, its only natural to be curious about someone who is of the same religion and looks different.

    As an Indian person, I also get questioned by other other Indian’s about where I am from. I married a coloured-malay person and the best question that comes after where you are from… is “where” are you married. By “Where” indicating which Indian family am I related to through marriage. But simply stating that I was not married to an Indian, didn’t make me feel any less worthy of my status as a muslim and as a member of the ummah, whether the person asking me this question was accepting of this or not. Everyone is entitled to their own judgements. We can only try to persuade them to see us in a different light and pray for them. But it isn’t up to us to make anyone think the way we do.

    Neliswe, chill. Learn about cultures and how people interact with each other. Don’t take everything so personal. By understanding others you will realise that your identity has very little to do with how you interpret other people’s response / reaction to seeing you as a black, muslim women. Give freely of your love to others, and Allah will return it.

  4. Adillah says

    My dear Sister,

    I understand the emotions your are going through, you feel alien to both your culture and religion but from my own experience this has to do with how people from both sides react towards you not the culture or the religion itself. This is a way to learn patience and not do what is being done to you. Don’t react in anger, yes it is disappointing, and even if it us deserved, respond with something better(jap, you read correctly). Use the opportunities of these interactions to leave a little bit of something for each group, a kind word to our Muslim brother or sister to remind them of the unity of our ummah, a bit of knowledge about Islam to a Zulu.

    Yes, it hurts, and it’s not easy, but my dear this journey is between you and Allah(SWT), we were warned, we cannot say that we believe and not be tested. Turn to Allah(SWT), ask for this journey to be easy for you. Hayike, the marriage topic I don’t even entertain, my answer is the following question; Why do you underestimate the strength and purity of Islam. Why do you underestimate Allah(SWT).

    Off course the above mentioned questions Will give way to a mini intro to Islam and Allah(SWT).

    Lastly, this is between your Master and you, the slave. You will answer for your own actions not the actions of others. Women are the backbone of every nation, your are the backbone of this ummah, our Prophet(pbuh) shed tears for us. We’re special. You are special.

    May Allah(SWT) grant you strength in abundance, may you be prosperous, may this life be easy for you and we will meet in Jannah, inshaAllah.

    With Love
    -Your Xhosa Muslim Sister

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