by Bethsaida Nieves
Madison, Wisconsin - What does it mean to be a Muslim woman in America today? In I Speak for Myself, 40 Muslim American women share their experiences of growing up in America. Their personal narratives of struggles and triumphs remind us that we share much more in the journey of life than we often realize.
I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim, edited by Maria M. Ebrahimji and Zahra T. Suratwala, engages readers in a complex set of emotional, symbolic and social considerations related to growing up as a Muslim woman in America.
The stories are a manifestation of the spiritual evolution of change. On the surface, we read of problematic relationships with husbands, co-workers, parents and friends but, on a deeper level, the journey is an expression of the human spirit. These women triumph over adversity in their lives and remind us of the potential and courage within each of us. As we mature and evolve, we come to develop an awareness of the beauty and sacredness of life that transcends culture. For example, one woman writes about finding the strength and power of her voice after divorce and abuse. Another woman discusses the cultural significance of her conversations while working for a state representative.
We also read of how one woman humorously and anxiously deals with the generational and cultural gaps she experiences with her parents. Grappling with the desire to fit in, another woman describes how she struggles to explain and rationalise her name, while yet another speaks to the difficulty in deciding whether or not to wear the hijab (headscarf). Each woman describes her own deepest creative potential, and expresses profound truths about human existence.
Set in the United States and several countries around the world, I Speak for Myself is contextualised within the discourses of American and Muslim identities. This collection of stories extends these discourses into issues of race, class, religion, ethnicity, history, politics, language and gender. They complicate each society’s notions of history, Islam and culture, which ultimately challenges the idea that Muslim women are voiceless and powerless. These authors teach us that beyond culture, there is a deeper tie that binds us – our desire for peace and social justice.
I Speak for Myself provides paradigms that illuminate human possibilities. Each woman describes an American identity plagued by real ambivalence and anxiety about the obvious interconnectedness between religion, politics and societal expectations. One woman speaks of a childhood friend who viewed her as American and not Muslim and how, at the time, it almost made her proud. But the confusion made her pause and realise that she did not have to choose between being Muslim and being American. She could be both.
Another woman explains how in her youth she struggled with being the “right” type of Muslim and fitting in the Muslim community. She soon recognised that there was not only one way to be Muslim and that Islam welcomed a wide range of religious expression.
But the challenges were not only in childhood or adolescence. An African American Muslim woman describes how she feels both included and excluded within the Muslim community, and her desire for Muslims to address discrimination within some Muslim communities. Another African American woman describes the frustration she experienced when she tried to adhere to a “true” Islamic, feminist and African American identity. Instead, she decides to embrace the fragmented and contradictory parts of her individuality, rather than try to be like everyone else.
The discussion of each woman’s religious beliefs reflects how identities fluctuate and are appropriated and negotiated. Each woman becomes part of this complex negotiation of power and powerlessness in which she undercuts the mythology of the oppressed Muslim woman and creates a model of resistance.
The women who have shared their stories are engineers, doctors, lawyers, community leaders, social justice advocates, former Peace Corps and Teach for America volunteers, artists, professors, students, politicians, award winners, bloggers, journalists, environmentalists and, above all, our sisters in humanity. Through the experiences of each woman, readers of I Speak for Myself attain a stronger level of understanding of what it means to grow up as a Muslim woman in America.
* Bethsaida Nieves is a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research and teaching interests include comparative and international education studies. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).