I've read several books of collected essays and interviews about Muslim women but I Speak For Myself: American Women On Being Muslim, edited by Maria M. Ebrahimji and Zahra T. Suratwala, is the first of it's kind for me. There is a diverse mix of perspectives included within the work and in spite of the conflicting emotions that I experienced while reading it, I would absolutely recommend this book to both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. No two Muslim women are exactly the same, just as no two Christian or Jewish women are, and this book does an excellent job at displaying the colorful tapestry of Muslimah voices as we traverse modernity in the U.S. and grow in faith.
The Holy Quran says in Surah Al Hujraat 49:12:
O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).
Upon reading this book, I felt as if I were getting to know my fellow Muslim sisters a little better and was able to read first-hand accounts of their lives as they worship, work, go to school and raise children here in the United States, while in some cases simultaneously maintaining ties to their countries of origin. This book affirms that we all face struggles in our lives and many of the essays included are honest and moving accounts of the challenges that these Muslim women have encountered. Some of the sisters have been fortunate enough to have overcome the obstacles that they have run up against while others have come to accept uncomfortable circumstances, but not without victories that have restored or strengthened their faith.
There are stories about having experienced bigotry, prejudice, loss of identity, confusion about traditional practices of Islam and spiritual emptiness. Maytha Alhassen reveals how she struggled with her identity as an Arab American Muslim, Maryam Abdl-Haleem shares her story spiritual re-discovery of Islam, Amira Choueiki writes about how she navigated the two worlds of being Muslim and American when travelling abroad, Nafees Asiya Syed speaks about the importance of the Muslim narrative within American society and Sama Wareh reveals her toil with knowing and accepting herself versus seeking to please others. These are just a few of the women featured and although I would like to write about all of them time simply does not permit me to. For this reason it was difficult to choose between the quotes to include in this review because there were so many interesting and insightful admissions shared.
Ruqayya Raheem Gibson, a social worker who found her purpose when supporting Hurricane Katrina survivors in Houston, TX wrote in her essay Moment of Truth:
"I was taught that God gave me experiences in life to prepare me for my moment of truth."
While Maryam Abdl-Haleem beautifully expresses how she re-discovered meaning in her practice of Islam while travelling to her home country of Egypt in her essay There and Back Again:
"Nothing would console me other than communicating with God directly. For the first time, I linked religious acts with the purpose of fulfilling my overwhelming spiritual needs, for giving transcendent meaning to a transient life."
Ultimately, I can honestly say that I was changed by this book. Kameelah Janan Rasheed spoke directly to some of the issues that I have personally faced when she wrote in her essay, Lines of Bad Grammar:
"As a black Muslim woman in America, I am a run-on sentence that others constantly try to edit. Self-proclaimed editors take their pens to me as they would to a manuscript: erasing and marking. For a while, I readily offered up myself for editing because I'd internalized the grammar identity, believing linearity was more important than truth."
It has taken me almost five years to accept myself for who I am, as Allah, subhana'wa'taa'la, has created me to be, and it was refreshing to see that this young woman has come to this realization already in her journey. Yes, we as women have been granted equal rights with men, and with men and women of other races and ethnicities, but the decrees of Islam do not always match the practices of society. Nonetheless, we persevere and seek to establish the standards of Islam as we learn and grow as Muslims.
The Holy Quran further states in Surah Al Baqara 2:256:
Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from Error; whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah hears and knows all things.
Not all of the women writers within this book wear hijab and some of them have shared things from their lives that conflict with my understanding of Islam, but I recognize that we as humans are all on a personal journey and that we are all evolving, changing, and learning new lessons in life. I highly recommend this book and I am grateful for the conversation that these essays initiate within a societal context. Women's voices have been too often suppressed from meaningful discourse and we must remember that it is not wrong for us to speak for ourselves.