I can just see it now: There she is with her braces and acne, nervously scanning the lunchroom for a seat at the table—their table. Then it happens: the eye-rolling, the scoffing and the laughter. “Uhhh, you can only sit here if you wear a hijab.” That’s what I imagine junior high was like for Asma T. Uddin, American Muslim and lawyer practicing international law. Her personal narrative, “Conquering Veils: Gender and Islam,” is one of 40 essays included in I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim (White Cloud Press, 224 pages, $16.95). Uddin recounts her isolating experiences with the mean girls of the Muslim world—a snarky subculture that she refers to as “the Hijab Cult.” Her ongoing process to reconcile Islamic and Western values is joined by dozens of varying female perspectives (including those of Oregonian Fatemeh Fakhraie) on what it means to be a Muslim woman born and raised in the United States. As explained by the book’s editors, Maria Ebrahimji and Zahra Suratwala, I Speak for Myself offers “the realization that although our lives perhaps differ from yours, you will relate to us in the moments that we are most vulnerable, most introspective and most human.”
For better and for worse, Ebrahimji and Suratwala deliver on their promise. After a handful of narratives, it becomes painfully clear that we really are all the same. We have the same clichés (wanting to fit in, wanting to be unique, fear of our parents dying, wanting our parents’ approval, finding solitude in nature, etc.) and the same potential to produce mini-memoirs that really aren’t all that interesting. I Speak for Myself is ultimately plagued by its tremendous potential. The opportunity to reveal the intricacies of a demographic renowned for its privacy and modesty is both engaging and liberating. The unveiling, however, fails to fulfill these expectations. Uddin, for example, hints at her ostracization from the Hijab Cult, but rather than detailing her specific experiences, she merely states “this group ostracized women who didn’t wear a hijab.”
Uddin undoubtedly had
several experiences similar to my imagined lunchroom scenario (which,
to be clear, is not actually included in her narrative). Instead, she
settles for vague overviews of her struggles. Despite the fact that only
one of the stories is told by a politician, every contributor writes as
though she may someday run for office. While I Speak for Myself is headed in the right direction, it ultimately lacks the edge and wit that make personal narratives so compelling.
GO: I Speak for Myself’s editors speak at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, Aug. 11. Free.