American Muslim women take control of their portrayal in collection of 40 essays
By Rebecca Dill
Do not let the media fool you: American Muslim women are just like any other woman in the United States. They choose their own careers and work in the same professions as any other American. They are politicians, doctors, mothers and writers and any other career under the sun, even Miss USA. Each woman has her own personality and style. Each chooses the degree in which they desire to cover themselves, some wearing the hijab, some not. But hijab or not, this is not the defining characteristic of these women.
“I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim,” edited by Maria M. Ebrahimji and Zahra T. Suratwala, features essays written by 40 young American Muslim women. Each woman has her own story in which she has formed her identity as both a Muslim and an American and refusing to be stereotyped by anyone, including her own community. Tackling topics such as the hijab and prejudices the women have faced as Muslims, the book offers a glimpse of what it is that motivates these women to practice their faith. This book appeals to Muslims and non-Muslims alike as we all can not only learn something new from these women’s stories, but also see ourselves in their aspirations and courage.
The hijab plays a central role in many of the stories, as a single piece of fabric has become the de facto symbol of Muslim women to many in this country. For Muslim women in America, wearing a hijab is an extremely personal decision that can put a woman at odds not only with the societal norms, but sometimes with their own friends and family as well. Mona Rajab, an English teacher in Syria, writes of her father’s disapproval of the hijab in “Unwelcome Change.” But like many of the other women who have faced opposition, she persists. For the women who wear it, the hijab can provide a sense of empowerment, allowing them to be judged based on their mind and not their looks.
Those unfamiliar with the cross-cultural dynamics of Islam in America may not realize that the racism present in the broader American society can exist within those who practice Islam too, even as it is in opposition to the teachings of the religion. Many of the African-American writers describe the challenges of fitting in with the Muslim body, or Ummah, as others question their citizenship and even their racial identity. Kameelah Janan Rasheed, a teacher and documentary photographer, writes in “Lines of Bad Grammar” that she “endured airport security checks, racial authenticity authorization, and religious piety interrogations.” No matter where she was, people would make her feel as if she were not American enough, or black enough or Muslim enough for their taste. Throughout the essay, Kameelah rejects other people’s desire to categorize her, and instead chooses to be obliged to God. These experiences can ring true with everyone, especially young adults as they try to form their own identities while encountering external pressures from their peers.
This book serves as an inspiration to Muslim women and provides valuable insight to those curious about their lives in America. The contributors directly contradict the image of the oppressed Muslim woman who is forced to cover her head and follow her husband’s commands through honest representations of their lives. Through the adversity, none of the women play the victim. Instead, they use the challenges they have faced as a means of gaining strength and character. It is unfortunate that a book needs to be written to show that a Muslim woman is just like any other woman in America with her challenges and insecurities but also her dreams and desires for the future. It is even more unfortunate that the book’s appeal may stop short of those who know little about Islam and hold misconceptions about American Muslim women – in other words, those who could benefit most.
There is a sense of hope in every story and we can use this hope for a better future for Muslim and non-Muslim relations. In her essay “Soul Baring and Barrier Breaking,” contributor Nafees Asiya Syed writes, “There is no inherent friction between Americans and Muslims, but there are many obstacles preventing mutual understanding.” Now it’s just a matter of Muslims and non-Muslims working together to overcome these obstacles. “I Speak for Myself” provides a solid starting point.
Rebecca Dill is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and serves as assistant to the director at the Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles.