Amani in her bedroom properly cropped

The Feministing Five: Amani Al-Khatahtbeh

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is a feminist powerhouse.

Tired of the portrayals of Muslim women in the media and bemoaning the pervasive lack of representation for women like her, Amani launched the wildly successful news and lifestyle website MuslimGirl from her New Jersey bedroom when she was seventeen.

Now twenty-four and based in Brooklyn, Amani has flourished into a prominent and outspoken leader on Muslim women’s issues and the state of young feminism today. The New York Times has described the editor-in-chief and speaker as a  “media titan”. She is fervently passionate about providing spaces for women who feel ostracized by mainstream media, complicating dominant narratives about Islam, exploring the real life implications of Islamophobia on her community, and illuminating the varied experiences and identities that Muslim girls like herself inhabit. She’s been profiled in Teen Vogue, written for the Huffington Post, listed on Forbes 30 Under 30 in media, and spoken all over the country and internationally on gender justice issues, including the most recent United State of Women Summit.

These days, however, Amani is most thrilled about the the release of her first book, “Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age”, out this week. The memoir explores growing up in a post-9/11 America, and the author’s personal journey of finding her voice as a Muslim woman and the website she launched to become a cultural phenomenon. Talking to Amani for this week’s Feministing Five, I was struck not only by her fiery spirit and authenticity, but by the deep optimism she brings to her work and envisioning of a feminist future. Make sure to check out the new memoir, catch Amani on Twitter @xoamani, and keep an eye on this feminist media mogul, who is surely taking over the world!

Senti Sojwal: Your memoir, Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age, came out October 18th. Congratulations! You must be so excited. Can you tell our readers about the process of writing this book, and what that’s been like for you?

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: Writing this book was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I had very limited time! One thing I didn’t predict was how therapeutic it would be for me. It was so hard to be so vulnerable but by the end, I realized how much of a weight I’d released off my shoulders. I released this incredible build up of tension I hadn’t even known I was carrying. Giving words to my experience felt like I had finally come to terms with it, and like I was giving it back to the world, for others to learn from, too. At the end of the day, Muslim Girl’s slogan is “Muslim women talk back” and this book is me talking back. My family talking back. Sharing everything we had to endure and put up with as a result of anti-Muslim bigotry. We’re having our moment. I always loved writing. It was one of the first things I ever knew I was good at. My teachers would tell my mom to make sure I always had an outlet for that, that I stuck to it. My personal passions about Muslim women and media representation ended up coming into being through my writing. It’s my lifeblood. My first dream was always to write a book. Having the opportunity to actually publish a book, to chronicle my experiences into a book that will live on bookshelves everywhere, that being a result of my work towards increasing Muslim women’s representation, shaping this voice for us, is so poetic and beautiful. I never saw it coming. I feel like I’m pregnant — I have never been this excited about anything in my entire life! At the same time, I’m terrified because well, it’s just going to be out there.

Senti Sojwal: I loved your piece last month on Muslim Girl, “I Turned Down Playboy and Still Support Women’s Choice to Do It”. In it, you write, “Remember: Muslim women are a hot topic right now. Our image is being rapidly commodified in many different industries for the diversity appeal or to attract viral attention. In many ways, this commodification has come with the high risk of exploitation, especially during a time when violence against Muslim women is at a climax.” Complicating the idea of representation is so important. How do you navigate this, knowing that representation alone does not mean equality?

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: As a young person under the Obama administration, as a young person that experienced the hope and change movement around him — it was the first presidential campaign I ever volunteered for, and it meant so much to me — I feel like that did so much for me in terms of contextualizing representation for what it is. Like you can easily see that having the first black president in the United States of America did not end racial injustice or inequality. Nor was it a signifier of a post-racial society whatsoever. The milestone is a symbol, but in the greater scheme of things we have so much more work to do. That’s how I see Muslim women’s representation. In the book, I draw parallels with the struggle for black liberation. Obviously this has been a struggle that has far preceeded non-black Muslims. It’s an issue we’re newly submerged in, with the climax of Islamophobia in our society today. Whenever a minority is on the front lines of entering a space where they haven’t been represented, inevitably that individual is going to be tokenized. That’s the way I see where Muslim women are now. We’re going to be tokenized, we’re going to be commodified, we’re going to be exploited. That’s why I think it’s so crucial to be conscious of the opportunities we take, of the ways we’re portrayed. For me personally, I negotiate constantly when to speak up. Being able to recognize when my voice has been appropriated, and talking back, is so important to me. It’s occurred many times in the past year, unfortunately. Those are the moments where I really challenge myself to speak. We can only break the cycle if we assert ourselves, if we are in charge of our own narratives. We can’t just reaffirm the way people want to see us.

Senti Sojwal: You started Muslim Girl as a teenager in 2009. How do you feel you’ve evolved in your feminism since then?

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: I remember identifying as a feminist in high school, but my understanding of feminism was so two-dimensional. At the same time, I feel like that simplicity of feminism still exists to me. If you were to ask me about it back then, I would have said that I believed in equal rights between men and women, so therefore I’m a feminist. I think now that’s the basic premise I fall back on when people ask me questions about how I can be a Muslim and a feminist at the same time as if those two identities are mutually exclusive. I’ll use it as a platform to say, the principles of Islam, which teach that men and women are equals, is what we talk about when we talk about feminism today. My personal evolution has really been captured on MuslimGirl.com. As soon as I got to college and was introduced to intersectional feminism, reading bell hooks and Audre Lorde and these incredible women of color titans, the content on the website transformed and evolved as well. It became more self-reflective, more self-aware. To be honest, for the longest time, it was almost embarrassing. It’s like, that’s been online for seven years! Some people are only just reading it now, though. In some ways though, it’s what I’m proudest of. MuslimGirl grew up with us and followed us. It chronicled the development of our identities, during such a pivotal moment in modern history. By extension, I see the book as a real time chronicle too. It actually so easy to choose which experiences would be in the book. It’s all the things that rise to the surface for me. I want the book to be a snapshot of life as a Muslim woman. Part of the book was written while I was in Cannes, France, for a festival. I was the only visibly Muslim woman speaker on the main stage there. While I was there, Brexit happened. My hosts were British, and from London. It was crazy to be in the middle of that happening, especially as an American, as we deal with Donald Trump. I wrote about those reflections, and they’re in the book. The book opens with me being at Olive Garden with two friends, and a waiter approaching me asking if I’m the founder of Muslim Girl. That happened a day before I was sending the book in. I wanted to include it so I could show how Muslim Girl is growing with us. It was crazy to just be out with friends during Ramadan and have a stranger recognize the work we’ve done online! It was so cool. To get back to feminism, I’m still growing, I’m still evolving. Every single day I learn new things.

Senti Sojwal: How are you thinking about your work and voice in the the context of this toxic election season?

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: The reason I was so quick to write this book is because I saw it as my hail Mary pass right before the November election. It’s how I’m choosing to say, this is why these issues are so important, why this time is so crucial. I definitely recognize that my voice has come to represent Muslim women’s experiences in our country especially as related to Islamophobia, racism, and anti-immigration sentiment. I want to open up spaces for women who have not been included in the conversation. I want to make these issues easily accessible, and easily understood by all kinds of people. We need to see campaigns that are pro-immigration, that we have Muslim women represented in government, that we are talking critically about the Muslim gold star family Donald Trump so disrespected. What impact do these things have on us as Muslim women, every day? One thing that I emphasize every chance I get is that after Trump made the comments about banning Muslims, for the first time, we had to publish a crisis safety manual on Muslim Girl. People are so far removed from this hateful rhetoric that they can’t see how it impacts our lives on a day to day basis. That’s the role my voice is playing, to make that tangible.

Senti Sojwal: What are your hopes for the future of Muslim Girl, and for your future as an advocate for gender justice?

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: Our goal is to become the first mainstream media company for and by Muslim women. It’s about time. We need our own flagship, our own institution. We need to make what seems like a brief spotlight into something sustainable and long lasting. Something that can be built upon. That’s our overall goal. My personal goal from day one has been to shift the feminist lexicon as we know it. So many women have been excluded from the movement for so long, have felt alienated from it, so many women don’t identify as feminists not because they’re afraid of using the F-word but because they feel they can’t identify with it. So many women feel that the mainstream feminist movement ignores issues of tantamount importance to them. What I hope to do is break out of that, to include different women in the conversation. That’s why one of the highlights of my career has been the United State of Women Summit. It was hosted by Michelle Obama this year. The fact that I shared a panel with Gloria Steinem on one side and Shonda Rhimes on the other was a tremendous milestone. It was like putting the face of Western feminism next to this powerhouse of a woman who has done so much for women of color and representation — to me it just felt like, wow, we’re on the right track. This is exactly what I had always dreamed. I just feel like so many things I’ve dreamed of are just actualizing in front of my eyes like a movie. It’s so overwhelming! I sometimes just have to take a moment and pause and recognize that things are different now. You get so caught up in your work, especially as a young person, especially as a woman of color, and it’s so hectic to be doing so many things at once, that there are moments where you have to recognize how the hard work has taken shape and what’s happening. That’s really been the experience for us at Muslim Girl over the past few months. There can be as many Trumps in our society as we can imagine, but they stand no chance against people like us who will end up on the right side of history.

Photo courtesy of Amani Al-Khatahtbeh. 

 

NYC

Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics, and has worked with NARAL, The Civil Liberties & Public Policy Program and its sister program PopDev, and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She currently works at Sakhi for South Asian Women, an advocacy organization that supports immigrant survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence through an array of culturally competent services and programs. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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