News about Muslim women in America is usually saddled with the same woeful tales—abusive husbands, gruesome honor killings and the occasional controversy over headscarves. The tales are poignant, political and sad. Which is why American Muslim Women: Negotiating Race, Class and Gender within the Ummah (NYU Press) by Spelman College Professor of Religious Studies Jamillah Karim is a welcome departure from the usual portrayals of Muslim women in the U.S. as victims of their religion.
Focused on the experiences of women in Chicago and Atlanta, the book is an ethnographic look into the possibilities and challenges that second-generation South-Asian and Black-American-Muslim women face as they act to form a more cohesive religious community, or ummah. The author explores how the experience of being Muslim in America can be quite different for South-Asian immigrants who generally enjoy more class mobility and working-class Black Muslims. Karim points to Sept. 11 and the ensuing anti-Arab sentiment and Islamophobia as a crucial opportunity for stronger dialogue between both communities.
Yet for a book that’s exploring different women’s experiences, their narratives are noticeably missing in places. Instead of the women’s voices guiding the author’s analysis and the readers’ interpretations, their stories are relegated to sociological observations and buried toward the ends of chapters. This has the unfortunate effect of making the text occasionally difficult to read. Nonetheless, it’s an important addition to the discussion of race, gender and religion in America.