Amani Al-Khatahtbeh has been changing the conversation around Muslim women in mainstream media since starting MuslimGirl when she was just nineteen years old. Along the way to amplifying other women’s voices, Amani’s writing has since been published in the New York Times and The Guardian, and her social commentary can be seen on CNN and BBC. Most recently, she has published her debut book, Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age, which is available for pre-order now!
Rachel: You’re a great example of someone who found their passion, ran with it, and made a job out of it rather than waiting to get hired somewhere else. How did you get started?
Amani: Actually, the way that happened was that a job I was going for fell through. The summer of 2015, I got a job offer to be a project manager at Al Jazeera America in New York, but I was living in D.C. at the time. So, I literally dropped everything in D.C. to uproot my life and go to New York to start this job, and by the time I got there, it was the day after they got slammed with a lawsuit that contributed to their demise. So, when I got to New York with this new apartment in Brooklyn and a salary, they were like “oh, actually, we have to postpone your start date.” And of course, the new start date rolled around, and they extended again, and again. It got to the point where I was so upset that I had a meeting with a producer there to talk about what was going on and he told me, “listen, your website gets more viewers than our network does, so why would you want to be working for us if you could be developing your own media company?” And that was the moment that I realized I wasn’t going to wait for a job with Al Jazeera America, or wait around for this start date – I was going to go off and do my own thing.
I ended up deciding to literally live off of my savings. All the savings that I made working at a 9-5 job in DC for an entire year, I burned through in two months living in Brooklyn, just trying to hustle. I kept working on MuslimGirl, and by the end of the summer, we had landed our first major profile for the work that we were doing. By the end of the year, we were profiled in the New York Times, and the following month, that January, was when we became the first Muslim company on the Forbes 30 under 30 list. So, you really have no idea what’s in store; everything happens for a reason.
Rachel: A big part of MuslimGirl is changing the perception around Muslim women’s feminist identity. For those who only see the limiting media portrayal of Islam, what is one thing that you’d like them to know?
Amani: I would like them to know that Muslim women have their own voices and can speak for themselves. I think that that (the limiting media portrayal) is something that we almost use as an excuse to hijack the narratives of Muslim women – that they’re oppressed, they are voiceless, that they need us to liberate them. These are all misconceptions that have been really detrimental on Muslim women and have actually cost them their livelihoods. This is something that has manifested itself in hate crimes against Muslim women in the streets.
I think that people get really caught up with saying that they want to be the voice of the voiceless. It allows them to think that by speaking on our behalf, it’s really beneficial to us, when really, it goes against allowing us the space to speak for ourselves and actually listen to what we have to say. A lot of times, this manifests itself in policy, like what we saw in France with the burkini law. And of course, this is something that has been an issue in American society as well with our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think by getting to that base where Muslim women can speak for themselves, it really is so empowering to women as a whole.
Rachel: As a young woman of color who is early in my career, I am wondering what would you tell young women of color to remind them that our voices matter?
Amani: I would tell young women of color that their value and their worth is not defined by the society in which they live. It’s not relative to a news cycle, or to an election or campaign, or anything like that. I think it’s really important for us to intrinsically recognize that value and that self-worth within ourselves. When we do that, I think it activates this fearlessness that I believe has become innate to women and girls of color, especially girls who are facing adversity in their respective societies. Remember that we are not defined by our surroundings or by what other people have to say. When we really recognize and acknowledge that, we tap into our power to always be able to speak up when we need to.