Identity

4 Muslim Women on How to Survive in Media

Journalists Noura Erakat, Eman Bare, Meher Ahmad, and Safaa Khan get candid about what they love about being Muslim in media and how they handle tokenization.

by Leila Ettachfini
Mar 27 2019, 4:24pm

Noura Erakat and Eman Bare. Images courtesy of subjects.

From the way we see ourselves to the way we are seen, being Muslim means so many different things to individual women across the world. In honor of Muslim Women’s Day this year, we’re focusing on the way Muslim identity presents itself differently—in our personal relationships, our professional endeavors, and more—and how no one experience can speak for us all.

When founder and editor-in-chief of MuslimGirl Amani Al-Khatahtbeh founded the inaugural Muslim Women's Day on March 27, 2017, she did so with media at the forefront of her mind. Al-Khatahtbeh wanted the day to "engineer a new precedent for Muslim women's representation in mainstream media."

Since then, Muslim Women's Day has lived up to Al-Khatahtbeh's expectations. This year, media outlets like Teen Vogue, Nylon, and many others are publishing content that centers Muslim women's voices. At Broadly, we're no exception. Today, along with sex educators, artists, and more, we're honoring Muslim Women's Day's roots by speaking to Muslim women in the media industry directly to learn about the multiplicity of their experiences. These women vary in location, background, and how they practice, illustrating that, like members of any faith, Muslim women are not monolithic.

Here are four Muslim women in media on the rewards and challenges of their work.

Did you have Muslim women to look up to when you were younger who occupied a similar job/position as you have today?

Eman Bare, freelance journalist: I didn't, but I also didn't really see myself as Muslim when I was a little girl. I knew our holidays were different, but I was very unaware of race or religion. I think the first time I really realized that no one who looked like me was on TV, was when I was in undergrad and decided to apply to journalism school.

I think it's important to have diverse Muslim women in media. I think what we are seeing right now is a focus on white-passing and white-adjacent Muslim women on TV. Some Muslim women are only POC when they wear a hijab. And it's damaging to only focus on those stories. A Black Muslim woman from Detroit is going to experience Islamophobia very differently than a white-passing Muslim woman from the Bay area.

Noura Erakat, scholar, human rights attorney, and co-founding editor of Jadaliyya: There weren't a lot; there was Hanan Ashrawi. As a Palestinian girl, I wanted to be a lot of things. I knew at the core of my work, I wanted to be an advocate. I grew up in the US, so to look up and see Arab-American or Muslim American women—I didn't. That's patriarchy together with racism. I remember being in the second grade and having a substitute teacher who I heard speak Arabic on accident and it changed my entire day. It's remarkable. It made me so proud, because you don't recognize [how it affects you] as a kid and a minority when you don't see anybody who likes you.

The next time I saw someone who tugged at my heart in that way was probably at a conference when I was a law student. I saw an attorney at a panel who worked in Lebanon after the 2006 war. I rushed up to her, like "That's it! How do I do that work?" I was mostly attracted to the work.

Sometimes I take for granted what it means for young women to see me. I get that a lot from young women whose parents introduce me or who just want to come to my office hours. At first I felt really awkward like I don't want any of this, I don't deserve it. But when I take a step back and realize how few images we have of women doing this work. I'm trying to resist, I'm trying to change all the rules—and then to still be seen? I have to accept that. I've learned to accept it, that yeah, this is a big deal.

What is the most rewarding part of being a Muslim woman in media or in the public eye?

Meher Ahmad, journalist and documentary producer: Muslims are everywhere, in every country. They are complicated and come from different sects and practices. Having a basic level of understanding with Muslims I meet from all walks of life often helps us find common ground before an interview. It's also rewarding to use what knowledge I have of Islam to try and correct simple mistakes that can be made by my colleagues out of ignorance. Some of them are curious and want to be more nuanced in their reporting. Others don't even realize the biases or notions that end up changing the tone of a report and perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Being able to help correct that from inside the industry is valuable, and even more rewarding when I see Muslim audiences say they were relieved to see something reported without immense bias.

Eman Bare: I think as a young journalist, particularly as a Black Muslim woman, people don't expect me to be good—and sometimes I listen too much to that doubt. So the best part is definitely when you land that big story that no one thought you could.

Noura Erakat: The most rewarding part is feeling that I'm speaking on behalf of my community. The affirmation that I get from a base that is excited for me speaking on their behalf is the most exciting piece of this because this isn't about me. The moment that I slip up, or that I'm not as sharp, or the moment my analysis is problematic, or the moment I'm not actually responsive to what our community is striving for—that's the moment I shouldn't be doing it any more. The most rewarding thing is just being affirmed and encouraged to do it again. When I say my community, I don't just conceive of my community as Muslim and Palestinian and Arab, I also see my community as a whole host of folks who are committed to liberation and freedom, who are committed to LGBTQ freedom, who are committed to freedom from capitalism and racism. I also like to challenge my Muslim community and my Palestinian and Arab community when I feel it's necessary.

"Sometimes I take for granted what it means for young women to see me."

Safaa Khan, media analyst and consultant: The praise from people on a "job well done" is always nice, but the most rewarding part is that feeling of accomplishment. I personally sleep so much better at night when I feel like I've done something worthwhile, and for me, that's when I know I've contributed to something important. The social media "fame" is not something I look(ed) for at all which is unfortunately something our community sometimes gets caught up in when you work in the media space.

What have been the biggest challenges?

Eman Bare: Everyone always thinks I'm the intern. Because most of the work that I do is investigative, I generally have a lot of old white men try and boss me around. I'm 5'5" and kind of small, but I'm Somali. My people are non-conformists by blood. So I get a lot of nasty emails from people who realize I'm about to write a story about them doing some not-so-great stuff.

Also, there's this weird obsession in the Muslim community to label yourself as "the first" anytime you do something. I remember this one Muslim organization called me an "aspiring" journalist in a profile piece. I corrected him and said I had actually been on air for six years. He asked why he didn't know I was a TV reporter and I laughed because here was a guy who clearly never watched the news, asking me why he had never heard of me. I think Muslim journalists, and I'm talking directly to hijabi reporters, need to focus more on storytelling and less on brand building. If you have more stories written about you than by you, is it fair to call yourself a journalist?

Noura Erakat: Two fold, one is from the community itself. When I first started doing this work, people were competing with one another, like, Oh you're taking up space. I didn't get a lot of love or support necessarily. It can be really toxic amongst marginalized communities. We lose a lot, so when people start to rise there's always this fear that they are rising opportunistically in order to get theirs and burn everybody else. You have to do it for long enough for people to realize where your loyalties lie. I've done it long enough, it should be clear I'm not trying to climb anywhere. I'm in this. That was really hard and it's really hard for young people, which is why I like to mentor young people because I didn't get a lot of mentorship.

The other part that's been really challenging is just all the assumptions that revolve around you, like being accused of being a Hamas lawyer or being tokenized. When I speak, I speak as a passionate activist, so part of my own work has been to write a lot more and to publish so people read me and understand that I'm also studied. The dismissal of a young or young-appearing woman with political commitment is to infantilize her. Like, she's just so cute and she doesn't understand reality yet. You can see that even happening with AOC. I'm not visibly Muslim; that's just a challenge of being a woman. The challenge is being a Palestinian woman speaking on behalf of ourselves—that was revolutionary.

The dismissal of a young or young-appearing woman with political commitment is to infantilize her.

Safaa Khan: My challenges have definitely changed since graduating college last May. It's interesting because in school I was incredibly involved in the media space. I was a marketing and journalism and media studies major, led the social media team at Muslim Girl, interned with a variety of media companies, collaborated with a multitude of amazing women, and wrote often. The biggest challenge then was being able to reach a wide array of audiences. I wanted our diverse Muslim communities to see the work we were doing and feel like Yes, I'm finally being represented. That's my voice. At the same time though, we needed to extend beyond our communities, let everyone see who we truly are, that we have a voice, and that we're going to have a seat at the table. Muslim women are sick of being talked about by people who aren't Muslim women period. Being taken seriously then was also a part of the process, but I think for me it was being able to reach and connect to my audience, my people.

Since graduating and starting work in the corporate world, I've gotten a very different feel as a Muslim woman in media. My current role is at a major consulting firm as part of the customer experience team for a media company. These days I'm busy challenging stereotypes and constantly proving people wrong in hopes that corporations who boast about "diversity" actually value that buzz word as more than just a buzz word.

As a Muslim woman in media, I find it very difficult to be online, and sometimes to do my job whenever there's a controversy surrounding Muslim identity at the top of my feed. For example, most recently, the way Rep. Ilhan Omar was targeted when she called AIPAC into question and the way Leen Dweik was vilified after confronting Chelsea Clinton at a vigil for the victims of the New Zealand terrorist attack. How do you cope and continue professionally in times like these?

Meher Ahmad: It certainly brings up old wounds. A big part of confronting Islamophobia, for me at least, has been refusing to accept it's not a big deal. I spent a lot of my early twenties cracking jokes about this stuff as a coping mechanism but at the end of the day, American Muslims face really brutal experiences that make it hard for us feel welcome here and we don't have to downplay that to make people like us or fit in. I'm not even as visibly Muslim as women like Rep. Omar who wear a headscarf. It's a whole different level for those women and I really admire their courage. So yeah, seeing the public treat her the way they did hurts me deeply. But her grace in that situation reminds me that 99 percent of the time, women in that situation respond the same way. It's also such a relief to have a woman like her—incredibly personable, politically sharp, confident—to be at the forefront of that battle.

As painful as it was, I'm happy we are finally at the point where we can have this discussion. Just a few years ago, we had elected officials carrying out hearings about the state of Islam in our country. We had elected officials grilling Muslim community leaders as if it was a privilege to be in America when it was their right. This is before Trump, before we can blame all the rhetoric on him. I remember writing something on Jezebel in like, 2013 about a state legislature voting to ban Muslim toilets from their capital. It's fucking stupid, but it's also scary. That kind of stuff makes any Muslim American a little uncertain about their footing here. Ilhan Omar helps us remember it's our country too.

Eman Bare: I'm Black. The vilification of people who look like me is nothing new. Do you know how awkward it is to learn about slavery in elementary school when you're the only Black kid in your grade? Or be asked by your boss why you're crying when a Black boy who looks like your little brother was murdered by a cop? My comfort is in knowing I am not alone. I have learned to turn to the elders in my community. I think what non-black Muslims need to realize is that Black Muslims have been experiencing this for so long. And yet, I never see Black Muslim scholars be asked to speak on Islamophobia. It's like we don't want to listen to people who are actual experts.

The vilification of people who look like me is nothing new. My comfort is in knowing I am not alone.

Noura Erakat: I guess, and I hate to say this, but to do this work for so long you have to be a little nuts. You're just not as sensitive anymore; you're not as surprised by things anymore. You're crazy enough to believe things are going to change and you're crazy enough to withstand the crap that you're going to get. I think there is very much an irrational core and essence to doing this work because it doesn't make any sense. It'll kill you. There's so little reward in it and such high risk and punishment. I don't work amongst radicals, so you also learn where to derive your sense of self and compartmentalize, so I can be in certain spaces and not take things personally. Not everything becomes an issue. Like micro-aggressions, I know they're real, but it's not my biggest concern because I compartmentalize. I've been able to discern the spaces that matter to me and the spaces that don't. I'm able to temper my expectations. It's not that I put up with it, but they're the things that one learns for survival.

Safaa Khan: I could not agree more. Being online constantly is exhausting. I've made sure to pause, breathe, and take care of myself. Whether that means I log off of social media for a bit or dive hard into a passion project, I've learned to always listen to myself and take care. And it extends beyond just myself: I always check up on my family and friends in hard times to make sure our community is coping together when we can.

Have you ever felt tokenized in your work or elsewhere, and if so, what do you do when you're faced with a situation that feels tokenizing?

Meher Ahmad: I'm very much guilty of falling into that trap. It's a complicated space to be in: On one hand, I want to write about experiences women like me have face often yet rarely discuss publicly (although that's been changing for the better in a big way in the last five years!). On the other hand, I don't want to be seen solely through that lens. I don't wake up in the morning and go, "Ah, time to do my day as a WOC Muslim!" I think the narratives are evolving, and we're on one step of that ladder right now. In another five years, discussing our Muslim identity and all that entails might be less pressing. I hope that happens. That we have enough visibility that people can see beyond just that first identifying label.

Eman Bare: Women who look like me are hired to fill a diversity quota. Never mind that I have experience on my resume that journalists twice my age don't. I have done some pretty remarkable work for being in my mid-20's, and not once have been offered any sort of training, or guidance, or mentorship, when all of those program exist at the place that I work and are generally given based on merit. They want women like me in newsrooms so that executive producers can say they aren't racist. What they don't want is for us to be actually good at our jobs. I went to law school because after five years of doing investigative work, I felt like I was stuck. I wanted to get better, but journalism is kind of like a trade, where you need to do a sort of in-newsroom apprenticeship.

Noura Erakat: It's very clear to me now [when I'm being tokenized]. I put up with much more of it as I was getting trained and developing and establishing who I was. Now, I get to set the terms. If I'm being brought into the discussion where, for example, Palestine is framed as a peace and conflict issue of two people trying to get along, I'm not going. Or if I'm going where they try to erase power dynamics in relationships that we're talking about, I'm not going. I just pull out. I won't be tokenized.

I was invited to give a lecture at Harvard and they wanted me to be on a panel alongside a settler. I just told the organizers, it's ridiculous that you would even ask me to be on a panel with him. I will not legitimize that position at all. They disinvited him and invited me. I have weight now, but I've done my homework. I've been doing this for almost two decades. I'm published. I withstood the test of time with my seriousness, my rigor, and commitment. If they had said we're going to invite the other guy I'd have been like "Fine, do it. I'm not coming." I've pulled out of really cool events because of that, but I'm not thirsty. It takes an attitude. It's not like being dogmatic and you need some balance, but it's exercising that judgement.

What advice would you give a young Muslim woman entering the media industry?

Meher Ahmad: A lot of people want you to be a certain way. That's true of most women, but especially as a minority, people (including other Muslims! including "woke allies!") want to put you in one box and categorize you. It's OK to be more than one thing. And the internet is a big place, so if you're in the boonies surrounded by white folk (most media is white folk) get online and DM people! Nine times out of ten they're looking for a community too.

Eman Bare: If you're entering media to "represent Muslim women" please stop. It's infantilizing to pretend we have a homogenous voice. Other than that, don't ever take no for an answer.

Noura Erakat: Say yes to as many opportunities as possible, just to get training. You're not going to get good without practice. You should be willing and excited to take those things on. Now, draw the line, however, when accepting some of those opportunities that have more of a negative impact than a positive one.

Safaa Khan: Find your voice and hold strongly onto your values/ morals. Muslim women are not a monolith, we need to hear your perspective. The media industry is a tricky place, and the worst thing you can do is lose yourself in trying to appease those around you.