Ebrahimji explores identity, faith for Muslim-American women

On Monday night in Brooks Rogers, Maria Ebrahimji, director and executive editorial producer for network booking at CNN, gave a talk on her book I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim, which is a collection of moving self-portraits of women who defy labeling. 

In the book, each woman tells her unique story of what it means to be American, Muslim and female. More broadly, Ebrahimji spoke on themes of individuality, pluralism and the ever-increasing diversity of today’s world.

Ebrahimji began her talk with a question that would come up repeatedly throughout her talk: “Who am I?” The question first arose in her mind during her freshman year at Brenau, where she was one of only two Muslims on campus. Ebrahimji rushed a sorority, believing that rushing was an experience all college women should have.

Disappointed in the process and feeling as if she did not fit in at any of the sorority houses, she dropped out of rush and concentrated on student government, community service and getting to know the women in her class.

Despite her disenchantment, she later became the first non-white, non-Christian woman to pledge at Brenau when a friend eventually encouraged her to join a sorority in 1996.

Again, the question “Who am I?” became relevant while in the desert in Yemen. She and her family were visiting the country for religious purposes.

On this trip, she felt more confident in answering the question in terms of herself and her Islamic faith. However, a sheikh in Yemen derailed her confidence, leaving her with the advice to “consider staying home more, travel less, let some of [her] career go in order to find a good Muslim husband,” Ebrahimji said.

Ebrahimji found herself fixated on this question of whether her love of American ideals, her culture and her religion could coexist and whether she was “Muslim enough,” she said. Through studying the Qur’an, she worked to become comfortable in her personal, professional and human identity. Professionally, her identity emerged as a journalist.

“In the nature of journalism, there is always a fixation on the truth and an intrinsic curiosity in the world,” Ebrahimji said. “Especially in today’s modern age, we have information at our fingertips. Journalism shapes that information, changes opinions, stimulates thought processes and holds on to humanity.”

Ebrahimji looks to journalism to help hold us together across the world as a united people in today’s modern age when we can easily become disconnected.

She believes that journalistic pluralism does just that by being a form of proactive cooperation that affirms the identity of the constituent communities while emphasizing that the well-being of the individual  depends on the well-being of the whole.

Ebrahimji said that pluralism is built on the common values of freedom, dignity and equality.

She also pointed out that journalism is about dialogue. This dialogue allows Ebrahimji to speak for herself and give others a voice. Ebrahimji said she specifically chose the field of journalism for the chance to engage in dialogue and tell stories.

One particularly important story for Ebrahimji was the response of the Muslim American community to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. She described it as a time of turmoil, fear and reflection. It was a time for the community to come together amid racial profiling and Qur’an burnings that were happening overseas.

The collision of her personal identity as a Muslim and her professional identity as a CNN reporter also contributed to the creation of I Speak for Myself.

The idea for I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim specifically arose because  the imagery, lack of diversity and overgeneralization of the Muslim community profoundly affected her.

“Part is our fault at CNN. We have been too complacent. We don’t search for nuances,” she said. “Some is a byproduct of natural progression. It is also the fault of the Muslim-American community in not educating other community members about who we are as people.”

Ebrahimji said she realized she could not capture the story in her normal journalistic platform of a 30-minute video, so she instead turned to writing a book.

The book’s theme is the limitlessness of individuality. The concept of identity is a universal concept – for example, people must check boxes on census forms telling which race and nationality they identify with.

“We as a society are fixated on labeling,” Ebrahimji continued. “There is an identity complex in this country – people are constantly asking, ‘Where are you from?’”

Ebrahimji then introduced the audience to the 39 women whose biographies are included in the book alongisde her own.

Most notable were Rima, a southern Californian migrant to northern Virginia, whose life mission is to embrace nature and help special education kids realize their own potential; Zahra, who created the Aspen Institute’s Muslim Philanthropy group; and Rashida, the first Muslim woman elected to the Michigan state legislature.

Ebrahimji included the biographies of all these women to emphasize that there has been a misconception of defining Muslim women by their faith alone when they are truly multi-dimensional. Although they all share one “common faith umbrella,” she said, they differ greatly.

Ebrahimji believes the selection of women in her book represent a broader change in the Muslim-American community.

She said leaders are emerging and that people are not afraid to ask the deeper questions.

Ebrahimji left her audience with the message that we must seize our own narratives and identities so that others cannot take them from us.

“We must create an awareness about who we really are,” Ebrahimji said. “To really contribute to society, we as people must speak for ourselves. We must tell others our own story and listen to theirs.”

A Q&A session and book signing followed the lecture.