Islam in Africa

Sara Brennen
November 03, 2009

The third Research Unplugged of the fall season featured Gabeba Baderoon on "Islam in Africa: How Gender, Race and Slavery Shaped Muslim Life in South Africa." Baderoon—a poet and assistant professor of Women's Studies and African and African-American Studies—opened the discussion with a captivating reading of her poem "A Prospect of Beauty and Unjustness," which was inspired by her hometown of Cape Town. Baderoon elaborated, "The city is extraordinarily God-given in its beauty, but it has a painful history."

Explained Baderoon, the first democratic elections to be held South Africa in April 1994 also marked the 300th anniversary of the presence of Muslims in the country, when the Dutch East India company first brought in Muslims as slaves from territories around the Indian Ocean. While slavery there formally ended in 1834, the country continued to struggle with the impact of that slavery in social, political and economic terms, she noted. She suggested there are parallels between the history of South Africa and that of the United States in the ways that their indigenous people, slaves, and colonists are portrayed.

Baderoon spoke about how, in 1954, the South African government adopted the Population Registration Act, which divided society into the racial categories, white, native and colored. Citizens were required to carry cards, and these categories dictated nearly everything that people were or were not allowed to do. Baderoon described the arbitrary ways in which people were categorized, such as "the pencil test." A pencil was placed through a person's hair, and if the hair was smooth enough so that the pencil fell out, that person was considered to be white.

Noting that at the last census Muslims comprised less than 1.5 percent of the population of South Africa, Baderoon emphasized that "the Muslim population is highly visible and significantly integrated into the culture." She invited the audience to join her in "admiring the complexity, variety, and depth" of Muslim literature, drama, and the visual arts, which have flourished since the lifting of apartheid in 1994.

For more about Gabeba Baderoon, read on...

Last Updated November 03, 2009