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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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Originally Published by CNN, May 3, 2011

Answering today’s five OFF-SET questions is Maria Ebrahimji, who along with Zahra Suratwala, edited the new book, “I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim.”

The book features essays by 40 women—doctors, engineers, journalists, mothers, students, politicians, and academics–who explore what it means to be a Muslim woman in America.

Ebrahimji is CNN’s Executive Editorial Producer and manages a team that is responsible for guest coverage and story planning for all of the network’s special events and breaking news programming. She is a member of the Asian American Journalists Association and serves on the board of the Atlanta Press Club.

In the book’s first essay, journalist and blogger Yusra Tekbali is a staff assistant in the office of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona. A constituent phones and asks the origin of her name. Tekbali answers: Arabic. There is a grunt and a dial tone. Tekbali writes, “Sometimes, it feels like I am racing against a clock that always reads 9:11.”  

How common is that experience—and what is the affect of that kind of suspicion, if not prejudice?

For many American Muslims, including those born here, 9/11 was an awakening to our identity and to the idea that Muslims were now the new “other.”  Yusra’s experience is not uncommon and many of us have felt some sort of prejudice against us at some time in our lives.

In some cases, these experiences have more to do with lack of understanding and education about what Islam means and how we practice it, rather than pure intellectual and emotional hate.

Fortunately, in the ten years since 9/11, there are many more American Muslims who are working in civil society and government. Hopefully their presence alone will help to dispel what I call an “otherness” epidemic that seems to be our country’s natural reaction to fear and the unknown.

Why do many American Muslim women choose to wear “hijab”—the traditional modest dress, include a headscarf—and what are the challenges in doing so?

Some women choose to wear the hijab because of their interpretation of Islamic guidelines.  Some women wear it in order to be closer to God. Others wear it purely because they view it as the utmost form of modesty as prescribed by God in the Quran.

Many of the women in this book see the debates other countries are having around the niqab and wonder how something so fundamentally basic can be so politicized. I think the benefit of living in America is that we are all afforded the right to choose how we dress and present ourselves in public.  This is why you see so many different interpretations of modest dress within American Islam.

Several of the women in the book discuss their view of hijab and several, like me choose to not wear it at all. I think given the heightened security in this country after 9/11, there is an obvious scrutiny surrounding anyone that covers fully, but the women in this book understand this and are aware of their responsibilities to cooperate and to practice their faith.

Hebah Ahmed (whom you have had on your program) wears the niqab, has a Master’s degree in engineering, and participates fully in public life, though she has chosen to work from home and home-school her children. Hebah is an example of someone who is acutely aware of the (mis)perceptions her choice of dress might cause but continues to positively advocate for her choice and the respect of those around her.

Mariam Sobh is a blogger and radio commentator in Chicago whose dream it is to be the first hijabi television news anchor in America. She hasn’t gotten there yet, but continues to advocate through her HijabTrendz blog and through her writing and acting, that her talent should be judged before her scarf.

Both of these women have their own challenges but neither is unwilling to face them.  And both are facing them as American-born women who truly understand how to interact with society and bring about change from within. They refuse to be the “other” in their own country and that is what makes their contribution so great.

In your essay in the book, a world-savvy Sheikh in Yemen advised you to consider staying home more, letting go some of your career and finding “a good Muslim husband.” It led you to ponder the question, “Am I Muslim enough?” Have you followed any of the Sheikh’s advice? How far along are on the journey to answering your own question?

You know, the Sheikh was right, but only about one aspect of what he said.  I did need to pare back/slow down the pace of my life, but only to preserve my own sanity, not to find a good husband!

I think since that trip to Yemen, I’ve come a long way in becoming more comfortable with my identity as an American Muslim woman. I don’t believe that compromising any aspect of my talent, my passion, or my career is necessary in order to fully fit into my faith. Today, I sit very comfortably in my Islam and no longer ask myself if  “Am I Muslim enough?” but rather, “How can I be a better person?”

When you think about the assumptions that you have heard from people once you explained that you are Muslim, what is the one thing you want to explain to non-Muslims?

For some women in this book, their identity as a Muslim is very visible, in that their hijab evokes their faith connection.

For others, like myself, our faith is not so apparent, and we prefer it this way. In my essay, I talk about the concept of “taqwa,” which is mentioned in the Quran over 200 times. Taqwa by its simplest definition, is “God consciousness,” and I would say this concept can be applied across any religion.

So the first thing I would say to non-Muslims is “let me show you what we have in common, rather than what it is that divides us.”

TIME Magazine poll issued last year revealed that 62% of Americans don’t even know a Muslim. I’d say to non-Muslims, take time to get to know one, and in turn, to my fellow Muslims, I’d say take the time to get to know someone outside our faith as well. It is in these interactions that a new “normal” is created.

So many people from different countries and backgrounds, with different beliefs and customs, come to America and change who we are as Americans. From your point of view, what impact are Muslim-American women having on the country?

American Muslim women, especially those of my generation, are really coming into our own and impacting the conversations, the debates, and the dialogues happening across our country.

We are no longer in grade school, too young to engage, and/or still under the guidance and care of our parents. We have emerged into the public sphere as professionals and citizens, and are contributing more to our communities than previous generations have.

The women in this book represent a true kaleidoscope of backgrounds, ethnicities, upbringing, and interpretation of Islam that you see across the United States- a diversity within Islam that I venture to say you will not find anywhere else in the world.

The women of I Speak for Myself represent the fields of engineering, medicine, politics, literature, anthropology, media, fashion, entertainment, law, science, and business.  We are defining for ourselves what faith, feminism, fashion, and national identity mean to us. We are not allowing others to define our individual and collective narrative.

As cliché as it sounds, we are truly “speaking for ourselves” and I believe this is the greatest impact we can have in building bridges and not allowing ourselves to fall prey to the “otherness” I referred to earlier.

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