Women's History Month

9 Muslim Women Who Made Major Impacts On History

They should be household names by now.

Images of Sarah Hegazy and Hawa Abdi, two influential Muslim women in history.
Wikimedia Commons/Getty Images

As a Muslim American woman educated in the U.S. public school system, it took till fifth grade for me to realize that the “history” I was learning about in class didn’t have much to do with people who looked like me or shared my beliefs. If I didn’t have my parents to educate me or other Muslim women to learn from, I would never have known how much of an impact my fellow Muslim women have made on history.

You may think that today Muslim women are far more visible than they have ever been. She is donning the first Nike hijab on covers of magazines, and she is sitting in Congress, fighting for the rights of those whose voices have long been ignored. But though she may be a more present force now than when I was in school, there is still so far to go.

Representation isn’t a cure-all for oppression, but highlighting the accomplishments of minoritized people can help inspire others to follow in their footsteps. When people learn about Muslim women’s world-changing achievements, the stereotypes that Muslim women are subjugated or weak can start to fade away. Here are nine Muslim women in history you probably didn’t learn about in school, but you definitely should have.

Khadija bint Khuwaylid

Every young Muslim girl knows about Khadija bint Khuwaylid, first wife of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the woman known to be the “mother of believers.” Aside from being the first follower of the prophet, Khadija is remembered as a powerful woman in her own right. She was a successful merchant whose riches allowed her husband, the prophet, to focus on his meditations and religion. She was known for breaking stereotypes, even 1,400 years ago — Khadija was the one who proposed to the prophet, according to The Life of Muhammad. Khadija is often considered the “first Muslim” and a great example of the power and respect that is owed to Muslim women.

Sameera Moussa

In the world of science, Sameera Moussa is a name to be reckoned with. She was the first female Egyptian nuclear scientist and the first woman to earn a doctorate in atomic radiation and hold a teaching post at Cairo University in the 1940s. Through her Atomic Energy for Peace Conference, she was a strong advocate for making nuclear technology more accessible. She was so successful in her field that when she came to the United States on a Fulbright in the 1950s, she was the first noncitizen allowed to visit the country’s atomic facilities.

Nana Asma’u

Nana Asma’u is one of the most important Muslim scholars of the 19th century. She was a poet and educational leader from what is now considered northern Nigeria. Islam was able to spread in West Africa in large part because of her writings and teachings, according to the book One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe. Her active role in political and educational spaces paved the way for her to be a strong force for breaking stereotypes about Muslim women. She was an advocate for the education of young Muslim women, going out of her way to teach them herself in their own homes, per a biography written about Asma’u by Jean Boyd, a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Tawakkol Karman

Journalist Tawakkol Karman was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work advocating for the right to democratic processes in her home country of Yemen. She founded the group Women Journalists Without Chains, which advocates for freedom of speech, and organized regular demonstrations against Yemen’s ruling regime to promote freedom for all, especially for women writers. In addition to being a journalist, human rights activist, and politician, Karman is also widely known as the face of the Yemeni uprising in 2011, in which citizens were inspired by protests in Tunisia and Egypt and spoke out against Yemen’s political and economical state. Her nickname, “Mother of the Revolution,” is extremely fitting.

Hawa Abdi

Known as Mama Hawa, Hawa Abdi was a human rights activist and a physician who worked to provide health care and shelter for Somali women during Somalia’s civil war in the 1990s. Not only was she Somalia’s first woman obstetrician, but she also doubled as a lawyer, working to advocate for rights for Somali women and children. Before passing, she created the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation, which works to provide health care, shelter, and education to thousands of Somali families in need to this day.

Fatima al-Fihri

The oldest university in the world, the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, was founded thanks to a Muslim woman named Fatima al-Fihri. In 859, she used an inheritance from her father to create a mosque that would eventually turn into a religious institute. Al-Qarawiyyin is now considered the oldest university to still be operating and has graduated several important figures in history, according to Vice, including Jewish philosopher Maimonides and Gerbert of Aurillac, who became Pope Sylvester II.

Zaha Hadid

The next time you speak about the greats in the architecture world, you’ll want to consider including Zaha Hadid. Hadid was an Iraqi-British architect whose futuristic design work won her many prizes in her lifetime, including the 2004 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the 2010 and 2011 Stirling Prize, the 2014 Design Museum Design of the Year Award, and the 2015 RIBA Gold Medal. Her buildings can be found all around the world including at Harvard University, museums around the United States, and cultural centers around Asia.

Sarah Hegazi

Egyptian activist Sarah Hegazi was a lesbian woman who gained public attention after waving a gay pride flag at a concert in Cairo, where LGBTQ+ people are routinely harassed, detained, and even tortured by police, per Human Rights Watch. Hegazi was arrested in 2017 but continued to speak out against Egypt’s treatment of LGBTQ people. As her platform grew, she advocated for other causes including the Black Lives Matter movement and mental health issues. She died by suicide in July 2020, at age 30.

Sayyida al-Hurra

Sayyida al-Hurra, whose name translates to “noble woman who is free and independent,” was a 16th century pirate. She fled Morocco after Muslims were being persecuted there and spent the rest of her days at sea seeking vengeance for her homeland. She is talked about in Portuguese history records as being one of the most powerful pirates there was — she created great alliances through her trading skills, became incredibly wealthy, and took control of the western Mediterranean.