By Zahra T. Suratwala
In recent years Islam has developed an aura of controversy. Stereotypes abound with regards to Muslim women, their hijab, their freedom and their lives in general. I Speak for Myself (White Cloud Press) is a compilation of essays by forty American Muslim women who have decided to break down some of the stereotypes aimed at them by speaking up and telling their stories. This book is written to demystify the idea of “a” Muslim woman to readers and show the remarkable diversity that exists among American Muslim women.
While the book showcases diversity, the beauty of this starkly honest collection lies in the fact that it is a unifying force for all who read it.
The editors of the book are myself (Zahra Suratwala, a writer and editor who owns Zahra Ink, a writing firm in Chicago) and Maria Ebrahimji, (executive editorial producer at CNN in Atlanta). When starting this book, we did not give the contributors a topic or theme upon which to write the essays; rather, we knew that the women’s identities as Muslim American women would inform whatever the contributors chose to write. The result is an awe-inspiring collection of personal responses to the dramas of life. What is common to each story, however, is that these women – and so many women like them – defy the labels put upon them and define for themselves what it means to be a Muslim American woman.
The women themselves are many things — surfer, lawyer, artist, doctor, state legislature representative, mother, blogger, journalist, anthropologist, philosopher, poet, basketball player, fashion designer. Married, single, mothers, professionals, struggling with their faith, holding steadfastly to it, questioning their identity, finding their purpose, carving their niche, experiencing trauma, experiencing triumph. They are Arab, African-American, Pakistani, Indian, Iranian and Afghani – and of course, they are all American.
The book acts as a bridge between these women and their readers, but it also emerges as a way for the women to find commonality in each other.
The book is already being hailed as an important addition to the literature on religious pluralism in America. It has caught the attention of Jim Wallis, Her Majesty Queen Noor, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus, Zainab Salbi and many others. I Speak for Myself is igniting a response in the media as well, with book reviews, op-eds, features and blog posts from outlets such as Publishers Weekly and The Christian Science Monitor praising the book and expressing relief that the gap is finally being filled.
Readers of I Speak for Myself are presented with a kaleidoscope of stories, woven together around the central idea of limitlessness and individuality. A common theme linking these intimate self-portraits is the way each woman uniquely defies labeling, simply by defining for herself what it means to be American and Muslim and female.
This book serves as a source of inspiration and education for people of other faiths who are interested in learning more about what it is like to be Muslim in America, as well as Muslim women themselves. Some of the issues explored include the balance of Western values with Islamic ones; whether adopting the veil can be an obstacle in the professional arena; expressing oneself as a Muslim within society; and political engagement.
The essays featured in I Speak for Myself are not intended to be reactionary to the current climate of suspicion towards Islam in America, but they certainly address such suspicion in a very personal way. The contributors embody real everyday American women who struggle with their faith while balancing their careers and private life. Some are public about their faith and include their knowledge of it in their professional endeavors. Others keep faith and profession separate. Some are working to change their fellow Americans’ views of Islam, while others are still trying to find their own religious identities. Some stories are so deeply personal you feel you’re reading a private journal entry rather than an essay.