The Story of KARAMAH
By Azizah al-Hibri, Chair of KARAMAH / January, 2024
I have often been asked how KARAMAH was born. A long time ago, when I was an associate lawyer on Wall Street, I made a friend at my law firm. Shahilla Shariff was a young lawyer just beginning her career, but we discovered a lot in common. One day, she suggested dinner at a storied New York restaurant. My law school friend Sarah Alfadl happened to be in town, so the three of us headed off to dinner together.
At dinner, we started talking generally about the women’s movement in the US, ending up in an intense discussion on the ironically patriarchal responses and attitudes towards Muslim women. Feminists were appropriating our voices and making demands on our behalf, but there was no evidence of input from our community. Instead, these feminists imposed their own cultural template to conclude that Muslim women everywhere were oppressed.
Shahilla suggested that perhaps, as Muslim women, we needed to harness our backgrounds and education to create our own mouthpiece. She envisioned establishing a Muslim women’s organization that would re-appropriate our voice, and represent Muslim women’s rights. It was important that this organization accomplish these ends not on the basis of a Western cultural critique, but rather on the basis of an approach that was Islamic and female. We all liked the idea.
The following year, I left my law firm to pursue a teaching career in Virginia, and became actively involved with the Muslim community in Washington, DC. I discovered that the DC community was also restless about the dearth of Muslim organizations, especially in the area of law.
It became obvious at that point that, as a corporate attorney who knew how to incorporate and manage American organizations, I was called to this task. So, between 1992-1993, I formed two law organizations, AMBA (American Muslim Bar Association) which I turned over to the Muslim community in Washington, DC, and KARAMAH, an organization for Muslim women lawyers.
In forming this second organization in 1993, I consulted many community members, male and female. I also reached out to my Muslim women friends around the globe in an attempt to understand the fullness of the need of our global community. At the same time, I was receiving calls at my university office from desperate Muslim women in need of legal advice. All these factors led me to conclude that this organization of Muslim women lawyers was direly needed.
Selecting the name was a challenge. I wanted a name that reflected the uniqueness of this organization as being authentically rooted in its religious tradition, yet concerned about injustices towards and misconceptions about Muslim women, regardless of their source. I wanted to make sure that the name would not suggest the weakness of a victim, but rather the strength and dignity of Muslim women.
I searched everywhere for just the right name, until I found it in the Qur’an, verse 70 of Surat Al-Isra’. It states in part “we have given dignity (“karramna”) to the children of Adam.” Thus, the name KARAMAH (dignity) was born as the name of this oldest American Muslim women lawyers organization, and one of the oldest Muslim organizations in the US.
Getting KARAMAH started, funded, staffed, and known to Muslim women around the globe was quite demanding. Nevertheless, KARAMAH was able to make its authentic voice heard internationally. In 1995, KARAMAH attended the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in China, and participated in a workshop on Islam. In response to the enthusiastically positive reaction towards this workshop, we organized a follow-up caucus meeting of Muslim women NGO’s at the Forum, in Huairou, China. The meeting was well-attended and contributed to the globalization of the Muslim women’s movement. KARAMAH subsequently issued a press release.
Incidentally, while in Beijing, we made a point of visiting the oldest mosque, which is over a thousand years old.
Another important juncture came after the events of 9/11, Muslim women found themselves under severe pressure and began coming to us in search of support and education about Islam. It was then that KARAMAH developed its popular Law and Leadership Summer Program (LLSP). In this program, and in all KARAMAH programs, we sought to educate Muslim women in our own voice and tradition about their rights within Islam and their role within the Islamic society. As a result of this unique educational approach, KARAMAH women have invariably felt empowered and liberated.
Later, and at different times, both Shahilla and Sarah joined KARAMAH as board members, advisors, and/or donors. Shahilla remains an advisor, whilst Sarah has now retired. Almost all the KARAMAH board members and officers today are KARAMAH alumnae or former interns, and they are building a new KARAMAH for the next thirty years.
KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights
The first episode of our 2020 Lunch & Learn Series features a conversation with Dr. Azizah al-Hibri where she shares her journey and reasons behind the founding of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights.