Get to Know Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: Founding Editor-in-Chief of MuslimGirl
Following the events of September 11, 2001, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh experienced an increased sense of isolation as a Muslim girl in the United States. And, in a continued, unsuccessful search for a safe space to call her own, Al-Khatahtbeh grew frustrated.
Once in high school, then 17-year-old Al-Khatahtbeh was determined to create an outlet for Muslim women and girls, not unlike herself, to "cultivate [their] identities, build [them]selves up, and turn inward and search for those conversations that we need to have."
Her website, MuslimGirl.com, has since become an outlet for Muslim women and girls to make sense of what was going on and what continues to occur in the United States — and in the world — on a daily basis.
With a brand new debut book on shelves now, MAKERS sat down to ask her about how MuslimGirl.com came to be, the effects of the current political climate on our society, where she sees the site going in the next few years, and, of course, what's next for her as a writer. Check out our exclusive interview below.
Q: Can you start by telling me a little about how, when, and why the site was launched?
A: MuslimGirl is a website that I started when I was in high school. It was born out of frustration, honestly. It was a moment in my life where I felt really alienated and excluded from the media, and that was something I had been feeling my entire life growing up after 9/11. It just felt like always the talking heads on the news were never Muslim women even though all they were talking about was Muslim women. So, for me, I was going through so much, especially as a Muslim girl navigating being a teenage girl and also being a Muslim through Islamophobia, I felt like we needed to have conversations that just weren’t being had. A lot of the spaces online that were available to Muslims were focused on things that didn’t seem relevant to my life as a young millennial. So I chose to create a space where I could find other girls like me that I could connect with and also where we could have those conversations and create a safe space for us to talk about the things that are pertinent to our lives.
Q: Is there one particular moment that you can pinpoint that made you realize this is what you wanted to do?
A: There wasn't a specific moment that was the catalyst; it really was a culmination, kind of like an avalanche that led to that point. But, there was a point where I was introduced to Islamic feminism to online spaces, so when I was young, when I was a teenager, I turned to those online spaces so I could have conversations, so I could find other people who I could connect with finally. And during that time, I had found a Muslim community online… and I remember encountering this one comment that was written by a woman in which she interpreted Islam through her own reasoning… in a way that was tailored to her own gendered experience and that really opened my eyes to the possibility… Islam isn’t something that we just are taught and that we learn, but it's an actual breathing, malleable, adaptable religion. And that was something that I really wanted to show because I felt the way that it was misrepresented in our society was like it was backwards, it was irrelevant, it was something of another civilization. I wanted to close that gap and show that being American and being a Muslim woman aren’t mutually exclusive.
Q: What is the one message you share through your site for women and girls?
A: We aspire to create a world where women can walk the streets with their heads held high without fear of being attacked for their religion, their gender, their sexual orientation — anything that has to do with their identities. And I think that’s something that we’re still working toward, especially now where Muslim women are, yet again, fearful of just stepping out of their homes, where we’re being targeted, at risk of being under attack if we wear a veil on our heads… For us, we're constantly working toward a world where we don’t have to feel that way, where we can be safe for simply being who we are and that’s really the hope of it. The premise is that if you're able to change people's perception, if we're able to reframe our narrative in the media… then by extension, we can have impact on policies that are impacting Muslims.
Q: Given the political climate, do you think the site is more important now than ever?
A: Absolutely. We've always needed a space for our voices, but I think that now MuslimGirl has become a resource, a place where Muslim women can turn to… It's not just that we're having conversations and we’re creating our presence through our voices in the conversations, but we’re also creating a direct response to the threat that Muslim women are under right now and for Muslim women, it’s really important that we have a place like that.
Q: How do you think having important conversations about racism, Islamophobia, sexism, et cetera can help change our culture and make it more accepting, but particularly in regard to Muslim stereotypes?
A: Right now what we are seeing happen isn't conversations really, it’s a reaction to a lot of hateful rhetoric. It's not coming from a place of increasing tolerance or understanding… The only thing prompting these conversations is the fact that we just elected a person that is so outwardly racist and has made it socially acceptable to be racist again, it only comes at our expense… That was the progress we were working toward — greater understanding and making it by law and also by sociability unacceptable to harbor those types of views of our fellow citizens. Now people feel like they can express that racism without accountability… I don’t think the threat that we are under now is worth just having a conversation, which I think was the responsibility of this country before this election. That’s a conversation that should have been had over decades.
Q: Where do you hope the site goes in the next four years?
A: I think MuslimGirl's presence, as a platform now, is more pertinent than ever. I think we are going to continue evolving into a space that represents the wide spectrum of Muslim voices and experiences, especially in Western societies. And now I think we are going to be in the position of accountability and holding our government accountable and always having eyes on what is going on… I am very hopeful about the direction that we’re headed in, because these conversations are happening and the fact that we have grown so much over the past year is just telling that there is an interest in hearing what we have to say and hearing our voices. As long as we keep on elevating our voices, that's how we can talk back to society.
Q: Why was it specifically important for you to make a site for Muslim girls and women?
A: It was really important to have a safe space for women and girls because there really isn't one that's specifically for us. That's part of the reason why I started it when I was in high school — I was online looking for a space for us to have these conversations, but a lot of the spaces I found weren’t catered specifically toward women and issues women have to experience and I feel like that obviously is a very defining identity to have to navigate… We are being targeted right now, we are a minority within a minority and we are one of the most visible religious minorities in the country, if not the world if we choose to wear our scarves on our head. So that puts us in a very vulnerable position and we need a space to not just cultivate our identities and build ourselves up and turn inward and search for those conversations that we need to have, but also because we do play a very sensible role right now. As these, kind of, nontraditional, unspoken ambassadors of Islam and I think that’s something we have to catalyze.
Q: Your first book, "Muslim Girl A Coming of Age," was released last month, can you tell me a little bit about that?
A: The reason why I wrote it is because I had it in mind that these girls were going to walk by a bookshelf and see it and feel like they're represented. Like when I first saw "Muslim Girl" at Barnes and Noble, when I went in to find it, it was literally just sitting there with "Muslim Girl" written across the center of it in its neon glory and I just thought to myself "Wow, I can't imagine how many girls are going to pass by it and see a cover with a veiled woman on it, that isn't in an impressive way, and that just says our identity"… It was very important for me.
But it details the experience of growing up post-9/11. And that's something I say throughout the book multiple times is that I can't imagine another generation of children having to grow up enduring what I went through. I am now coming to terms with that reality, I think it's very heartbreaking and makes this book even more important.
Q: Are there more books to come?
A: Definitely, definitely. My earliest dream before I even thought of creating MuslimGirl was to write a book, so this definitely was a life dream of mine coming true.
Photo Credit: Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images