I had not been looking for her. I did not even know she was there.
But, in that moment, she was all that I saw.
A dignified pioneer.
A familiar face.
One of our community mothers.
Sister Amatullah Sharif was her name.
Just four or five rows behind President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Our Muslim sister. Adorned in a majestically wrapped, rolled, and hued purple headdress. The color complemented the soft glow of her chestnut brown skin like a crown to its jewels. It completed her countenance, worthily.
Her gaze focused ever forward.
Perfectly peaceful presence presented powerfully.
I came across this find a few years ago during one of my Muslim History Detective digs through C-SPAN’s archives.
But I could have found Sister Amatullah many places, and much earlier, if only I had been looking for her. I have wanted to write about her ever since.
If we go back and look through the photos and videos of several major milestones for the American Muslim community, we will likely find Sister Amatullah there, off in the distance—recording, facilitating, managing, initiating, always contributing in some significant way.
The Williamsburg Charter signing, in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Virginia’s call for a Bill of Rights, and its respect therein of religious freedom. A luncheon at the Pentagon for U.S. Military chaplains. A conference on religious freedom at the U.S. Department of State. Or, on this day of purple magnificence, the 1997 Inaugural Interfaith Prayer Service, broadcast live on television from the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, in Washington, D.C.
These are but a few shining examples of where Sister Amatullah’s work and community dedication took her.
Among the successful efforts Sister Amatullah personally initiated include the drive to change Washington, D.C.’s “4th Street” to “Islamic Way” and securing an opportunity for a Muslim to give an invocation on the floor of the United States Senate for the first time in our nation’s history!
And yet, many of you have probably never heard of her.
This reminds me of something my own mother once said to me.
“You all are always telling your father’s story. But you never tell my story. You never ask me about my story.”
I was guilty as charged.
“Tell me your story.”
This, I have ever-asked my mother, often, since then.
Too frequently, we see only the men in our lives as the superheroes, but the women — perhaps because their works are always so ever-present, surrounding us like a steady, calming hum — they just become part of the backdrop of our lives, even when they are in the forefront.
We do not notice their sacrifices until they are gone. In their absence, when it is too late to get a fuller picture from them, the reality of their contributions become all too blindingly evident.
Like our community mother, our Sister Amatullah Sharif.
This article is adapted from an earlier piece I wrote four years ago. I noted then that I would be launching an effort to better record the history of American Muslim women. I also shared that a more thorough examination of Sister Amatullah’s contributions would be one of the first stories I would cover.
Our dear Sister Amatullah Sharif has since passed away. But before she passed, we had several conversations by email and phone about her story. We still had more conversations to go, many more questions to be answered. Sister Amatullah was excited to tell me more of her story. But it was not to be.
It is in Sister Amatullah’s memory, and in the memory of so many of our Muslim sister pioneers in this country, so many of our community mothers, across the diversity of races and ethnicities, historical backgrounds and struggles, that I am finally launching Lizzy’s Daughters: The Muslim Women’s Archive of America this month. Follow me @preciousspeaks for updates on the compelling history behind the name choice and the vision for the project. I very much look forward to sharing with you.