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Living Islam Out Loud.

Living Islam Out Loud

American Muslim Women Speak

Edited by Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur

Beacon Press, 224 pages

This slim, intimate anthology of essays and poetry sets out to capture voices of "the first true generation of American Muslim women." Thoroughly contemporary and rather soulful at its core, the book covers a rich mix of experiences that range from Arab, African and South Asian to African American, from novelists and poets to human rights activists--all women between their early twenties and early forties who came of age in the U.S.

Together, asserts editor Saleema Abdul-Ghafur, their stories represent a glimpse into "the beginnings of American Muslim culture." Not only that, but the makings of social change can be read into many of the women's stories as they challenge sexism, mosque segregation, homophobia, post-9/11 racism and more.

The book neatly transcends the tired fixation with hijab and wastes little time responding to prevailing stereotypes and ignorance about Islam. (One author sums it up nicely: "Neocons can kiss my Islamic ass.") Instead, the best work here takes on knotty internal debates, contributing to an honest and nuanced dialogue about topics that have been difficult to broach more widely in today's climate of hyper-Islamophobia. As Sarah Eltantawi writes, "We live in a time when an unbeliever of Muslim heritage feels the need to call herself or himself a Muslim, in the way Sartre said, 'In the face of anti-Semitism, I am a Jew.'"

Nevertheless, these brave and sometimes fed up women deal with the conflict between dogmatism and faith, between centuries of cultural interpretations of Islam and a spiritual relationship with God--and how these profound personal struggles become political. In one of the most sophisticated essays, "The Muslim in the Mirror," Mohja Kahf writes: "This Islam-on-the-ground-as-a-lived-reality needs to step up and take credit for the specific ways in which it oppresses women as well as the ways in which it liberated women fourteen hundred years ago."

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Some of the more fascinating stories are about coming to maturity and learning tough lessons through failed relationships. Whether it was an arranged marriage ending in divorce or a love affair gone awry, the authors' experiences tap into a familiar theme of accomplished, educated women who accepted sexist and disappointing men in their lives. "I became the mouthpiece and champion of Muslim women's rights, though I ignored my own," writes Manal Omar, who endured an emotionally abusive marriage with a man she dubs an "S.O.B." (he wasn't fresh off the boat, he was still on the boat).

Another stand-out chapter comes from Asra Q. Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and close friend of the kidnapped and beheaded journalist Daniel Pearl. Behind the horrifying headlines, she tells an amazing story of her own journey as an Indian Muslim who conceived a child out of wedlock while living in Pakistan. Nomani decided to raise her son alone in the U.S., going on to launch a highly publicized, national campaign against sexist mosque policies that began with her insisting on walking through the front instead of the back door of her neighborhood mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Several essays in the book would have benefited from more ethnic and racial context--notably a piece about marrying outside of Islam by Asia Sharif-Clark and another about dating and sexuality by Yousra Y. Fazili that leave the reader guessing what customs and cultures are being referred to. And in a few places, the book's recurring message of self-realization and empowerment can veer toward Oprah-speak: "I have been endowed with the nature to live my absolute best life, and only I can determine what that means," Abdul-Ghafur declares in the book's opening essay.

Despite these few glitches, Living Islam Out Loud achieves a likeable exuberance and lots of depth, as well as inspiration for the ever-evolving culture of Islam in America that holds a promise of reclaiming "the face of the feminine divine."

Tram Nguyen is executive editor of ColorLines.

Reviewed by Tram Nguyen
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Title Annotation:American Muslim Women Speak
Author:Nguyen, Tram
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
Words:667
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