Muslim Women Speak for Themselves

A Publication of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Muslim Women Speak for Themselves

We all have important causes to which we are innately drawn. My cause has always been twofold: women’s equality and Islam. A few years ago I launched Altmuslimah.com, a website devoted to creating a forum for open and honest discussion about gender issues in Islam from all perspectives, Muslim and non-Muslim, female and male. My vision for Altmuslimah was to foster an environment conducive to the exploration of real and pressing issues within the Muslim community through a combination of personal narratives, debate, and analysis.

The opportunity, therefore, to share my personal experiences and journey along with other Muslim American women in I Speak for Myself, a collection of 40 essays by 40 Muslim American women under the age of 40, edited by Maria Ebrahimji and Zahra Suratwala and published by White Cloud Press, was not only important and exciting but completely natural for me.

Oftentimes the voices of Muslim women are overlooked, ignored and under-appreciated, but I Speak for Myself offers a rare and honest look into the lives of real Muslim American women, who are trying to navigate the multiple and often seemingly conflicting facets of our worlds and our identities. Lawyers, artists, teachers, engineers, students – the women featured in this book discuss the realities of being Muslim women in America.

We talk about our faith, our children, our husbands and our careers, and ultimately our stories reflect the richness and diversity of Islam in America.

Rashida Tlaib, for instance, writes about how she realised that as a representative to the Michigan state legislature she might be able to do good for her community. She spent three months conducting an aggressive door-to-door election campaign and her efforts paid off. Although she was the only Arab and Muslim running for the seat in a highly diverse district which was Hispanic, white, and African American, she won the election by an astounding 44 per cent of the vote, and in 2008, Rashida became the first Muslim woman in the Michigan state legislature.

In another story, Maryam Habib Khan, a Muslim American engineer for the US Army Corps of Engineers, writes about her deployment to Afghanistan in 2004 and 2006. She worked on meaningful projects, like the renovation of a women’s hospital in Kabul, which significantly benefited the lives of Afghan women and children every day, and Maryam returned home with a sense of deep-seated accomplishment and fulfilment. She had sacrificed neither her dignity as a Muslim woman nor as an American in Afghanistan, but rather become an exemplar for unifying and harnessing the disparate elements of her identity as a woman, engineer, Muslim, and American to help educate her colleagues and better the lives of Afghan people who needed it.

My own story is centred on spiritual evolution vis-à-vis intra-community politics. In my chapter titled “Conquering Veils: Gender and Islams,” I speak about my encounter with misogynist literature that purported to lay out the “ideal” Muslim woman. I also speak about my community’s hypocrisy on the issue of hijab (headscarf), religious symbolism, and judging others’ morality on the basis of such artificial symbols. Most importantly, however, my story highlights the process of finding my way out of the spiritual agony wrought by such experiences and eventually finding myself in a closer, more authentic relationship with God than I had ever before experienced.

I Speak for Myself is about understanding and accepting the complexity and multiplicity of Islam as it is in the real world. It offers a very personal, human look into what it actually means to be Muslim in America. I am proud to have been able to contribute to this book because I Speak for Myself is part of a very important movement to promote both intra- and inter-religious dialogue that is taking place all over this country and the world. It is a step towards cross-cultural understanding and tolerance, which both Muslims and non-Muslims alike can gain from.

Asma T. Uddin is a legal fellow at ISPU and the founder and editor-in-chief of altmuslimah.com. She is also an international law attorney with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit, non-partisan, public interest law firm based in Washington, D.C.

This article was published by Common Ground News Service on June 14, 2011. Click here to read.