A Muslima is a Muslim woman. Not all Muslim women refer to themselves as Muslimas; those who do tend to be younger, and sometimes more socially aware. The use of the term “Muslima” is akin to the use of words like “Latina,” which is used to describe a woman of Latin origin. Ultimately, the decision to refer to oneself as a Muslima is a personal choice; more conservative Muslims tend not to use it.
By describing herself as a Muslima, a Muslim woman rejects the all-encompassing “Muslim,” distinguishing herself as a separate and distinctively female entity. In a sense, using “Muslima” is empowering, reminding people of the role of women in Islam and stressing the idea that women can be independent, powerful people with their own thoughts, ideas, and goals which may be separate from those of Muslim men.
There are many misconceptions about the role of women in Islam, especially in the West. Most of these misconceptions are the result of poor education or a lack of understanding about the Muslim world, and many Muslimas in the West work hard to undo the stereotypes about Muslim culture, society, and attitudes towards women. By adopting the term “Muslima,” they stress that Islam is for women as well as men.
Using “Muslima” as opposed to “Muslim” is akin to rejecting the use of “he” as a generic pronoun in English. Women in the West have fought very hard for the use of gender neutral pronouns or the more inclusive “he or she” to remind people that women are not faceless objects which can be bundled in under a generic male pronoun. Many Muslimas feel the same way, using this word to remind people that women have a role in Islam, and that they are not necessarily subordinate to men.
You may also see “Muslima” spelled as “Muslimah,” depending on regional preference. Many Muslim women's magazines and other publications now use the term to appeal to a younger demographic, as do some Muslim dating agencies. The use of “Muslima” to describe Muslim women is growing, and as a result it is much more socially acceptable. However, it is still a good idea to listen carefully to the language women use to describe themselves; if a woman says that she identifies as a Muslim, it is a good idea to use “Muslim,” rather than “Muslima,” out of respect to her personal preference.