Sherin Khankan on Islamic Feminism and Learning to Love Being Different
“I’ve never done an interview this personal before.”
By Malene Enø
All photos: Abdellah Ihadian
“I’ve never done an interview this personal before.”
I didn’t know whether I should have taken that as a compliment or not. I had just finished interviewing Sherin Khankan—committed activist and socialist, entrepreneur and author, mother of four and Denmark’s first female imam, who made headlines for the anti-patriarchal Mariam Mosque she founded in Copenhagen. Although I had read plenty of articles from Danish medias such as Berlingske Tidende and Politiken positioning Sherin as a religious pioneer and voice on female life in Islam, none of them seemed to dig in to the person beyond the sensationalism. When I saw that a media source went as far as publishing a piece framing Sherin as an extremist advocate of Hizb ut-Tahrir, I thought enough was enough. It was time to do something a bit more personal with Sherin.
Shortly after, I found myself sitting on the floor of a mosque with three German journalists and Sherin, wearing a beautiful, traditional Syrian dress she got from her father. Born to a Muslim, Syrian refugee father and a Christian, Finnish mother, Sherin was raised in Denmark and ended up marrying a Danish man with Pakistani roots. According to her, all these contrasting world views and beliefs have made her who she is today.
“When I was a kid, it was difficult for me looking like a typical Dane yet being different,” she begins telling me. “I tried to avoid seeming different by telling my mother not to talk to me in Finnish, and telling my father not to talk to me in Arabic. I remember my father would come to school and yell ‘Baba! Baba!’ at me, and my classmates would make fun of me for it. It was so embarrassing because as a child you want to be like everyone else, but later on I began to see being different as a blessing. It became my mission in life to bridge differences.”
From trauma to action
Sherin first began working on bridging differences with the Exitcircle, an NGO she founded where girls and women in physically and mentally violent relationships can get guidance through peer support. When Sherin started it in 2014, only one woman came for the first meeting. The next week, ten women came — and today, 60 women join the self-help groups each week. The quick ascent in numbers goes hand in hand with troubling results of recent studies: according to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, one-third of European women have experienced physical or sexual violence since the age of 15—with particularly high numbers in Denmark, where 55 percent of women reported experiencing the same thing, compared to Sweden’s 46 or Finland’s 47. While self-help groups for women in Denmark are common, the Exitcircle stands out from groups like BASEN which offer young girls private counsellor sessions, or Mødrehjælpen which helps vulnerable mothers: the Exitcircle extensively focuses on mental violence, otherwise known as psychological abuse. Their goal is to reveal that mental violence is a universal problem and can occur within all cultures and all religions—as exemplified by the same European study, which found that 43 percent of European women have experienced some form of psychological violence by an intimate partner, which often leads into physical violence.
“I had a personal experience with mental violence in my youth: I was in a relationship where I couldn’t bridge differences the way my parents had done,” Sherin begins to explain. “By starting the Exitcircle, I was able to solve a problem on a universal level that I wasn’t able to solve on a personal level. The Exitcircle is now my daily work, and it’s very important to me because I can see its positive effect. When I was subjected to mental violence, I felt alone. I didn’t fit the stereotype of someone subjected to this kind of suppressive treatment—so I couldn’t talk about it because I was supposed to be this amazing, strong woman.”
The Exitcircle office is in an old, Copenhagen apartment, which also happens to contain the Mariam Mosque. However, it’s also a co-working space for other hardworking and entrepreneurial women—a democratic model Sherin feels is the Exitcircle’s secret weapon. “That personal contact is very important to me,” she elaborates. “You cannot be a good leader if you don’t know what’s happening on the ground level. Besides, it’s where the magic happens. The ten women in each Exitcircle group are all subjected to mental violence but in this safe environment, they can share their stories. To me, it’s mystical that ten strangers can enter a circle, sit together and within no time share personal details like that.”
The Mariam Mosque grew out of the same, safe space-oriented mindset as the Exitcircle: the mosque offers daily Islamic spiritual care, marriages, divorces and lectures, and every month there’s a Friday prayer exclusively for women, executed by female imams. However, that operational structure remains a source of controversy. Although ‘Mariam’ stems from Maria, who is the mother of Christ and actually has a chapter named after her in the Qu’ran, the mosque’s female focus has been a source of critique and concerns, especially from Islamic communities: some are concerned that separating prayer by gender actually promotes inequality by suggesting that men and women are incompatible. Despite the controversy, however, Sherin and her colleagues are ultimately showing Danes a side of Islam that’s removed from the stereotypes and engaged in seeking dialogue and accepting differences.
“Deconstructing hierarchies like that creates something special,” Sherin elaborates. “The Mariam Mosque is a project in the religious sphere, the Exitcircle is apolitical and nonreligious, but both have the same aim: to challenge and deconstruct patriarchal and suppressive structures. Mental violence is a plague. It’s everywhere. It can happen in any family.”
The perfect man is a woman
Next, Sherin mentions something I’d never heard about before: Islamic feminism. In a society where feminism and Islam are debated all the time and pegged against each other, I had often wondered about their relationship—especially since pop culture portrayals of the two have raised heated debates. One of the most recent examples is Nike’s viral ad featuring Muslim women wearing sports hijabs: while many firmly felt Nike was normalising the suppression of women, others found the ad encouraging and powerful. So yeah, I couldn’t help but get very curious when Sherin mentioned Islamic feminism.
Proudly, Sherin told me about her father being the most inspirational feminist in her life. “My first notion on Islamic feminism comes with my father and the way he treated the women in our family,” she tells me. “He made coffee for my mother every morning before she even opened her eyes. He always told me that I could be whatever I wanted. He gave me confidence.” Sherin studied Islamic feminism further by reading Sufi literature such as work by Ibn Arabi, who is known for saying that the perfect man is a woman. Sherin usually adds that a perfect woman is a man, because ultimately Islamic feminism seeks to go beyond gender. “This sentence stays with me and summarises the goal of the mosque,” Sherin explains.
Even though Sherin is fighting patriarchal structures, she is careful when using the term ‘imam’. “I rarely use the imam title,” she explains. “It’s the most notorious title in Denmark because of previous negative coverage and documentaries on mosques and imams in Denmark.” Even globally, male imams have used the term for many years and under patriarchal norms—which makes it difficult for female imams to claim the title. That’s the case with three out of the five female imams in the Mariam Mosque, who prefer to call themselves spiritual caretakers. However, rather than ditching the title completely, Sherin would rather reclaim it. “Everything starts with language, so we need to challenge the narrative around the title,” she says. “You can take a notorious title and give it a totally different meaning by changing the narrative. To change the narrative, you have to create something which decredits the existing one. That is what we’re trying to do in the Mariam Mosque.”
In a way, Sherin is part of a larger, global movement of Islamic feminism that focuses on empowering Muslim women to reject stereotypes about their lives. If you’re in doubt, just take a look at Muslim Girl: an editorial platform made by millennial Muslims covering everything from religion to love advice to politics to pop culture, and one of the fastest growing women’s sites today. However, Sherin also notes that looking beyond Islamic feminism is crucial for true change. “We want men in the fight for equal rights, too,” Sherin says. “We’re still far from being equal, and the plague of domestic violence is still here. That said, I also want to be optimistic and say that good things have happened and women are closer to being equal than ever.”
I ask Sherin about her thoughts on being an inspiration. “It’s strange and exciting at the same time,” she says. “My daughter is five years old and she’s walking around at home saying ‘female power’ out loud. She told me recently, ‘Mother, you have a great destiny!’ I asked her if she knows what destiny means. And she pointed to her heart and said ‘Yes, it’s the soul.’ It was really cute and I believe that everything starts in the family, so I’m really happy that my children witness their mother creating a change—even though my 12-year old daughter often asks why I can’t be like other mothers with a normal job and why I have to travel so much.”
As our interview comes to a close, I ask Sherin again how she feels about being an inspiration to many people. “I’m happy to be an inspiration,” she says. “But I also get inspired all the time by other women – and men. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be able to inspire others. It works in circles.”
When Sherin told me she’d never done such a personal interview before, I was worried. But as she walked me out of the mosque, I realised there’d been no need. She smiled and told me it was a good thing.