Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons

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Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons
Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons.jpg
Alma materAntioch University, B.A. Temple University, M.A., Ph.D
OrganizationUniversity of Florida

Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, formerly Gwendolyn Robinson, is an Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Florida, where she researches Islamic feminism and the impact of Sharia law on Muslim women.[1] She was a civil rights activist, serving as a member of both the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Nation of Islam (NOI).[2] Simmons has received a number of prestigious fellowships, including a Fulbright Fellowship, USAID Fellowships, and an American Center of Oriental Research Fellowship.[3][4]

Early life and education[edit]

Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons was born in Memphis, Tennessee, where she was raised by her Baptist grandmother, Rhonda Bell Robinson.[5][6] The great-granddaughter of a slave, Simmons was raised with the knowledge of her family history and the ways in which it was affected by slavery and its legacies.[7] Her family valued and encouraged her to pursue education, and she became the first in her family to attend college.[8]

Simmons enrolled at Spelman College in 1962. Soon after she began classes, she was summoned by the dean of students, who deemed her natural hair to be an "embarrassment" to the school and its expectations that students be "well-groomed."[9] This would become one of several disputes Simmons experienced with the Spelman administration as her involvement with student activism began to increase.

In 1989, Simmons completed her B.A. at Antioch University, where she studied Human Services. She went on to study at Temple University, receiving an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Religion with a focus on Islam, and a Graduate Certificate in Women's Studies. She wrote her dissertation on "The Contemporary Impact of Shari'ah Law on Women's Lives in Jordan and Palestine."[3]

Student activism[edit]

Simmons was inspired to get involved in the civil rights movement by two of her professors, Staughton Lynd and Esta Seaton, who contextualized the current movement with historic African-American struggle. Also influential in Simmons' increasing activism were Howard Zinn, Spelman's History Department head, and Vincent Harding and Rosemarie Freeny Harding, co-directors of Atlanta's Mennonite House. Simmons began volunteering at the nearby Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) headquarters alongside SNCC chair John Lewis, SNCC executive secretary James Forman, and fellow Spelman student Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson. Simmons was careful to participate in office work only, where she was less likely to draw attention from her family and from the Spelman administration.[3] She also became involved with the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights early on during her time at Spelman.[10]

In 1963, she successfully ran to become a Spelman representative to SNCC's coordinating committee.[3] In early January 1964, Simmons was arrested along with other Spelman students for participating in a lunch-counter demonstration at Lester Maddox's Pickrick restaurant. She spent a night in jail and was again summoned by the dean of students, who put her on academic probation for violating Spelman's prohibitions on civil rights demonstrations. This did not prevent Simmons from participating in another sit-in at a Krystal restaurant a few days later, where she was once again arrested.[3][11] This time, she spent three nights in jail, was rebuked by Spelman President Manley, and had her scholarship revoked. In light of these punitive measures, friends and fellow demonstrators throughout the Atlanta University Center rallied to Simmons' support, organizing a march to President Manley's house.[11] As a consequence, Simmons was allowed to remain at Spelman, though under strict probation.[12] Simmons continued taking classes during the spring of 1964, and she assisted Staughton Lynd in developing curriculum for the upcoming Mississippi Freedom Summer Project and preparing materials for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.[3]

Engaged by Freedom Summer materials and encouraged by fellow students, Staughton Lynd, and Vincent Harding, Simmons decided to spend the summer of 1964 volunteering with the Mississippi Freedom project. Spelman administrators informed Simmons' family of this decision, who feared for Simmons' safety in working in an area known for Ku Klux Klan violence. They acted decisively to prevent her from leaving, bringing her home and intercepting correspondence from SNCC.[3] Through covert money transfers from SNCC, Simmons was finally able to travel to Mississippi, much to the dismay of her family.[10] Despite this disapproval, Simmons traveled to Oxford, Ohio for orientation, and then on to Mississippi. In Oxford, Simmons served as project trainer, working with Staughton Lynd in his capacity as orientation director, as well as Vincent Harding.[3]

In Mississippi, Simmons was sent to the city of Laurel in Jones County, an area notorious for Klan violence. In this environment, Simmons feared for her life, regularly encountering hostility and police harassment.[3] When her project director, Lester McKinney, was sent to jail, Simmons was appointed to replace him, despite her lack of field organizing experience. She thus became one of only seven female Freedom Summer project directors. Under Simmons' direction, Freedom Summer volunteers operated a Freedom School, opened a day care, registered voters, and established a library.[3]

Civil rights activism[edit]


At the end of Freedom Summer, Simmons decided to stay in Laurel rather than return to Spelman.[3] While Simmons worked in Laurel, she resided in the nearby city of Hattiesburg, since Laurel was too dangerous to live in. She served as freedom school director of SNCC's Laurel Mississippi project, providing curriculum development for freedom schools. As a young, black, and female leader in SNCC, Simmons faced both racism and sexism. She was also fearful of sexual violence, given that she was responsible for a predominantly white and male cohort of volunteers and had already experienced sexual violence during her orientation session in Ohio. Accordingly, she created an anti-sexual harassment policy for the Laurel Project, which she named the "Amazon Project." The policy was one of the first of its kind in SNCC.[13] It was during her time in Mississippi that Simmons began identifying as a feminist.[2]

In 1965, after spending eighteen months in Laurel, Simmons returned to Atlanta, psychologically scarred by the violence she had witnessed. At the recommendation of James Forman, she took a break from organizing and worked as a fundraiser in SNCC's New York City office.[10]

A year later, Simmons returned to activism in the South. In 1966, she was hired as co-director on the newly formed SNCC Atlanta Project alongside fellow SNCC activist Bill Ware in the Vine City neighborhood.[3][10] The Atlanta Project was an early grassroots expression of Black Power, focusing its efforts on political mobilization and urban improvement.[10] Simmons also continued her work with freedom school initiatives with the Project.[3][10] Simmons used her time on the Atlanta Project to evaluate civil rights movement tactics and develop preliminary theories of Black Power.[3] For instance, she helped draft the project's position paper on Black Power, which became controversial for its commentary on white members of SNCC.[5]

Simmons harbored a number of frustrations with white SNCC organizers, who she felt disrespected her authority and used up resources in being trained to work in black communities. She therefore advocated for whites to work on racial justice issues in white communities, where they could work in parallel with black organizers. These stances, as expressed in the project's Black Power position paper, were controversial and not necessarily indicative of the views of SNCC leaders, including James Forman and head of research Jack Minnis. Simmons also joined black female SNCC activists in critiquing increasing interracial relationships between black men and white women, which were perceived as a rejection of black women.[10]

In the late 1960s, Simmons left Atlanta for Philadelphia, where she spent twenty years working for the American Friends Service Committee.[3] She also served as treasurer of the National Black Independent Party.[14]


During her time in SNCC, Simmons first heard Malcolm X on a record and was instantly drawn to his message. She officially joined the Nation of Islam (NOI) in 1967 and converted to Islam.[2]

While a member of the NOI, Simmons also served as Midwest region coordinator for the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) while living in Chicago.[2] From Chicago, Simmons and her husband Michael Simmons moved to New York, joining Minister Louis Farrakhan's Mosque No. 7.

In her reflections of her time spent with the NOI, Simmons expressed displeasure with the gender hierarchy that governed women's limited role in organizing:

"Unlike the SNCC, however, there was really no place for a woman to exercise what I considered real leadership as it had been in SNCC. As I was to learn later, my role as a woman in the NOI was to be a 'symbol of purity and chastity' and to be obedient and submissive to male authority, and the hallmark of my existence was that of mother of many children and a dutiful wife and helper to my husband, to whom I should defer in all matters of importance."[1]

Simmons directly contravened NOI teachings in a number of ways, for instance, by using birth control despite the beliefs of NOI leader Elijah Muhammad, who viewed birth control as an attack on black families. Simmons also refrained from wearing the Muslim Girls Training uniform and headscarf, choosing not to complicate her organizing efforts with religious expression.[2]

Other criticisms Simmons expressed regarding the NOI concerned the emphasis on money that burdened poor members, the militaristic and gendered hierarchy, and the use of corporal punishments. She left the organization in 1972.[2]

Islamic feminist research and advocacy[edit]

Beginning in 1971, Simmons spent seventeen years as a disciple of Sufi Sheikh Muhammad Raheem Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a renowned leader of Islamic mysticism.[15][6] Simmons received the name "Zoharah" from Muhaiyaddeen.[4] She was one of his first American students,[14] and she remains an active member of the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship and Mosque.[6]

As part of her work in academia, Simmons researched the contemporary impact of Sharia law on Muslim women in various communities, traveling to Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria.[1] She also spent some time living in Amman, Jordan, in order to conduct research for her academic dissertation.[16]

Her teaching at the University of Florida centers on race, gender, and religion, particularly on African American religious traditions and women's relationship with Islam.[1] In her current work, she seeks to separate the religion of Islam with various cultural interpretations, sometimes looking to history for forgotten and dismissed interpretations. She believes that only through gender equality will Islam be able to successfully thrive in America,[17] and has expressed dismay over the ignorance in American Muslim communities of the Islamic feminist movement.[15] She additionally believes that Islamic feminism recalls the respect for women expressed in the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad's teachings that has been forgotten in more modern interpretations.[18]

Her writings also address issues facing African Americans, such as teen pregnancy, as well as broader concerns related to Third World inequities.[17]

Personal life[edit]

Simmons formed a romantic relationship with Michael Simmons, a fellow Atlanta Project organizer, after recruiting him in 1965 to work on Julian Bond's campaign for a Georgia state legislature seat.[10] The couple was required to marry upon joining the Nation of Islam in order to continue living together.[2]

They have one daughter, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who is an award-winning feminist documentary filmmaker.[13] Both Simmons and her daughter have been outspoken about Aishah's experiences with rape and incest.[1]


  • "Striving for Muslim Women's Human Rights--Before and Beyond Beijing," Syracuse University Press (2000)
  • "Racism in Higher Education," University of Florida Journal of Law and Public Policy (2002)
  • "Are we up to the challenge? The need for a radical re-ordering of the Islamic discourse on women," Oneworld Publications (2003)
  • "African American Islam as an Expression of Converts' Religious Faith and Nationalist Dreams and Ambitions," University of Texas Press (2006)
  • "From Muslims in America to American Muslims," Journal of Islamic Law and Culture (2008)
  • "Mama Told Me Not To Go," Pearson Prentice Hall (2008)
  • "Martin Luther King Jr. Revisited: A Black Power Feminist Pays Homage to the King," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion (2008)
  • "From Little Memphis Girl to Mississippi Amazon," University of Illinois Press (2010)


  1. ^ a b c d Women embracing Islam : gender and conversion in the West. Nieuwkerk, Karin van, 1960- (1st ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press. 2006. ISBN 9780292712737. OCLC 614535522.CS1 maint: others (link)
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Y.,, Taylor, Ula. The promise of patriarchy : women and the Nation of Islam. Chapel Hill. ISBN 9781469633923. OCLC 975491059.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o G., Lefever, Harry (2005). Undaunted by the fight : Spelman College and the civil rights movement, 1957/1967 (1st ed.). Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press. ISBN 978-0865549760. OCLC 57594858.
  4. ^ a b Manners, Smith, Karen (2008). Time it was : American stories from the sixties. Koster, Tim. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall. ISBN 9780131840775. OCLC 86117451.
  5. ^ a b "Gwen Robinson (Zoharah Simmons) - SNCC Digital Gateway". SNCC Digital Gateway. Retrieved 2018-03-27.
  6. ^ a b c "This Far by Faith . Zohara Simmons | PBS". Retrieved 2018-03-27.
  7. ^ "Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons and Lucas Johnson — The Movement, Remembered Forward". The On Being Project. Retrieved 2018-03-28.
  8. ^ "Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons | UF College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Head of the CLAS". Retrieved 2018-03-24.
  9. ^ Blain., Roberts, (2014). Pageants, parlors, and pretty women : race and beauty in the twentieth-century South. Chapel Hill. ISBN 9781469614205. OCLC 873805982.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h A., Grady-Willis, Winston (2006). Challenging U.S. apartheid : Atlanta and Black struggles for human rights, 1960-1977. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0822337782. OCLC 62281837.
  11. ^ a b G., Lefever, Harry (2008). Sacred places : a guide to the civil rights sites in Atlanta, Georgia. Page, Michael C. (1st ed.). Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press. ISBN 9780881461213. OCLC 223853577.
  12. ^ Challenged by coeducation : women's colleges since the 1960s. Miller-Bernal, Leslie, 1946-, Poulson, Susan L., 1959- (1st ed.). Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press. 2006. ISBN 978-0826515421. OCLC 769189783.CS1 maint: others (link)
  13. ^ a b Color of violence : the Incite! anthology. INCITE!. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press. 2006. ISBN 9780896087620. OCLC 70707902.CS1 maint: others (link)
  14. ^ a b "Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons - Veterans of Hope". Veterans of Hope. Retrieved 2018-03-27.
  15. ^ a b Progressive Muslims : on justice, gender and pluralism. Safi, Omid, 1970-. Oxford: Oneworld. 2003. ISBN 978-1851683161. OCLC 52380025.CS1 maint: others (link)
  16. ^ Windows of faith : Muslim women scholar-activists in North America. Webb, Gisela. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. 2000. ISBN 978-0815628514. OCLC 45730924.CS1 maint: others (link)
  17. ^ a b 1939-, Leonard, Karen Isaksen, (2003). Muslims in the United States : the state of research. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. ISBN 978-0871545305. OCLC 51629391.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  18. ^ American religious history. Porterfield, Amanda, 1947-. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers. 2002. ISBN 978-0631223214. OCLC 46240351.CS1 maint: others (link)

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