A small, human rights nonprofit that was born at the University of Richmond School of Law is expanding, thanks to a grant from one of the world’s largest private foundations.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, known for efforts to end hunger and eradicate disease, awarded $1.42 million to Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights.

Karamah, which means “dignity” in Arabic, was started by law professor Azizah Y. al-Hibri to help educate Muslim women and others that Islam does not require a choice between their human rights and their faith.

“Religion does not oppress people. It’s usually the culture,” al-Hibri says. “I saw that through the women’s movement in the United States, when Christian and Jewish women went through the patriarchal tradition and dissected it and came up with a feminist interpretation of those religions. I understood my religion to be the same way.”

Promoting Muslim Women's Rights Globally

By teaching the fundamentals of Islamic law and leadership principles, the organization helps women to address social problems where they live.

For al-Hibri, a former philosophy professor and Wall Street lawyer, the grant recognizes the value of the work Karamah is doing on women’s behalf.

“It will strengthen our ability to fulfill our mission,” she says. “We are such a small operation and we’ve been working with very little [funding]. I’m thankful they looked our way and gave us a chance to enhance our capabilities.”

The grant, which is the largest in Karamah’s history, will help expand Karamah’s work with Muslim women jurists in part by opening a branch in Brussels. It will enable Karamah to upgrade its global information network, and it will help Karamah develop a family law division.

Dean John G. Douglass says a Gates grant to a law professor is unusual. He lauded al-Hibri as one of the principal voices speaking for women’s rights under Islamic law.

Service-Learning Opportunities for Students

“Her teaching has given our students a balanced and reasoned understanding of cultures, which, in today’s world, are far too often painted with a broad brush,” Douglass says. “Equally important, professor al-Hibri’s work through Karamah has provided opportunities for our students to engage in service-based learning on an international scale.”

Karamah, which is based in Washington, D.C., works with a worldwide network of Muslim women lawyers who research and write about issues of Islamic jurisprudence, including domestic violence and divorce.

Karamah also runs a Law and Leadership Summer Program in which Muslim women from around the world convene to discuss the issues affecting Muslim communities.

University undergraduate students, including several from the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement and Spiders for the Common Good, work with Karamah.

Jenny Boylan, a senior from Rockville, Md., who is headed to graduate school in political science or international relations, says her experience with Karamah gave her valuable insights from women around the world.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about Islam and what it means for women,” Boylan says. “After working with Karamah, I was able to speak up in class about the complexities of many issues and women’s roles in the Middle East.”

This article by Bonnie V. Winston originally appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Richmond Law magazine. Read the full article.