“I kind of got defined as a Muslim woman by 9/11,” Khan says. “Until then I just thought of myself as a career girl who’s an imam’s wife whose name is Daisy who is a New Yorker and an American. Muslim was just my own spiritual identity.” In 2005, Khan quit her corporate job and turned to full-time activism as she and her husband became leaders in what some have described as the industry of moderate American Islam. After 9/11, says one American Islamic specialist, the money from governments and foundations came pouring in to groups that promoted dialogue and moderation. Rauf had his consulting contracts, and there were grants for ASMA from such donors as the United Nations, the Carnegie Corporation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Dutch and Qatari governments—amounting to some $1.37 million in 2009, according to the group’s financial report for that year, the latest that is publicly available. Such funding enabled ASMA to expand; in 2004 it started the Cordoba Initiative, a subsidiary focused on improving relations between Islam and the West.
Two years later, Khan founded the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, or WISE, a group whose stated mission is to “empower” Muslim women around the world. The idea had come to her suddenly. She was 48 and had never thought of herself as a feminist. “I was never disempowered by anyone,” she says. But she had grown increasingly disturbed by the questions people kept raising about the treatment of women in the Islamic world—the stonings, honor killings, forced marriages, restrictions on women’s education. Her response was that these practices were un-Islamic, a distortion of the Koran by patriarchal societies and governments. She says her wake-up call came when a woman approached her in a church and said, “You tell us this is a distortion of your faith, but what are you doing about it?” Says Khan: “I realized if I, sitting in America, don’t do something, then who will?”
Her first thought was that Muslim women needed to organize. There were “750 million of them around the world,” she says, and they needed to make their voices heard. “There was no congress of Muslim women. There was no representation. And if you are not sitting at the table with those who are making the decisions, then you cannot effect change.”
Tapping into her huge network, reaching out to her contacts around the world, Khan in just three months organized the first WISE Congress—a meeting of 150 Muslim women leaders from 25 countries, which took place in November 2006 at the Westin hotel in Times Square. “We didn’t know what was going to happen because it was simply my own brainchild,” Khan says. “But people say there was electricity in the room. One woman said, ‘Oh my God, this is like Seneca Falls!’ And then we realized we were creating the modern-day Muslim women’s suffrage movement.”
Today WISE is still in its infancy. But there have been some noteworthy accomplishments. A website highlights Muslim women’s achievements throughout history, disseminates information and relevant news and helps Muslim women communicate with one another. In the planning stages is an international project to train Muslim women jurists; however, an all-woman WISE Shura Council—modeled on the shura, or consultative, councils widely used in the Muslim world—is already at work. A group of Muslim scholars, lawyers and politicians, the council acts as a sort of theological body, issuing opinions and interpretations of Islamic legal and religious texts that promote women’s rights. Working with—not against—the tenets of Islamic law is WISE’s approach.