As a producer at CNN, Maria Ebrahimji is familiar with the spotlight—she's just not used to being in it. Although her childhood ambition was to be a news anchor, she realized early on that she was naturally drawn deeper into the story. "I believe that the power and value of journalism is really in producing," Maria says. "I'm very much one of those people that likes to work behind the scenes."
Her first job after college, in the late '90s, was rolling teleprompter for legendary CNN international anchor (and also Muslim) Riz Khan. Since then, Maria has steadily ascended CNN's ranks. After 9/11, Maria was booking a who's who of Muslims and authors on Islam to explain and defend Islam to millions of viewers. Welcoming the challenge but often feeling like the token Muslim on the inside, Maria says, "It's a role I have embraced in the 12 years I have been with CNN."
While attending an international Muslim women's conference five years ago in New York City, international Muslim women were perplexed by her—a religious Muslim woman who didn't cover, and also worked in the media. "Even in the [worldwide] Muslim community, there's a lot of misperception and stereotypes about what it means to be an American Muslim woman," she observes.
It occurred to Maria, and to her co-editor Zahra Suratwala, a business consultant, that gathering the stories of many different American Muslim women who didn't question their identities into one book could spark important dialogue. "So much of what I focus on in my work [at CNN] is the 20-second sound bite. [A book] really allows the reader to experience someone else on their own terms in their own time."
So began Maria's five-year mission, along with Suratwala, to gather and publish the essays of 40 American Muslim women, all under 40, in I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim (White Cloud Press, May; PW Reviews, Apr. 11). In writing her own essay, which focuses on her dilemmas about being a Muslim woman without a spouse in a religion and culture that expect otherwise, and then in promoting I Speak for Myself in advance of publication, Maria notes: "Being interviewed is clearly very introspective. My job has been very focused on telling other people's stories."
Maria recalls that growing up in her local Georgia mosque, many of the "aunties" and "uncles" frowned upon her unprofitable journalistic ambitions. Saying her work is a "real testament to her father," Maria is thankful that her immigrant Muslim parents broke with community mores and tradition by encouraging her to pursue journalism. Now, Maria notes wryly in her Southern twang, many of those elders hold her up as a role model to younger Muslims—an author, an influential journalist, and a religious and proud American Muslim woman.