"I have other names but I prefer to be called by my birth name," Nelisiwe Msomi, a health journalist and activist, tells me. We're at her masjid in kwaThema, a township to the east of Johannesburg. "This mosque feels like home, it's in the community which raised me and has seen me grow," she says. In the distance a group of people, some in hijabs or abayas and some in kaftans, start making their way into the place of worship, and their garments—blowing in the early afternoon breeze—glisten like coral in flowing water.
"For the longest time I did not use my birth name, which in isiZulu translates to 'satisfied,'" says Msomi. "When I got to school, I got given the Arabic name Shahida. I'm not ashamed of it but when I say my name is 'Nelisiwe', I'm affirming that Black Muslims in South Africa do exist and fighting against our erasure."
Msomi—who has and continues to be outspoken on the rights of women in her community—is part of a growing movement of young Black African Muslim women in South Africa carving a more inclusive religion that celebrates the intersection of Islam and African traditions. Instead of a religious practice in which African tradition is sidelined or shamed, which Msomi says has been the case in the local Muslim community, where the dominant culture has historically been Indian or Arab, and Malay in the southern parts of the country.
"Being Black, Muslim and woman means I have three battles to fight: racism, Islamophobia and patriarchy. And I'm always navigating between my religion and culture; trying to find a balance between these identities, and attempting to synchronise them". Over the years, Msomi says she has been growing spiritually however as she embraces being both Muslim and Zulu, says she and her younger sister Zahara, who attends an Islamic oriented school, have been criticised for openly participating their culture. And makes an example of the time Zahara wore traditional beadwork on top of her hijab at an event, for which she was severely denounced by her schoolhead. "As a Zulu Muslim, I feel religion isn't in conflict with my culture but rather certain people who want to impose their culture onto us Black Muslims. We should be encouraged to practice our culture."
The Black African Muslim community is a minority group within South Africa who, despite living in a country where they can practice Islam openly, still face marginalisation (and xenophobia, namely towards African nationals, some of whom make up part of the Black African Muslim population in in the country). Approximately 80 percent of South Africa's population practices Christianity, while Islam—which dates back to the 17th Century in the Cape Colony and the 18th Century in the eastern part of the country—represents only 2 percent of South Africans' religious belief, and the Black African Muslim community is a fraction therein."
"Among the black majority of the South African population the number of Muslims is relatively modest. During the late 1970s and early 1980s a number of the black youth embraced Islam convinced that Islam as a non-white, non-Christian and non-oppressive religion with a clear statement on the equality of all human beings could be adopted as an ideology with the potential to resist apartheid. This might encourage the idea of an increasing number of black Muslims in South Africa. However, the proportion of them compared to the rest is insignificant," writes academic and researcher Ursula Günther as she tracesthe growth of Islam within the Black African community.
"I am definitely part of this movement. It's a consciousness shift in which there is a deep sense of Black Muslim pride and where we're all supportive of one another," says Tshepang Mamogale, a graphic designer and aspiring modest fashion designer. Like Msomi, Mamogale—who is a single mother of two—is considering the meeting point of tradition and religion, and looks to marriage as an example. "In Islam there's no such thing as the man initiating the marriage. As a woman you can make the proposal. But it can be quite tricky when marrying a Muslim person who isn't Black African and who doesn't understand lobola," she says about the customary marriage practice of lobola or a bride price. "I believe it is a tradition I'd like to engage in. Islam preaches family bonds, so I think it's important for different cultures to be respected. As much as Islam is a way of life and our religion, everyone has a culture. Egyptians have their own culture, Indians do too. I'm an African Muslim, wear clothes that represent my faith and Africanness, and therefore believe in practicing my culture, and lobola is a part of that."
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