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American Muslim Women Talk About their Faith and Life


Hundreds of thousands of young Americans were born and raised as Muslims. Unlike their parents, many immigrants from other countries or converts from other faiths, these young people have settled into an identity they pioneered. Many American Muslim women, in particular, are proud that they have created their own paths and believe that the world needs to hear what they have to say.

African American writer Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur was raised in a middle-class suburban neighborhood by parents who had converted to Islam in their early 20s. She recalls that when she questioned why she couldn't do certain things, she used to accept her mother's response that 'Muslims didn't do that.'

"I have the benefit of two wonderful parents, over protective, over bearing, but wonderful parents," she says. "I was largely living my life through someone else's interpretation of Islam. I did what my parents said to do, I did what the community said to do."

At age 24, Saleemah married an American-born convert to Islam. He physically abused her and the marriage soon ended in divorce. But, she says, the experience opened her eyes to a deeper relationship with God, and she discovered her path as a Muslim woman.

"The way I live Islam right now, is the way I want for the rest of my life, to live a self determined future," she says. "I want all Muslims, all women to know a real self-determined life. I want them to be able to claim and know the power that's sourced ultimately by God. And that's that power of freedom. So however you decide to live your life, if it is to wear the hijab (head cover), if it's to get married traditionally, if it's to be a doctor, if it's to be a Nobel Peace Prize winner, whatever you determine, you should be able to have it."

As a writer and an activist, Abdul-Ghafur says she wanted her voice to be heard. So she titled her book, Living Islam Out Loud. In it, she tells her own story, along with those of 15 other American Muslim women.

"All of these women are living incredible and empowered lives," she says. "Their parents are from all over the world. Some wear hijab, some don't. They are homemakers, students and professionals, 15 really dynamic women who live around the country, but who work around the world."

These women, she says, were willing to share the experiences that shaped their lives.

Samina Ali recounts how her parents came to America from Hyderabad, India, but never left their traditions behind. American-Egyptian Sarah Eltantawi remembers being afraid as a child of the references to hell in the Quran (the Holy Book of Muslims). Manal Omar, an American Palestinian, became aware of the gap between what's preached in Islam and what's actually practiced.

"Manal Omar is amazing! This is a woman who worked in Afghanistan with women," says author Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur. "She went to Iraq helping Iraqi women rebuild their lives. Under grave danger she has been doing this. She went to Darfur, Sudan. She talks about the juxtaposition of working to sustain and rebuild these women's lives in these war torn countries and at the same time she ends up in a marriage that's emotionally abusive. So it's a powerful mix."

Yousra Fazili, an American-Kashmiri attorney from New York, chose to write about sex and sexuality in Islam. Her essay is based on her own experience, studying religious law for several years at the world's oldest Islamic university, Al-Azhar, in Cairo, Egypt. "I found that even at places seen as conservative, like Al-Azhar, people were so much more liberal than I expected," she says. "Talking about sex and sexuality in Islam was not a huge taboo or something that people weren't comfortable talking about. They talked about it very naturally. They weren't caught up in the anxiety that I think affects Muslim Americans."

Living outside her own American-Kashmiri traditions, Fazili says, helped her realize how one's ethnic culture can sometimes overwhelm one's religion.

"I feel that the community I was raised in, in America, was very conservative about their views on Islam, on sex or even talking about inter-gender relationships," she says. " When I went to Egypt, my very first impression of the country - I took a taxi from the airport and there were couples on the bank of the Nile holding hands, very much looking like they were on date. Whether they were married or not was so irrelevant. It was so romantic. In Kashmir, where my family came from, married or not married, you never see couples holding hands and going for a stroll. It's very taboo there."

Fazili says Muslims who live as the majority in other parts of the world don't face the same challenges American Muslims do as a minority. But, she says, being a Muslim in America has advantages.

"I always say if I was raised in Kashmir, I don't think I would ever care about Islam as much as I do being raised in America," she says. "Part of that is that we don't have like an orthodoxy here. Different communities obviously have different ways to practice Islam or different mosques, but there is no overwhelming national way of practicing Islam. It gives you the liberty to practice Islam, or see Islam however you want. And that's a liberty I don't find in other places where there is a sense of need to conform to certain interpretation of Islam. You don't have that in America. And I love that freedom."

Saleema Abdul-Ghafur agrees. She says Muslims in the West have more opportunities to freely explore, study and practice their faith. "Unfortunately, in Muslim majority countries, the freedoms that we know in the West are largely unknown for men and women," she says. "In America, we have freedom to worship as we see fit. For example, I co-organized the infamous woman-led prayers in New York City (in March 2005). If we have done it in another country, we could have been jailed, beaten and tortured. This is the other powerful thing about American Muslim women, we have this duality of our expectation of human and civil rights that we grew up with here in America coupled with the rights that God has given us."

Ms. Abdul-Ghafur says she hopes that the stories in her book will encourage Muslim women who fear others' judgment to find their own path to a self-determined life. And she hopes that it will help Muslim girls everywhere find acceptance and solidarity… and inspire them to live Islam out loud.

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