Interview: Rana Abdelhamid, Founder of (IM)WISE, On Community Building & Gender-based Violence

The entrepreneur & human rights advocate discusses leadership, identity, entrepreneurship, and global anti-violence movements.

Rana Abdelhamid | SHE

Rana Abdelhamid, Founder and CEO of the International Muslim Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment (IMWISE / WISE), has dedicated her path to advancing human rights and creating communal spaces for Muslim women at a time of peak contention. Enshrined by institutional policy and public opinion, gender-based violence is a global problem that transcends all bounds: it claims lives, prevents economic development, and arbitrarily hinders the potential of the human species. Following 9/11, the shifting perception and politicization of Islam has increased the vulnerability of Muslim communities and women in particular.

At 15, Abdelhamid experienced the violence of prejudice firsthand: while walking home, a man attacked her, pulling her hijab from behind. In 2010, WISE was founded and began providing a comprehensive learning program of self-defense, leadership, and entrepreneurship to Muslim women. A black belt in Shotokan Karate, Rana incorporated martial arts from the beginning. The community-driven initiative has since grown into an international network that empowers women to become agents of change and direct impact while providing a humanizing space for genuine communication, personal development, and interpersonal connection.

In discussion, she provides her perspective on community building, the movement for women’s empowerment, social justice, and how WISE is evolving as a global force.

“…our long-term vision is that we really want to build a world, from a grassroots level, where every single Muslim woman in the world feels like she has capacity to create change for her life, her community, and her world. And every single Muslim woman can live a life free of violence with dignity and respect. It’s unfortunate that that’s not the world we live in today, but that’s what we’re working to do right now.”

The concept of economic agency is a core component of WISE. How does teaching entrepreneurial skills contribute to the greater mission of addressing gender-based violence?

Basically, the rationale behind our focus on entrepreneurship and economic empowerment comes from our belief that it’s embedded and inherent to Muslim women empowerment because there is a legacy of Khadījah, who’s a Muslim woman leader, an inspiration, who was a businesswoman and very important to the tradition: the first person to convert to Islam, the first person to believe in the message, the first person support and carry out the message. And she had her own business, managed a ton of people, and this was back then, when women were being buried alive. Because it’s inherent and indigenous to our practice, that elevates it even more so.

The other thing is understanding that oftentimes, first of all, women support and prop most of informal economies around the world anyway. It’s not like we’re teaching a new skill that women don’t already possess, right? But it’s like: how do we translate and systemize these skills so that women can create a support network for each other and also have access to tools and skill sets that are being professionalized that can support the work that they’re doing or beginning to do.

That manifests in several forms: one way is through our summer camp program that we host for young women. We do it right now in New York and Dallas, Texas, where women, in addition to leadership, they learn soft entrepreneurship skills: how do they market an idea, how does the ideation process start, how do they make sure that’s in line with their values and personal mission? Then, how do they put together a pitch to present their idea and put together a team — all those processes. Right now, we’re working on a hard skill curricula that’s going to be called the Mini MBA Series — the WISE MBA Series.

We’re also trying to expand these skills to immigrant women and women who are interested in starting their own business but don’t necessarily know where to start. They’re going to things like business plan workshops, financial literacy, budgeting, and in addition to that, also marketing, telling the narrative of their work, and create spaces for ideation as well — but it’s more hard skills. It’s perfect that you’re asking me about this now, because we’re launching this in the next couple of months, and it’s something we’re really excited about.

“Every single woman that will come into our space has experienced some level of trauma because of these three forms of violence that we mentioned, and so to be able to heal, she has to be able to feel fully secure in a space, to be able to unpack her experiences.”

People often think of entrepreneurship in ways that reflect a cultural bias. It’s a prominent issue in American startup culture: a person will imagine Silicon Valley, Mark Zuckerberg, or a generally male workforce, and perpetuate an identity-based narrative that is then reflected in their daily decision-making.

Just to add one more thing: you know when people think of entrepreneurs, they don’t think of the 99% of women who are propping up developing economies through the informal sector. Women who are selling phones on the street, making jewelry, making beauty products, like hustling, in both urban communities in the US and in developing countries. This is entrepreneurship that doesn’t come to mind; people oftentimes think of the Fortune 500 companies, but there’s a legacy of women in business and financial leadership that we want to capitalize on and further support.

In leadership and as an individual, how do you think about human identity?

Yeah, that’s a really great question, because it’s hard, right? We’re organising around an identity, which is we’re organising around the concept or the notion that Muslim women around the world face a similar set of certain issues, but the core value of our mission is justice — that’s the number one thing that anyone who joins our team is onboard on. And not justice from a justice system, but a diversity in equity perspective.

Even though we all say we’re Muslim women, there’s so much nuance to what that means for every single individual. We constantly on our team have to deconstruct what it means to be a Muslim woman internally, so that we make sure that we’re not presenting a homogeneous narrative externally, and also aren’t presenting homogeneous solutions, or single-faceted solutions to varying problems.

We recognize that within the European and US context, the Muslim identity is racialized in a way that does homogenize us, and we’ve capitalized on that by developing this movement out of that racialization, but we don’t want it to be detrimental in erasing our differences as well. It’s also hard because we become reactionary. We’re reactive, basically. It’s difficult because we’re using the language of people who are homogenizing us, but in a way that’s empowering to us. It’s difficult.

WISE addresses a broad range of gender-based violence, including how the state can be both its cause and a contributing factor. How do policies and state leaders perpetuate violence?

We recognize that there are multiple levels: we recognize that the reason why people engage in hate-based or interpersonal violence in the way that it does, even both for gender-based violence and hate crimes, is because it’s perpetuated by state-based violence. States are either negligent of important policies that could be set up to support women of colour, Muslim women, women generally in terms of their own personal security — so, in the context of intimate partner violence, gender-based violence, and domestic violence. And allow for the perpetuation of misogynistic principles.

When a policy leader like Trump is on national television, talking about how he sexually assaulted someone, but then he’s still able to become President. A lot of politicians are engaging in very sexist practices or are pursuing policies that control and police women’s bodies — that perpetuates a culture of violence. So, that’s an extension of state-based violence.

And then same thing with hate-based violence: policies casting a particular group of people in a very negative light, and perpetuates state-based policies like surveillance, and profiling, and incarceration of particular groups, and counter extremism policy that follows particular groups. It perpetuates the narrative that this is a group to be wary of, to be afraid of, and then therefore allows for this group to be dehumanized.

When someone’s attacking me in the street, they don’t feel the empathy to actually, one, not do that — because they’d see me as human — but also people around me who are bystanders. I’m not humanized within a media framework, a policy framework. I think all these issues come from power structures that are perpetuated through policy, so we try to push back against these power structures by developing power within and the communities that we work with, and organise for change both on a social level and also on a political level.

“It’s why we work in mosques — we want to reclaim mosques through the process, and reclaim what does it mean to be a Muslim woman in the process.”

What’s the importance of creating specific spaces to address the needs of a community? There’s a shallow but popular criticism of exclusion towards programs that are seen as focusing on a singular group.

That’s actually something really common that we hear. So, people are like, why don’t you just open this to all women or to men so that they can be engaged in the conversation? But this goes back to our theory of change: the first level of power we’re trying to cultivate, which is the power within. In order to develop power within, the women that we’re working with need to be able to heal from the violence they’ve experienced. Every single woman that will come into our space has experienced some level of trauma because of these three forms of violence that we mentioned, and so to be able to heal, she has to be able to feel fully secure in a space, to be able to unpack her experiences.

Speaking of experiences: like, cry, feel sisterhood — all these things — and in order for us to do that we need to control for certain variables. And one of the variables we can control for, is say: alright, a woman is more likely to talk about issues that pertain just to Muslim women in a space where everyone is a Muslim woman. She doesn’t feel like she’ll be judged, or stereotyped, which is oftentimes what happens, or ostracized, isolated, et cetera. And so that’s why our central demographic is Muslim women and why we center all our program around Muslim women. That being said, we do have programming for men, for bystanders, allies. We do engage other marginalized communities through our self-defense classes — we think that’s important as well.

Oftentimes, the people who criticize a program or space for being exclusionary or too “narrow” in focus are totally okay with it in their actual life, as long as it reflects their personal preferences.

Exactly. Just from a personal standpoint: I just moved to San Francisco — I moved to Palo Alto, actually. Yesterday, I went to Oakland for the first time, and it’s been two weeks, and I felt so safe. I felt so safe and so happy and able to bring my full self into the space, whereas I feel like, as a person of colour who is oftentimes frequenting all white spaces, it’s very difficult for me to do that, because I know people have biases, people have stereotypes, and I’m afraid to either affirm those, and I’m just wary of how people perceive me.

So I’m constantly on, and so to let down that guard, and feel able to bring all parts of me, in a way where I won’t confirm stereotypes and won’t trigger reactions in things like this or educate, is a really important space to be in every week at least once. Otherwise, it’s very hard to cope with.

Anti-violence initiatives seem naturally intersectional and collaborative. For example, among hate groups and political networks, the organisations that target Muslims also tend to promote violence against a broad range of identities.

100%, I agree with that. That’s one of the reasons why we extend our work just beyond Muslim women when we have the capacity to. Right after the election, we got dozens of calls from various marginalized groups, LGBTQ communities, Black Lives Matters groups, women’s groups, the Jewish community — to do self-defense classes. It showed me how much everyone is feeling insecure regardless of whether or not they’re a Muslim woman, or a trans black woman.

Everyone is in this kind of area of trying to preserve their own personal safety, which I think on a hierarchy of needs, is such a fundamental right, that it’s horrifying that that’s where we’re at. I would agree with you and affirm that there is like an intersectionality between all of these needs, and also overlap, and there’s so much opportunity for all of these communities to coalition build and work together, support each other, and uplift each other’s movements and work.

I’ll share a quick anecdote: last year, I did a self-defense class for a group of Jewish and Muslim women. After the class, a Jewish woman approached me and was like, “Rana, I was really afraid before this class because I had been wearing a headscarf — a head wrap — before I came to the US” — she was a recent immigrant — “but since I came to the US, I’ve taken it off, because I don’t want people to mistake me for a Muslim.”

She chuckled and was like, “I guess I don’t want them to know I’m Jewish, either.” And that really captured the importance of being on the same page, supporting each other, being allies for each other, because we’re all facing very, very similar challenges. I never thought a Jewish woman, like a woman who wears the hijab who is Muslim, would wake up in the morning and be like, should I wrap my hair to practice my religious faith? Maybe not, because I’m unsafe in this Neo-Nazi state of the world.

What’s your perspective on the use of gender as a political tool? An example: political figures will cite the treatment of Muslim women by Islamic extremists to justify military action, while otherwise reflecting contempt and indifference towards women or Muslims as a whole in their policymaking.

This isn’t a recent thing — this is something that’s been extended in our history. My family is North African, and I think of the colonization of Africa, and how France extended their colonial reach into that part of the world. And the way they did that was literally through using the narrative of, “women in this region are oppressed, and we need to go liberate these women. We have to go make sure they take off their veil,” and all of these different things. And we see within movements, women resisting colonial rule, would hold onto their faith and identity even stronger.

I think we’re in the same colonial state; there’s still very much an agenda of a white saviour complex. We almost need to justify the invasions and violence that’s being perpetuated against brown and black bodies. The reason why we’re doing this is under the guise of human rights and human dignity. Just like when Bush invaded Iraq in 2001 or 2003, the invasion was justified vis-à-vis the liberation of women from the Taliban, or Iraqi women from Saddam Hussein, even though Iraqi women were very much empowered during that time in Iraq.

I think it’s very ironic, that as a Muslim, woman, feminist, I’m gonna find my liberation through a man who implements policy that controls women and polices their bodies, whether that’s reproductive rights and reproductive justice, or state-based violence perpetuated against black women, for example. Or the trans bathroom issue — how am I, as a Muslim woman, supposed to feel safe, when other sisters aren’t safe?

This isn’t uncommon, it’s not surprising. It’s unfortunate; it’s the same game that’s been played for decades, for hundreds of years, and I think the good thing is, Muslim women, we’ve seen this playbook. And I’m not gonna buy into that narrative — I don’t spend too much time answering to that, reacting or speaking to that, because I’m not in the game of educating people who are trying to use our narrative to extend their horrible policies. I’m in the game of really working in my community.

“The beauty of the snowflake doesn’t come from the center; it comes from everything around the center — that’s kind of the idea: we draw our strength and uniqueness and distinctiveness from the diversity of everything beyond the core of our team.”

What sort of criticism have you encountered from Muslim communities?

We’ve had pushback from the beginning when we’ve started. This was like seven years ago; I was 16. The language for hate crimes and hate-based violence, and awareness that this was an issue facing Muslim women, wasn’t really there. Self-defense wasn’t as hip in certain parts of the Muslim community. I know black Muslims have always been using self-defense, but immigrant Muslim communities, and new generations — newcomers to the US — they were like, why is this girl trying to teach self-defense? Who is this crazy feminist? I didn’t even identify that way. They just thought it was absurd and weird and outlandish. It took me a really long time to find a space that was accommodating, or women and parents who would send their children, or like, young girls — and so there is definitely friction, like any startup or movement, to getting a cultural change and people to understand and recognize the issue and develop urgency around the issue.

I think now the pushback that we get is, oftentimes, anyone who sees us as more of a feminist movement, or too left, will be like, “oh, they’re too left for us — too liberal.” But then some people see us as too conservative. And so it’s that tension of, first of all, what does all of this mean? What does it mean for us to be liberal or conservative? And how can we bridge the gap between folks who identify as secular Muslims and folks who identify as more conservative, more Salafi Muslims, and create a space where a woman, regardless of adherence to religious practice, is able to feel like she can come to a space and feel safe.

We also get pushback sometimes because we’re inclusive of LGBTQI-identifying folks. And people are like, “that’s not in line with Islamic values.” But we’re not here to police what Islam is. We’re not a religious organisation — we’re an organisation that works with religious communities. So we don’t interpret faith. Anyone who identifies as a woman and a Muslim is welcome in all of our spaces. And that is hard for some communities and some institutions that have always interpreted who is Muslim enough to be in this space. And that’s kind of the conversation we’re trying to open up. It’s why we work in mosques — we want to reclaim mosques through the process, and reclaim what does it mean to be a Muslim woman in the process.

How can social conservatives be engaged on these issues? What sort of dialogue do you think is part of that process?

I think it’s dialogue, it’s communication. It’s hard though, right, because if you’re a marginalized person within the community, you can’t expect an LGBTQ-identifying person to go explain their humanity to a mosque, why they deserve to be in a mosque space. People are oftentimes, “dialogue is the solution,” and I’m like, hmm. If I were a black Muslim, do I want to explain to you, in my mosque, when I’m supposed to go reflect and pray, why you shouldn’t be racist to me? No, I don’t want to have that dialogue. I think dialogue, depending on context and space, is the solution.

That’s why for us, we’re very intentional. For example, when we do our organising summit at Harvard every year. When we bring 50 Muslim women together, we’re very intentional to emphasize and select women who have historically been marginalized and kept out of spaces. We try to bring them into the space more, so if they can have the power and build the capacity, will actually then go out and create this change. Dialogue, but not for everyone — dialogue for people who have the courage and strength to, and feel like they want to, honestly.

At the National Muslim Women’s Summit at Harvard University. | WISE

In terms of bringing the gap between conservative and liberal — I think for me, at a personal level, I come at this from a very liberal space. I was educated in very liberal institutions. We’re very presumptuous. I remember being like, “oh, this is an imam — he’s an enemy. He holds the keys to the mosque that keeps me out, therefore I want to be there.” But that’s not really the case, oftentimes. The guy with the beard and long thobe is sometimes the best ally that I could ever imagine and is super pro-women’s rights and wants women to be included in all spaces and wants us to be part of the conversation.

I think it’s breaking these biases on both ends and understanding that conversation needs to happen, but not everyone should have to be in those conversations if they don‘t want to, because it’s exhausting. And there should be a space for these conversations to be held. And we still have to recognize that there is a hierarchy in our community, and there are people who have less power than others. And when those conversations happen, these hierarchies are taken into account, because it’s not a level playing field.

“That’s my leadership: when I’m not doing the work, that’s when I’m most of a leader, because that means someone else has built the leadership to do the work for their own community.”

As a leader, what are some of your guiding principles and how have they influenced WISE as an organisation?

For me, it’s the flat model of leadership. It’s about organising and developing capacity of a community to organise, which is how we’ve been able to run for so many years without any funding, and how we’ve been able to build such a robust network of leaders across the country, across the world, because we really want people to have ownership over the organisation, and we really want to allow folks to feel like they can bring parts of themselves into the work that we’re doing.

So what does that mean? One, in terms of leadership, letting go: I’m not doing everything — ever. And two, it’s building capacity, constantly: constant training, constant checking. Letting people have ownership over their own community. Recognizing there’s nuance in communities: what happened in NY can’t happen in Dallas, can’t happen in Madrid, can’t happen in Tunisia. I have to train people from Dallas, train people from Madrid, from Tunisia, to lead their own programming. That’s my leadership: when I’m not doing the work, that’s when I’m most of a leader, because that means someone else has built the leadership to do the work for their own community.

When there’s more and more women bought into the narrative and bought into the organisation and the movement, that’s when I think my leadership is most effective. My goal is to run myself out of this job. I don’t need to be in this organization anymore, because there’s such an extensive network of women doing this work and really understanding the core values and mission and vision of our movement. Instead of being centered around one person, it’s centered around pockets of people and communities. It’s very bottom up, it’s very snowflakey. Have you heard of snowflake model? If you think of the image of a snowflake, rather than a pyramid — one person on top, telling everyone what to do — and it’s not like a reverse pyramid — person on the bottom, telling everyone else — instead: a person in the middle has the idea, but that idea branches off. People begin to branch off onto more people and more people.

The beauty of the snowflake doesn’t come from the center; it comes from everything around the center — that’s kind of the idea: we draw our strength and uniqueness and distinctiveness from the diversity of everything beyond the core of our team. It’s the people on the ground — the local groups — that are really what make us able to address more nuanced concerns, address more nuanced challenges, and actually create creativity and innovation with our programming to deal with the work that needs to happen.

How is WISE growing and what do you envision for its future?

It’s been really great. I’m an organiser by training, and it sucks to be an organiser who is managing an organisation. Because organisers, I don’t think are organised — or maybe I’m not organised. Basically, I’ve been able to bring amazing talent onto the team, of folks who are really helping us build out the sustainability and scalability of the organisation. We’re spending a lot of time doing internal development, building out the movement.

What’s a long-term, global vision? To bring this program to Muslim women around the world, both training and self-defense, social entrepreneurship, organising for social change, and also to be able to offer our services for a fee for a demographic that’s not our main community. So, being able to do our self-defense program who may be interested, to sustain our work, because we also believe we’re a social enterprise.

But our long-term vision is that we really want to build a world, from a grassroots level, where every single Muslim woman in the world feels like she has capacity to create change for her life, her community, and her world. And every single Muslim woman can live a life free of violence with dignity and respect. It’s unfortunate that that’s not the world we live in today, but that’s what we’re working to do right now.

How did you discover martial arts? What does self-defense represent for you?

My parents put me in Shotokan Karate when I was 7, so I didn’t really choose. But I can tell you why I still do karate and why I enjoy it: basically, the reason why I think karate is really important is because, especially for a woman, martial arts really gives you opportunities to be in full control over your body in a way that society doesn’t let you. There’s policy that’s controlling my body, religion controlling my body, there’s men who are violent towards my body. As a brown woman, a woman of colour, a Muslim — there’s all these things that don’t allow me to feel safe in my own skin.

Karate and martial arts and self-defense really does use the capacity to feel like you could be in control at any moment, and really gets you to be in touch with your body and connect with your home, which is your body. So that’s why it’s really important to me and why I enjoy doing it. And obviously, it extends to your broader work, and I’ve seen the impact it’s had and the way in which it’s allowed women to really feel empowered and in tune with themselves. I’m very much a proponent of it.

Discussion and self-defense techniques with members of WISE. | ELLE

Some of your past research has focused on addressing violence faced by Muslim women. Could you share more about that project and its findings?

My thesis for graduate school was looking at the ways in which Muslim women in Queens are facing domestic violence, and what resources and what’s the best way to address the challenges that Muslim women are facing in Queens. There was a couple of takeaways: especially immigrant women, South Asian immigrant women, are facing a lot of isolation because they don’t speak the language. They’ll be in their homes all day, and they speak to very few people, and face a lot of patriarchal condensation. It’s very difficult for them to actually reach out and build social capital.

And so at first, we went into this thinking, what’s the policy solution to all of this? Then our main takeaway was this: the solution actually can’t come from the policy-level, but has to come from a grassroots community level. How it would work, a Muslim woman would need to organise other Muslim women, to create communities where they can come together and talk, and elevate and sensitize each other to what are various forms of violence. Because a lot of women don’t necessarily know where, or what, domestic or gender-based violence is.

Our suggested model for change was organising psychosocial support groups that were led by peers, other Muslim women, in community, at mosques, so that women can come together and actually discuss the various challenges they’re facing, and heal together — which is very WISE-esque, but I swear I did not expect it that way.

You mentioned Khadījah as an example of a Muslim woman who was both an entrepreneur and leader. Islamic history has many examples of empowered women, yet patriarchal narratives about women’s rights in Islam — promoted largely by men—obscure this. Why do you think these views continue to thrive?

I think everything is intentional. I think systematically, women have been kept out of narrative for the past 200 years. Before the past 200 years, women were the thought leaders in Islamic tradition, Islamic literature — things like this. Then within the past years, women have been systematically kept down. I think it’s a power play: men want to hold onto power. This is a very Eurocentric-type ideology that was brought over with colonization.

That’s kind of the perpetual narrative. When you read feminist literature in Egypt, like Qasim Amin, he’ll talk a lot about the liberation of Muslim women, and that Muslim woman should remove the veil in Egypt. He’ll be like, “yeah, they should remove the veil, but all of these women who are wearing the veil and active in society, should also go home and clean.” It’s such a dissonance that a very external type of thinking creates within our communities. Like, the Last Sermon of the Prophet is really empowering to women, but women can’t enter the mosque to pray. It’s like, ya’ll are confused: you have multiple identities. But I’m not here for it — I’m going to work with women and try to create change.

Throughout your experiences as an advocate, what’s a core belief of yours that changed? Be it about leadership, organisations, people — anything.

I think I kind of mentioned it — one of them was nontraditional allies in very weird spaces. My organising started on the streets of New York. I was reading Malcolm X, so I was in this mindset that was very adversarial — us versus them. I think my experience, and with age, my idea of who is us and who is them has been very much nuanced. Growing up in Queens, for example, I wasn’t around a lot of white people. I wasn’t around a lot of people who were different from communities of colour, and I had a very prescriptive narrative that I had built in my mind — same for men.

When I talked about a sheikh being very conservative, very misogynistic, very traditional, when really that sheikh can be the most bubbly, kind human being who really wants to help out. And same thing: white people who are obviously Neo-Nazis, but now my literal soul sister — best friend in the world — is a white woman. There’s like so much that I think I’ve grown, in terms of building empathy and trying to understand where people are coming from and why they hold so much particular anger towards a particular group, being very patient.

And I think I’ve taken that role on myself, even though I don’t expect it of other people of colour to do that — to constantly educate. I feel because I’m so visible in my role, I’m okay doing that, and I’ve built a lot of patience, empathy, and love just listening to people. And realizing actually, they’re not hateful sometimes, they just don’t understand, they’re scared, they have ignorance and how sometimes there’s ignorance even with my own community. The idea is working on my own biases and understanding that everyone has biases, how do we identify what those biases are, and consistently work to not be prejudiced and racist, and consistently work to not be homophobic, misogynistic, Islamophobic, all these things, because we all carry that within us at some level.

It’s like a constant activity of deep reflection but it’s important in a position of leadership, when I’m going to be working with 14-year old girls who are looking up to me. That’s kind of it: not being too hard on myself, not being too hard on other people — constantly working and growing together.