Asma Mohammed wants Muslim women to break their silence about sexual assault, in a way that enables them to feel safe and heal. “However they choose to do that is up to them,” she says.
The Macalester grad does that work with Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment (RISE, or Reviving Sisterhood), where she started as the program manager for civic engagement and is now the advocacy director.
In November 2017, Mohammed launched the RISE healing circle for Muslim women who have experienced sexual violence and those who aspired to be allies. She expected about 10 attendees at the first meeting; 30 women came.
“This is the only thing of its kind in Minnesota,” says Mohammed. “Knowing that we are providing a safe space in which Muslim women can be themselves, and share their trauma, and also find some healing, is beautiful. It is the most rewarding work I do.”
Mohammed is a survivor herself. Coming forward was “the scariest thing I had ever done,” she says. “Nobody wanted to believe me. My community was not happy with me. Their response: ‘This is not something we talk about.’”
That’s not the case anymore. Her Muslim community talks about the impact of sexual violence, how to set healthy boundaries, and how to prevent boys from becoming predators.
RISE’s mission is to amplify the voices and power of Muslim women in Minnesota, so another aspect of Mohammed’s work centers around civic engagement.
During the legislative session, they lobby and visit lawmakers’ offices to talk about issues that impact Muslim women. RISE hosts online and face-to-face caucus workshops. When Mohammed went to her precinct caucus earlier this year, women approached her to say that they saw the online training course and had come because of it. “Once you fire people up and give them the tools they need, they are ready to go,” she says.
“Right now I need to be on the ground, organizing people. I’m going to be doing that until I don’t need to anymore.”
Inspired by Students
Mohammed’s mother is from Pakistan; her father is from India. The two met in Chicago, got married, and moved to Minnesota. Mohammed traveled from Minneapolis to Chicago frequently to visit extended family.
At Macalester, she majored in political science with a legal studies concentration. Her plan was to go into law. However, she discovered her heart was in the teaching work she did through non-profits in St. Paul and Minneapolis public schools. “I know that every teacher says their students were the best, but my students really were,” she says.
Two students in particular inspired her to work to create a world free from white supremacy and sexual violence. “What drives me is thinking about their stories, and knowing that if I don’t do anything, the world they grow up in isn’t going to be enough for them, because they shine so brightly,” she says. “They’ve been let down by our education system in so many ways, and they’ve been let down by our communities, and by our society that treats them like they’re nothing. Being reminded that I’m fighting for them, all the time, is humbling.”
In addition to teaching social justice advocacy and interfaith understanding, Asma Mohammed has helped students learn how they can mobilize based on what they care about — such as student-led vigils for those affected by police brutality.
She provides workshops on intersectionality, teaches people of color how to understand their identities, and empowers them to act in solidarity with marginalized groups. She has fought white supremacy within several organizations, and is a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement.
At “MWP Conversations: Using Our Voice & Vote,” hosted by Minnesota Women’s Press in October, Mohammed moderated a breakout session about lobbying. Her call to action at that event: “During this next legislative session, SHOW UP for survivors, for people of color, for our students, and for our families living in poverty. If we don’t remind our legislators that the Capitol is our house, someone else will.”