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Essays open eyes to the diversity of American Muslim women

Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur contributed to and edited 'Living Islam Out Loud: American Muslim Women Speak.'
Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur contributed to and edited "Living Islam Out Loud: American Muslim Women Speak." (Getty Images Photo / Frank Mullen)

Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur had an upbringing that some people would consider typical for a Muslim girl. When she was growing up in suburban New Jersey, her father and mother forbade her from engaging in coed activities. Her group of friends was limited to other Muslims whom her parents approved.

When Abdul-Ghafur began attending college, her mother announced that it was time for her daughter to wear the hijab permanently, and Abdul-Ghafur obeyed.

Abdul-Ghafur didn't raise objections either when she found a husband and he began to hit her and used the Koran as an excuse for his actions.

''I did not have the will to speak up for myself," Abdul-Ghafur, 31, says during a recent interview. ''[For him] to say that was ridiculous."

She found the will to speak up at the age of 26. Abdul-Ghafur left her husband despite the whispers she knew she'd endure at her mosque as a divorced woman. She went on to become chief executive officer of Azizah, a magazine for Muslim women. Now she's part of a national movement trying to give women more physical space and a voice in American mosques.

Abdul-Ghafur's story is one of 18 essays in the new book ''Living Islam Out Loud: American Muslim Women Speak," which she also edited. The pieces explore subjects ranging from sex and sexuality to relationships to activism to spirituality. The book -- along with ''Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out," a more politically minded collection of essays, plays, fiction, poetry, and journalism that came out in the spring -- gives American Muslim women a chance to depict themselves in ways that go beyond the typical Western stereotypes.

According to ''Living Islam Out Loud," Muslims in this country are better educated and more affluent than the average American. Muslim women are ''professionals and homemakers, Sunni and Shi'ite, Democrats, Republicans and independents," Abdul-Ghafur writes in the introduction. ''We hail from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and while we disagree on many counts, we agree on the need for our voices to be heard."

And in an American community of 7 million Muslims representing 80 nationalities, there are disagreements. Some women don't espouse the progressive Muslim stances on feminism, lesbianism, religion, and other subjects that these books explore. As S. Maayif, a reader from Minneapolis, wrote in her review of ''Living Islam Out Loud" on ''I was very disturbed by many of the stories I read. I am left wondering, 'If people want to change Islam to suit their personal perspectives and desires, then what will be left of this way of life?' "

For the editors of and contributors to these collections, the female voices offer an alternative perspective to the literature already out there.

''Most of the books in the mainstream public," says Abdul-Ghafur, ''are about the immigrant story or the [religious] conversion story. There's a critical mass who don't remember not being American or Muslim. We've always been both."

In addition to offering the perspectives of this new generation of women, the books also resolve an unsettling conundrum for them, says Sarah Eltantawi, who contributed to ''Living Islam Out Loud" the essay ''A Meditation on the Clearing," which explores her struggle to find a comfortable place as a woman practicing Islam. ''It's sort of a cliche to say that non-Muslims are always talking about Muslim women and Muslim women don't get to talk back," says the 29-year-old PhD candidate at Harvard University's Committee on the Study of Religion, who will appear with Abdul-Ghafur at the Harvard Coop to discuss their book tomorrow night at 7. ''Even within the community, a lot of the time Muslim women feel a certain pressure that when they do talk they have to be this symbol of some kind of ideal of the Muslim women and they can't talk honestly as multifaceted human beings."

The women voicing their opinions in ''Shattering the Stereotypes" and ''Living Islam Out Loud" don't offer idealized notions of Islamic womanhood. The strength of their opinions comes from the fact that they're sharing them in a country where the dialogue about the books' subjects is often controlled by ''two or three people who are dominating the conversations," says Abdul-Ghafur, referring to the Council on American-Islamic Relations and other Islamic organizations.

''Women's voices are bolder in some ways," says Fawzia Afzal-Khan, an English professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey who edited ''Shattering the Stereotypes," ''and [women are] more unafraid to voice those gray areas, to look at them and examine them, because they're less invested in power schemes."

As different as the books are -- ''Shattering the Stereotypes" has a more international outlook in terms of its contributors, some of whom are immigrants, and its subject matter -- one of their most striking similarities is how often they refer to 9/11. Ayesha Jalal's essay ''A Letter to India: In Manto's Spirit" mirrors the famous political writings of her deceased uncle, Saadat Hasan Manto's ''Letters to Uncle Sam," written in the 1950s. Now Jalal is a history professor at Tufts University, and in her nonfiction piece, which originally ran in a magazine in India in 2002, she uses satire to take the United States, India, and Pakistan to task for their increasing conservatism and express her fears that those perspectives could lead Pakistan or India to use nuclear weapons.

''A lot of people don't want to overstate 9/11," says Eltantawi, ''but I feel like you have to give9/11 a really central location in terms of moving Muslims from obscurity to the limelight. When I was growing up, to say you were a Muslim, nine out of 10 people really didn't know what you were talking about."

The terrorist attacks and their aftereffects struck many as a step backward for international politics. The US response to the attacks brought to mind the colonialism that many Muslim countries had endured.

''9/11 comes," says Afzal-Khan, 47, ''and we're back in the middle of the same colonial rhetoric. It's not like in the times when the British, Portuguese, and French set up actual governments to control these countries. It's taken on a different form, but it's the same thing. That's why those [Muslim] stereotypes again come to the surface. If you have an undifferentiated mass that oppress their women, it's easier to say, 'It's up to us to make them more civilized; make them more like us.' "

Abdul-Ghafur believes that Islam is in the midst of a global transformation, particularly in the area of women's rights. In conversation, Abdul-Ghafur and Afzal-Khan are quick to mention that Islam is very woman-friendly. Both note that the prophet Mohammed's first wife was a businesswoman 20 years his senior.

''Mohammed was a great lover of women," says Afzal-Khan. ''His first wife, for goodness sake, she proposed to him!"

These days more Muslims in this country are studying Islam's religious texts. More Muslims, such as Eltantawi, are getting advanced degrees in the area of religion. These developments will elicit change by allowing the Koran to be interpreted for content rather than for political reasons.

''Part of the way you reclaim [the religious text] is you have people study it," says Abdul-Ghafur, ''and with freedom, not with the perspective that you're going to have a forced outcome to toe the party line."

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