Amani Al-Khatahtbeh Is Reshaping The Narrative Around Muslim Women
You can search your mind, over and over again, and still it's hard to think of prominent Muslim commentators in the West. All too often, the Muslim narrative has been steered by outsiders, and, in the rare instances when those voices are Muslim, they're typically older and male.
Jordanian-American Amani Al-Khatahtbeh has made it a singular mission to create space for young Muslim women to converse amongst each other, and with the world. Muslim Girl, the 27-year-old’s media platform, turns 10 this year. The site has become eponymous with a young, Very Online, generation of Muslim women who have untangled themselves from stereotype.
But, at every turn, Al-Khatahtbeh will remind you that this isn’t – and has never been – about her.
“I have always rejected the notion of being the voice for the voiceless because growing up, that’s how my oppression has been executed. Like, ‘Oh, we need to speak on her behalf and talk for her because she can’t speak for herself, she’s silent.’ No, everybody has a voice, it’s just that there are people who are systematically silenced. It’s not about being their voice, it’s about allowing them to speak for themselves.”
MuslimGirl.com turns 10 years old this year. It’s gone from a humble blog to a powerful media entity unto itself – could you have foreseen its growth?
“We started this out of necessity. We never had in mind that it was going to turn into a media company and I never self-ascribed myself as an entrepreneur. When we started it, organically, it really was just me and my friends wanting to document and share our experiences being first-generation Muslim girls – what that experience was like with one foot in our parents’ culture and this new culture that we were forging; being born and raised in the States but still wanting to live an Islamic lifestyle. At the time, there were no existing faces or online circles like us. There were always male voices dominating the conversation and in ways that were really irrelevant to the issues we were experiencing immediately post 9/11.”
What was that particular period of time like?
“I grew up through extreme bullying and had my formative years under the War on Terror. There was nothing really that spoke to that experience. To see Muslim Girl not only be able to exist – but resonate with so many people and continue to evolve over 10 years... I think that’s because of the fact that we stayed completely authentic to our voices and our narrative. Our audience has really grown up with us. We started this when we were teenagers – then there were teenagers that came after us, who grew up on Muslim Girl themselves.
“Of course, we always hoped that our voices would breakthrough in the mainstream, that people would actually include us in the conversations that were about us and that were impacting us. We’ve been able to accomplish that. Our greatest accomplishment has been rebranding the image of the Muslim woman in American media from being these oppressed, victimised, women to being the empowered, self-assured women that we know we are. Our legacy is Muslim women that speak truth – women that are powerful and aren’t afraid to be who they are, in whatever society they live in.”
In a way, I think you became the mentors you were looking for – the community you were looking for. The people who would push back on tired old narratives.
“We were always hoping that we could shift public opinion in some way especially because, from a young age, we were exposed to so much war and violence in other regions of the world that we were somehow connected to – but we felt powerless or helpless to make an impact. The philosophy behind our service is that if we could shift public opinion...then maybe we can actually prevent more of this pain and devastation for future generations.
“Last year, one of the moments that gave rise to that was when we did an interview with Ilhan Omar right after she got elected. Being an independent platform owned by Muslim women, Ilhan felt comfortable enough in her interview with us to make it the first time that she ever took a public stance on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement. In that way, it was the first time that any American government representative had supported it. It really blew the doors wide open about the conversation on Palestinian human rights in the American government in a way that I never envisioned happening in my lifetime.
Earrings, $460, Ambush. Hijab, price on request, Haute Hijab. Coat, $1295, Norma Kamali. Dress, price on request, Marcelo Burlon. Ring, $830, Ambush
“It really showed why we need more independent media platforms from marginalised communities – from the under-represented voices – because when we’re able to tell our narrative on our own terms, that’s really how change is made.”
Growing up, you had the benefit of experiencing multiple perspectives — after being born in the States, you lived with your family in Jordan. How formative do you think it was for the woman you’ve become today?
“Honestly, at that age, I hated my parents for doing that to us. I was born and raised a Jersey girl, on the Jersey Shore. I was 13 years old when my parents decided to pluck us from our New Jersey home and bring us to Jordan. I was living the typical teenage girl experience. I was just managing my puberty, I was just getting introduced to how to get my situation together with my appearance and be presentable and feel confident with my friends. I was trying to navigate this awkward phase.
“When they brought us to Jordan, it was a complete culture shock. My dad didn’t even want to register me in an American school, he wanted me to really understand the culture and learn. He put me in the public school system, which was a whiplash for me. I didn’t know a word of Arabic at the time, I didn’t know anything about the culture besides what I saw on the news growing up.
“I didn’t know what to expect. But being there was a tremendous catalyst in my life. Meeting these people, meeting my family for the first time, they were the most hospitable people on earth. The country was so beautiful. I saw how truly peaceful and serene the society was. It really took the blindfold off.
“When I was leaving, a lot of the girls I went to school with said, ‘When you go back please tell them that we’re not what they think we are. Please tell them who we really are.’ I was like, wow, they’re really aware of the way the world perceives them, especially in the US. And they care, they really do care. It became, literally, my life’s purpose to open people’s eyes to our shared humanity.”
Do you see an engagement on the platform from the non-Muslim community?
“One hundred percent. Our analytics show that half of our audience are made up of non-Muslims. I do think that in a large way, Muslim Girl has become the mainstream source for what Muslim Americans are talking about and what conversations are happening. We just decided to tell our stories for ourselves and in a way, they started to come to us for those posts. Our goal has always been to make it impossible for anyone to have a conversation about Muslim women without including Muslim women. I think we really have done that.”
What are your feelings about the state of feminism and women’s empowerment in the Middle East?
“In many ways, the feminism that I believe in and the understanding that I have about gender rights and female empowerment truly is bounded within my religion of Islam. That’s where the basis of my understanding comes from. And in today’s modern terms, we call it ‘feminism’. Part of the mission has been to make people aware that one of the founding principles of our religion is gender equality. I think it’s impossible not to see the connection to that legacy.
“At MuslimGirl.com, it’s really frustrating because we get that kind of backlash from every angle. People from Middle Eastern backgrounds, or more conservative Muslim backgrounds feel like what we’re doing is just re-inventing our culture and religion. And then we get liberals, in the West, saying, ‘Oh, this isn’t because you’re a Muslim woman, it’s because you’re a Western woman – that’s where you get your rights from.’
“I’ve always felt, especially after Jordan, that I was placed in this position of being an ambassador, between the different worlds that aren’t different at all. It really made me feel a sense of responsibility to communicate those messages in a way that people would understand and connect with. That’s why we started saying that Muslim Girl’s official language is the millennial tongue. We speak in memes, we speak in tweets, we speak in blog posts, and we speak in the way that people can really resonate with right now.”
With that backlash, how do you find the grit and courage to stay true to your message?
“It’s just been knowing that I’m just as American as I am Muslim, and owning that. I’m entitled to this State, this is my society, this is my culture too, and a lot of us have been showing those identities don’t always have to be reconciled. They can literally just co-exist. I think that it has been about defying the pressure to fit a certain narrative. We found that people want to put us in a box of what a stereotypical Muslim girl would sound like, act like, or what she would look like... and one of things that we pride ourselves on is that our stories are simply made up from real experiences of Muslim women today. We will call out the dirty laundry amongst Muslims just as much as Islamophobia amongst non-Muslims. We have to be the ones to address it ourselves before anyone else can do it for us.”
Hijab, price on request, Haute Hijab. Jacket, vintage. Jumpsuit, $1605, Ambush. Rings, $1200, Ambush
So intersectionality has been an important factor?
“Growing up, I had to hear all my life that Muslim women need to be liberated – they’re oppressed and all of that. I grew up hyper-aware of the fact that feminism is sucking the conversation dry in any type of diverse narrative. At least, the current feminist movement. But if you look at feminism at its ideal, that’s obviously not what the intent of what the movement is. If you’re so concerned about Muslim women and their rights, then let us do the talking. Let us tell you what our needs are and what our experiences are instead of [you] talking over us.”
Something we’ve been exploring as a magazine is the role that men, in the Middle East in particular, should play when it comes to women’s rights. How important do you think men’s voices are to achieving gender equality?
“Indispensable; crucial. We won’t be able to achieve gender equality without our brothers having our backs and standing beside us. It’s about being man enough to balance the tables, or balance the scales. One of the things that is talked about a lot in our culture is that equality doesn’t have to mean sameness, doesn’t have to mean likeness. Equality has to mean that we have the same opportunities and the same ability to live lives with dignity, with our chin held up high, without fear of attack for our gender, for our beliefs. I love that we’re entering this moment where men feel comfortable with allowing us to lead the conversation on the things that are impacting us directly. That’s the direction that we have to go.”
How has Muslim Women’s Day (March 27) evolved since you guys gave it life a few years back?
“It’s crazy to think that we’re organising our fourth annual Muslim Woman’s Day. It was our way of creating a moment to speak back to the hate with love. We wanted to create an opportunity for our community to be able to celebrate themselves, but also for our allies to step in and really encourage Muslim women. To show them the love and support at a moment where Muslim women were facing increased targeting and adversity. There were a lot of really horrible conversations involving us on a national and international stage. We called upon our media partners to pledge March 27 to flooding the internet with authentic, positive stories of Muslim women in our own voices. When we first started this, we didn’t have any expectations for it. We didn’t know if it was going to be a one-time thing. The first year, it took off by being the number one trending hashtag on Twitter and it’s continued to dominate March 27 on social media ever since. You go online and you see all these users posting selfies with Muslim women in their lives, shouting-out their Muslim friends or highlighting important Muslim women voices to follow, to really understand what our community is talking about. It’s remarkable.”
Muslim Women’s Day is on March 27. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
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