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Muslim Women: Movers and Shakers Fight for Women's Rights

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As we herald 2014 with hopes for peace, prosperity and harmony, I look into the crystal ball and identify a short list of contemporary Muslim women change makers -- locally, nationally and globally. The six Muslim women track the challenges their Islamic sisters confront and work to eradicate their disadvantages by advancing their rights. These thought leaders, activists, scholars, students and entertainers keep the flame of hope alive for their Muslim sisters in a myriad strategic ways.

Some of the heroines listed below I know, others I do not but I salute them all for staying the course, despite the odds. They fight vociferously for Muslim women in multiple spheres including education, employment and empowerment -- the mantra of our non-profit, Invest in Muslim Women. Islamic scriptures often support women's rights -- but cultural norms often negate and stifle Muslim women.

Daisy Khan, Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement was prescient in organizing and leading the first Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) in 2006. The purpose of ASMA is to "empower" Muslim women around the world. Daisy weathered 9/11 as a New Yorker, became an articulate voice for moderate and compassionate Islam even as she continued her trajectory as a a phenomenal social and serial entrepreneur. Dedicated to developing an American Muslim identity, Daisy hosts a council of women who scrutinize the Quran to get a firm handle on Muslim women's rights. She builds bridges between the Muslim community and the general public and mentors young Muslims on challenges of assimilation, gender, religion and modernity. Daisy is hailed as a healer, a link between moderate Islam and the West, and a force for equality for Muslim women.

Laleh Mehree Bakhtiar, an Iranian American Muslim author, translator and clinical psychologist, has contributed uniquely to empowering Muslim women by translating the Quran, called The Sublime Quran, in 2007. Her translation clarifies the holy text and empowers Muslim women to claim their "women centric" rights derived from the holy book. Laleh is modest, deep and strong. She is a soul sister who provides accurate scriptural education for Muslim women who do not understand the Quran, creating her own quiet revolution. Laleh has also translated and written a combination of 25 books about Islam, many focused on Sufism. Her work seeks to create understanding between non-Muslims and Muslims.

Jamila Afghani: "I have often heard that Afghan women are not political.That peace and security is man's work. I am here to challenge that illusion" (addressing the United Nations Security Council in 2001.) Dynamic and creative Jamila Afghani heads the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organization (NECDO), a local Afghan women's NGO serving women, youth, and children. Jamila works on gender & human rights from an Islamic perspective. She believes that the social mobilization of women will be the key to paving the way for gender equality and that Islamic teachings are essential to influencing human behavior, especially in a culture/tradition-based society like Afghanistan. An astute thinker, she calls it as she sees it: "Even our women parliamentarians could not play a major role on improving women's lives [so far] as they could not argue with male parliamentarians who support Islamic values, and women's mouths get shut when they don't have Islamic justifications." In 2008, Jamila was awarded the Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action Award.

Jennifer Grout, an American coed and Mayam Mahmoud, an Egyptian rapper make music breakthroughs in the "Arabs Got Talent" show because change and understanding comes not just through our intellects but also from the arts. These two enterprising young women forge new frontiers of understanding through their music and help bridge the divide between Islam and the West. Jennifer Grout of Cambridge, Massachusetts, sings in Arabic -- a language she does not understand or speak. She pursues her dream and enters herself in the Egyptian version of American Idol, where the newscasters said she sounded "very authentic."

Jennifer was matched by 18 year old Mayam Mahmoud, an Egyptian who has been rapping since she was 10 years old, addressing the issues Egyptian girls face. Now 18, her performances on the same show, Arabs Got Talent, have seen her progress through to the semi-finals of the TV contest. She said she has always had the support of her family and her father encouraged her not to rap "about any old thing but something with value". "People in my neighborhood often wonder how a veiled girl sings and shouts like this," she told the BBC. "My answer to this is very simple, you only look at my veil and my jumping on the stage and overlook what I'm singing about."

Farhana Khera is extraordinary -- as a lawyer, and in 2005 as Counsel to the US Senate Judiciary Committee. She worked with Senator Russell D. Feingold on Patriot Act, racial and religious profiling and civil liberties issues raised by the government's anti-terrorism activities. Farhana is currently president and executive director of Muslim Advocates, a national legal advocacy and educational organization dedicated to promoting freedom, justice and equality for all, regardless of faith. Farhana is truly an advocate of advocates -- one of a kind.

Mais Ali Saleh, a charming, 27-year-old Muslim woman was named valedictorian by Technion, Israels top medical school. She was also one of eight students to receive an award for academic excellence from Israel's Knesset. And believe it or not, she is a practicing Muslim woman who grew up in Nazareth. She's doing her residency in Gynecology/Obstetrics because she believes it is important for Arab women to have a woman doctor vs a male physician. She is anti boycott; she believes that "Arab women have more freedom, liberties and academic opportunities in Israel." Bravo to Technion University and Bravo to Mais Ali-Saleh.

Khadijah's daughters is a blog by Shahnaz Chinoy Taplin, board president of Invest in Muslim Women, a non-profit project of the Global Fund for Women. Invest in Muslim Women focuses on the economic empowerment of Muslim women, justice and peace. The blog is inspired by Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad's first wife and the quintessential role model for Muslim women. She was the first convert to Islam, the first Muslim woman entrepreneur, a globalist and a feminist.