Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is a total boss. She’s a writer, published author, tech entrepreneur, fashion and beauty icon, and last year she became the first veiled Muslim woman on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list – all before turning 25. At age 17, Al-Khatahtbeh launched a website called MuslimGirl, which today has over one million readers. Her mission for it? To become the first mainstream media network by and for Muslim women.
“Very early on, that was always our dream,” says Al-Khatahtbeh, speaking from New York ahead of her first trip to Australia for Sydney's Antidote: A Festival of Ideas, Art and Action and her four talks at the Melbourne Writers Festival. “We wanted to see a veiled Muslim woman, with our skin colour, as the talking head on the news. That was something we were completely denied growing up; we never saw a reflection of ourselves in the media, so we had to create our own space.”
The MuslimGirl editor-in-chief now employs 50 journalists, who each bring their own stories and experiences to the media platform. “It’s made up by countless more women than those who started it, who yearned for and want to accomplish the same exact thing,” she says. Amani is also a host for MTV and YouTube, a contributor at Forbes and The Guardian, and an in-demand speaker. She’s become the talking head she envisioned as a teenager. “I don’t think I would have imagined that this would be the work I [would be] contributing to. At the same time, I worry. I see the same thing happening – the real problem at hand – that my story has become very tokenised, representational of Muslim women as a whole.”
In her book, Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age, which was released late last year, Al-Khatahtbeh recounts what it was like to be a Muslim-American during the 9/11 attacks. She was nine years old, at school, and recalls the bullying and isolation her family experienced living in New Jersey. “The one thing that the book review in the New York Times mentioned, that I think hit the nail on the head, is that we are the ‘forgotten 9/11 generation’,” she says. “It’s not only the children that were directly impacted… but also the people who were blamed for it in the aftermath too. For a lot of Muslims, especially Muslim-Americans, it’s almost as if we’re still paying the price for something that we didn’t have anything to do with.”
In our interview, Amani talks about that collective judgment weighing heavily on her generation, which came to a head as Donald Trump was campaigning and later elected as president of the United States. “I think the moment definitely called for it. What was taking place at the time of me writing [the book] was the aftermath of his initial comments at the end of December 2015, when he started bringing up the topic of the Muslim ban and positioning that central to his policy.
“I think that it’s quite poetic that it was our generation, the ones that were children when 9/11 happened, who grew up during the height of Islamophobia, to really talk back to what’s happening today. We can speak to this re-energisation of Islamophobia, globally, and the impact that it can have.”
As she explains in her book, her decision to start wearing a hijab came in defiant response to the Islamophobia she experienced as a child – a decision she believes many women are making. “Over the past decade or so we’ve seen the resurgence of the hijab globally. I think it came as a result of this widespread attack on our identity. For a lot of us, we turned to something we knew was symbolic of our identity. It’s interesting because for my grandmother’s generation they didn’t wear headscarves; they wore bathing suits on the beach in Egypt, and people forget about that.”
Of course, the hijab has been used to generalise Islam and Muslim women’s status within it, too. Amani says that sadly a number of Muslim-American women are afraid to wear their headscarves in public – especially following the news of hate crimes, like the murder of 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen, whose body was found in a pond in Virginia after she was beaten to death with a baseball bat while walking home from a mosque during Ramadan. “It’s really become a target on our heads when we walk out of our homes. It’s evidentiary to how threatened Muslim women feel right now.”
In the past year, MuslimGirl has launched campaigns to help bolster the image of Muslim women in the press, as well as help provide platforms for them to thrive. There was the first Muslim Women’s Day, launched during Women’s History Month, in which the brand worked with an unprecedented number of partners in mainstream media to flood the internet with positive, diverse stories about Muslim women. In addition, they initiated a scholarship fund called the MuslimGirl Foundation, which provides financial opportunities in different fields – the first project is to empower Muslim women in the media. They also launched their first cosmetic line, a water-permeable nail polish with Orly that was promoted as ‘halal paint’.
“It received such a tremendously positive response because Muslim women were just so excited to see themselves represented in the beauty space, that has such a limited definition of what beauty means.” Unfortunately, the partnership came to a halt after Orly’s CEO posted racist comments on social media. It was “a learning lesson,” says Amani. “I still think the success of the collection – the fact that this was an opportunity to completely design [a product] by Muslim women and make available to Muslim women in such an open, visible space – is really remarkable.”
So it’s not a surprise that she’s keen to ensure underrepresented communities are benefiting from – and not exploited by – companies that are marketing specifically to Muslim women. “Being able to create products that are for us – and by us – is such a powerful way for us to have representation in an authentic way,” she says. “The risk is that you will see brands and corporations that really don’t care about our communities, just to get a profit off them. It is such a tremendous influence when you do see that Muslim girl in the Gap commercial, for example, or a hijabi in a huge make-up campaign. It graphically speaks to the fact that ‘hey, we’re here too, we’re people too, we’re just like you.’”
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is speaking at the Melbourne Writers Festival in the following four sessions:
- Towards Inclusivity: ACMI. 10am. $19-$22. Saturday September 2.
- Pop Culture and Feminism: Deakin Edge, Fed Square. 4pm. $19-$22. Saturday September 2.
- Living in Trump's America: Deakin Edge, Fed Square. 1pm. $19-$22. Saturday September 2.
- Muslim Girl: ACMI. 10am. Free. Sunday September 3.