Academic journal article Journal for Islamic Studies

"Speaking for Ourselves": American Muslim Women's Confessional Writings and the Problem of Alterity

Academic journal article Journal for Islamic Studies

"Speaking for Ourselves": American Muslim Women's Confessional Writings and the Problem of Alterity

Article excerpt


This article examines the phenomenon of American Muslim women's self-representation through the medium of autobiography post-9/ll, focusing on Sumbul Ali-Karamali's The Muslim Next Door, Asma Gull Hasan's Red, White, and Muslim and the edited collections I Speak for Myself and Love, InshAllah. Highlighting the operation of "Muslim media chic", the authors challenge the assumption that Muslim women speak solely for themselves through emancipatory "truth-telling" narratives, arguing that self-narration tailored to the demands of explaining oneself to a non-Muslim audience results in gendered forms of ambassadorship that require critical examination. In addition to the problems of confessional representation, the authors also observe the writings' invocation of American cultural supremacy and depoliticised individualism, the latter propelled by post-1990s mass-media modes of feminine visibility, including chick-lit.

The obligation to confess is now relayed through so many points, is so deeply ingrained in us, that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that constrains us.

Michel Foucault1

But if she should choose [...] to respond to the hailing "Hey, you!" that is issued from various directions in the outside world - she would still be considered a turncoat.

Rey Chow2


As much as Americans disagree on the place of Islam in the US, most seem to agree that Muslim women's voices have been stifled and that it is high time they speak for themselves. The call for Muslim women to "speak" in the US has been answered by several popular books, of which four are the subject of our attention. Two are single-authored works, each penned in the first person by an American Muslim woman: Asma Gull Hasan's Red, White, and Muslim: My Story of Belief, published in 2009 (originally published as Why I Am a Muslim: An American Odyssey, in 2004) and Sumbul Ali-Karamali's The Muslim Next Door: The Qur'an, the Media, and That Veil Thing, published in 2008.3 In both, the authors are determined to dispel American stereotypes about Islam by explaining their religion through their own personal experiences and reflections. The two later works which we discuss are compilations of autobiographical writings by multiple authors: I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim (2011), which presents the self-narrated profiles of forty American Muslim women under the age of forty, and Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women (2012), which features twenty-five American Muslim women's first-hand accounts of their experiences of love and sex.4

Together, all four books belong to the genre identified by Juliane Hammer as Muslim women's '"speaking out' literature",5 and set out to dispel stereotypes about Islam and Muslim women by offering an intimate, "truth-telling" alternative to mainstream discourses that speak for Muslim women and present them as voiceless and uniquely oppressed. Unlike the best-selling books of Irshad Manji, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Asra Nomani (which have received much critical attention), these autobiographical works by Muslim women tend to be less controversial and more positively received by Muslims (and their non-Muslim liberal allies), presumably because they demonstrate Muslims to be a diverse population within the US for whom Islam offers empowering choices, likely due in part to their Islam-positive sentiments, they have yet to receive any comprehensive or comparative critical attention.6

In this article, we challenge the authors' unquestioned assumption that they are truly "speaking for themselves" by way of some purely self-willed act unhindered by larger social, political and market forces. We argue that the market for Muslim women's voices is crucial to their publication and cannot be separated from how these voices emerge, the stories they tell and the selves they present. We propose that these writings are produced through the employment of a marketing savvy which we term Muslim media chic. …

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