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Activist, Writer, Founding Executive Director of Sisters In Islam and Musawah

Yasmeen Hassan, Global Executive Director, celebrates Zainah Anwar as part of Equality Now’s 30 for 30, featuring 30 women and changemakers who have played a key role in making equality reality as part of our 30th anniversary celebrations.

Starting a feminist organization doesn’t just take purpose, strategy, and vision, it often takes bravery, too. And that’s particularly true for my dear friend, Zainah.  

I have always admired Zainah for the courage she showed in establishing the two organizations with which she is most closely associated. The first, Sisters In Islam, started in 1988 and works to promote rights and equality for Muslim women in Zainah’s home country of Malaysia. Then, in 2009 she joined forces with a group of other Muslim women to start Musawah (which means “equality” in Arabic), an organization dedicated to equal rights and justice in the Muslim family. 

This kind of work is not only dangerous but also controversial among women’s rights activists in Muslim countries, some of whom choose not to engage with the question of religion. But Zainah has been determined to push past those barriers because she knows that misinterpretations of religion have been used to keep women down and that, by refusing to engage, you are giving fundamentalists a monopoly.

Zainah is someone I admired long before I met her, and I was certainly not alone. 

In 2008, I was sent to Malaysia by our board to recruit her to lead Equality Now’s presence in Asia. However, when I told Zainah of the purpose of my visit, she told me she was in the process of starting Musawah. While mainstream feminists refused to engage with religion, pursuing a secular framework for women’s equality, Zainah knew that the world was getting more religious and that it was essential for women to engage in this space. I couldn’t deny the critical importance of what she was doing and pledged that I, and Equality Now, would help her in any way possible. 

Today, the publications and training conducted by Musawah have been life-changing for many Muslim women giving them the language to claim equality for themselves and helping to raise awareness around this issue internationally. In 2020, Equality Now was fortunate to work with Zainah to create the first ever Global Campaign for Equality in Family Law, which takes on laws that keep women as second-class citizens within their family, whether these laws are based on religion or tradition. This campaign continues to make a lasting impact in the daily lives of women and girls around the world, sharing important knowledge with lawmakers and other organizations around the globe. 

Since that day we met in 2008, I’ve come to know Zainah not just professionally, but personally. She is not only a visionary leader but truly one of the most fun people I know. Over the years, Zainah and I have celebrated when progress has been made and comforted one another in moments of disappointment and tremendous anxiety over the state of gender equality. 

Our movement is so lucky to be able to benefit from Zainah’s leadership, and I know that her bravery and vision will continue to be an example for many of us—and to make equality reality  for millions of  Muslim women and girls around the world.

A headshot of Zainah Anwar

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