Influenced by her experiences growing up Muslim in a post-9/11 world, and by a desire to see her narrative represented in mainstream feminist conversations, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh started MuslimGirl, a website where "Muslim Women Talk Back." Since creating the site at the age of 17, she has also made a web series, spoken on countless panels with speakers including Shonda Rhimes, Gloria Steinem, and Bill Clinton, and has written the book Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age. Most recently, MuslimGirl launched the first subscription box service catering to Muslim women's lifestyle. Amani exhibits remarkable nuance, self-awareness, and power in her writing and work, expertly connecting her specific emotions and experiences to histories of colonialism and current racist foreign policy. We caught up with her to talk about her new box service and book, her feelings post-election, and her response to the frustrations of navigating white feminism.
How did you conceive of the subscription box service that MuslimGirl just launched, and what's going in the first box?
I'm very excited that our first product launch has come at such an important time and can serve a pertinent purpose. We want to bridge the gap between brands and Muslim women, and most importantly, we want to center the wellbeing of the Muslim woman herself given our current sociopolitical climate. This is our monthly reminder to our #MuslimGirlArmy to take care of themselves, and we want to provide them with the best and most well-curated products to do just that. Our debut holiday box's theme is the "post-election" care package, and it comes equipped with a scarf from Dubai-based streetwear company Miella and a surprise secret collaboration with halal nail polish Tuesday In Love, among other goodies — including pepper spray. We also will be including our Crisis Safety Manual for Muslim Women. Given the recent escalation of hate crimes targeting Muslim women after the U.S. election, we want our baddies to place their security above all else.
How was the experience of writing your book different from that of running MuslimGirl?
Writing the book was a very therapeutic process for me. When I first started writing it, it came more out of necessity than anything, especially with our current political climate. Throughout the process of writing, I didn't realize just how much of a weight I'd been carrying on my chest from growing up through the height of Islamophobia. Having the opportunity to get that out was tremendous. I used it as an opportunity to learn more about our background and what this experience has been like for us. When I was writing the first chapter, I interviewed my parents. I would have dinner with them, and over dinner I would ask them questions like, "What is your recollection of 9/11? What was it like for you immediately afterwards?" I thought that I remembered everything perfectly, but it was a moment of discovery for me, realizing just how much my parents actually shielded us from, me and my little brothers, and what that was really like for them, especially protecting and raising a young family at the time. All of it is so relevant and applicable to what we're facing right now, especially because unfortunately, this could mean that another generation of people are going to have to endure the same cycle that I did.
In the book you write about being asked in an interview about 9/11, and how that was a really emotional moment for you. I liked the way you articulated that a lot of people don't realize that for you, 9/11 never really ended. I'm curious how your understanding of 9/11 has changed as the cultural climate has changed, or as your relationship with your family or with Islam has changed.
When I was writing the chapter about the interview where I was asked about 9/11, I decided to basically revisit 9/11 and really see what emotions it would bring back. Most of the writing process was spent in Dunkin' Donuts, literally for spans of hours at a time, like 12 hours straight, just nonstop writing. When I got to this part, I pulled up the live on-air coverage as the second plane was flying into the second tower, and at the time I remember thinking, "Oh my God, what are these people going to be thinking that are in line waiting for coffee behind me seeing a veiled Muslim woman watching this footage?" While I was watching it, I started crying. I started bawling my eyes out. And that was when I wrote that line that it never ended for us, because that's when I realized, "Wow, this is still so fresh for us. It's still an open wound. It's still something that hasn't healed." And it really is like it happened yesterday for a lot of Muslim-Americans, especially those of us who have to literally live the consequences of it in our daily lives every single day.
9/11 majorly contributes to the flattening of Muslim-Americans and of Muslims globally.
Yeah. We're only spoken of or regarded in the context of the war on terror. Literally, that's our sole existence. We even saw that in the presidential debates. Whenever the topic of Muslim-Americans came up, both candidates sounded exactly the same. They only spoke of us as people that could possibly benefit the American government with information about terrorism, rather than as American citizens. That was really heartbreaking to witness, the re-affirmation of that, even 15 years later.
I recently saw Claudia Rankine speak, and she was talking about the construction of whiteness, and how if you Google Image search the words "boy" or "girl" the images that come up are of white, presumably Christian boys and girls. These implicit cues remind us that if we don't look like that, then we're not really assumed to be American. At the same time, as you write in your book, those of us who grow up in the United States but have parents who are immigrants or are people of color, are not always from the countries that our immigrant parents or grandparents are from. We are American, even if we don't feel that way. Do you have any advice for how to deal with this feeling of placeless-ness that a lot of people of color experience?
Yeah. One thing I do at a lot of my speaking engagements is that I invite the audience to do a Google Image search for Muslim women and see what pops up. And always, the results are the same. There's a wall of faceless women that look the same hidden behind black veils. Sometimes only their eyes are showing. It shows the two-dimensionality of the way that we represent Muslim women. We know in the context of foreign policy, that that misunderstanding of who Muslim women are has actually empowered a lot of faulty military interventions overseas that have devastated entire people. So, to me, one of the number one ways of combatting that [flattening] is by creating our own representation. That's really the premise upon which MuslimGirl was founded. It's that we have to reclaim our narrative and create a space for ourselves to have the conversations that we intend to have, and to put our own authentic voices out there. For me personally, I really believe that our liberation lies in our stories. Our stories help us connect with each other as human beings. To me, I think that one of the most powerful ways to show that Muslim women are not a monolith is by representing that very diverse spectrum of their lived experiences.
White men are often the assumed face of Reddit, of tech startups, of gamers. I'm curious how you see the Internet and Internet culture influencing girls of color, especially Muslim girls?
I think that social media has definitely been acting like a new set of eyes. These days, I really don't think people can get away with not being diverse because social media now allows them not only be held accountable, but also [for criticism for lack of diversity] to quickly catch on. It has empowered a lot of movements like Black Lives Matter. Even though I believe that a civil rights movement would have arisen in our generation regardless, I think social media really helped fan the flames and let it spread like wildfire. It helped people organize quicker, helped get out the word more, helped people that are likeminded be able to find each other and grow in numbers and really, that is such a powerful thing. Our language these days is memes, is Instagram posts, is those tweets that go viral, and it's our own way of being able to keep a check on our society, and it's entirely led by young people.
I liked also what you wrote about reading blog posts by Muslim women and going on LiveJournal in high school. When I was in high school, I used Tumblr compulsively. I really liked it because I could engage with writers and build community with other users, and it was possible that a writer I really admired could like or reblog something that I wrote. I still follow the careers of a lot of those Tumblr users from high school. They sculpt the way I think and I write. So, I was wondering if you feel blogging is unique from other blogging platforms, and if you thought about that while creating MuslimGirl?
Yeah, of course! Number one, it is very easily accessible. Through blogging, you can reach people straight through their computer screens in their own homes without ever having to leave your apartment. And I think that's very potent. It's definitely different from other types of digital media too because you're able to say a lot more, you're able to get your voice out there, and show a piece of who you are. I love the way blogging can make [information like] feminist analysis and academia accessible when otherwise we think we have to go through institutions to acquire it.
Right now, I'm supposed to be in my second year in grad school at Georgetown University, and I dropped out right before my first year. I remember that during the admissions process, one of the professors that I met asked, "What do you do?" and at that point, I was just developing MuslimGirl into a publication with a volunteer staff, and I said, "I have this blog, it's called MuslimGirl.com and this is what we do." And she laughed in my face. She said, "Here, us serious academics, we don't take blogs seriously. If you're going to come to an institution like this and talk about a blog, then everyone's going to laugh at you." But I wasn't even discouraged by that at all. I remember right in that moment looking at her, and [thinking], "Wow you are really going to regret those words in a few years. You're going to be the one left behind, because this is the direction that we're headed in." And we do need to take blogs seriously. This is literally the medium that youth are turning to to get their ideas out there into the world. I think the impact that MuslimGirl has had alone in diversifying the narratives around Muslim women is a testament to how much [power] we have through a medium like blogging.
I like how, on the website, you can join a clique. Usually the term is used as a way to critique women who are perceived as hyper-competitive or exclusive. Obviously, MuslimGirl is working to build solidarity and inclusiveness, so I'm curious about how you decided on that term?
We wanted to really flip it on its head. When it comes to the MuslimGirl clique, anyone can join the clique, and it's also a way to show sisterhood. It's a space that's yes, a clique made up of strong, very vocal and empowered women, and anyone can join it. We stick together. We have each other's backs. There's a sense of solidarity that comes from that. I wanted it to be something that we can own, something that we can look to as a source of strength.
You mention that it takes an incredible amount of self-awareness to recognize the oppression that you face as a person with overlapping marginalized identities, and I know that personally, as a brown woman, it took me a long time to recognize that it wasn't an inherent failure on my part that led to my bodily insecurities, or my inability to speak confidently in social settings, or my internalized dislike of my own culture. I'm curious if you think awareness of the kinds of prejudices that Muslim women, that women of color, feel and experience is something that one has to be constantly aware of and constantly updating? If so, how do you do it?
Yeah. It takes a lot of checking ourselves, because sometimes our minds are colonized. Our bodies might not be, but our minds are, and that's something that we need to break out of, so it's really important to identify [oppression] every step of the way and to be very analytical, to be very conscientious. There's something liberating in realizing, "Look, these are the circumstances, these are the limitations in which we have been forced to operate, and now that we have identified them, we can begin to reject that and move forward and progress." That's a great part of what it is that we seek to do with the analyses that we publish on our website.
I liked when you wrote in your book that complacency is killer. I'm curious what you think allies should be doing right now, especially post-election?
I think our allies need to be very very vocal right now, and very active. It's white people that brought Trump to office, so they should hold themselves accountable for the policies that we're going to have to endure under his administration. Already, a white supremacist has been hired to enter The White House. I know a lot of people are doing the whole safety pin thing and there's a lot of controversy around it, and the reason why it's not helpful is that it's so passive and it is self-[congratulatory] in a way. What we need right now is for people to stand up for us. The easiest way that people can help is by confronting their racist uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. The people in your immediate surroundings, on your newsfeeds, in your friend circles that make those comments, that [think] racism that happens in private is somehow ok, the [comments those people make] need to be shut down. All of a sudden we see these safety pins pop up, but there was no uproar when Donald Trump was making those comments about minorities in our country. There was no uproar when he said we need to have a ban on all Muslim immigration. That made his poll numbers rise. There's a problem with that.
I thought it was frustrating that the only time Republicans were vocally upset with Trump was when he made those comments about sexual assault. While those comments were obviously worthy of outrage, it felt like a lot of people only got upset when white women were affected.
That's exactly the message that it sent.
That, and also seeing the percentages of white men and women who voted for Trump, I felt, as a brown woman and as a child of immigrants, deeply betrayed by my country. White men don't get an excuse, obviously, but I was shocked at how many white women voted for him too, especially when women of color were far less likely to vote for him.
Yeah I saw an article with a headline that was something like, "White women betrayed sisterhood by voting for Trump", but you know what? It's no surprise. bell hooks reminded us that this exact same thing happened with the suffrage movement when white women neglected black women's right to vote, so [racial bias] has always been the case. It's really sad to see that repeat itself. Even in spite of our history, I really did have hope that America would be able to reject it. It's really disappointing how it turned out.
On the one hand, there's been so much conversation about intersectionality in mainstream feminism lately, but at the same time, it's clear that the reality is that there are different political motivations for many white women than for women of color. It's hard for me to understand how or if I should approach mainstream feminism when it feels like it's not really meant for me.
That's a fork in the road that I've been confronted with time and time again throughout this journey, and my response is we are entitled to feminism. That's our shit. It's our historic legacy to push back, to fight back. It needs to be demanded of the feminist movement that there is space for us. I don't think that it's something that we should choose to walk away from. I think that we should choose to reclaim it.
I totally understand women that disagree with me- I get it. Those grievances are absolutely valid. But I think that representation is important because I remember how it felt for me to study feminism and feel like my experiences were not represented. This summer, I spoke on a panel in between Shonda Rhimes who is literally the face of women of color in media, and Gloria Steinem, who is literally the face of white feminism. To me, it was a major milestone and a major signifier of progress. We've been able to elevate the conversation around Islamic feminism to that level. Islamic feminism also has a long tradition, a long history, and there is so much academia around it and so many different feminist scholars have contributed such exceptional work to this conversation, that it feels important to do them justice.
Header photo via Amani's Instagram