A few years ago, with reservation but in hopes of finding answers (or at least a semblance of an online connection) I haphazardly typed the words "Muslim Girl"--both words capitalized to give it gravitas--in the search box of my Google homepage. Nothing useful came up.
Fast-forward almost ten years, and I learn about MuslimGirl.net. After my friend casually mentioned it to me, I went on to find everything that I had ever wanted as a Muslim child there: transparency of experience and a nuanced expression of what being Muslim was. As a young Muslim girl growing up in Australia, I'd felt isolated. But I had a sneaking suspicion that there were others out there who were the same kind of girl that I was: odd, passionate, equal parts Muslim and Western. I wanted to feel connected because I didn't want to feel dislocated and alone in a world where I was constantly being defined by others--an extremist by the media; a lapsed, wayward girl by my own community.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, the founding editor of MuslimGirl.net, felt the same way. When she was still a senior at high school, just five years ago, she started to notice more and more the negative effects of the post-9/11 era on our Muslim generation of kids, notably the rising tide of institutional racism and suspicion attached to our bodies. So she created a blog called MuslimGirl, which initially started as a LiveJournal community meant to start a conversation with other Muslim women. At the time, there was no active forum for fluid and open conversations amongst us; she wanted to foster a space where she could talk about things that impacted her. No one else was encapsulating that voice.
"I really wanted to find a way to help Muslim women, like us, to fight back against how we were being represented in the media," she says. Within five days of its creation, the MuslimGirl community had over a 1,000 members. The best part, she recalls, was that so many of the first members were non-Muslims who just wanted to learn more about Islam. She recognized immediately that she was filling a void, and this gave her inspiration to move forward with the project.
"Clearly people wanted to talk about these things, so I thought: let me make it its own independent platform," she recalls. Working out of her New Jersey home, she left LiveJournal, got her own domain name and made MuslimGirl into a simple blog where she and friends of hers from the mosque could publish things relevant to their own lives. The following year, when she started college at Rutgers University, she decided to found "Muslim Girl" as a student organization. She wanted to implement the ethos of MuslimGirl.net and bring it to life, shedding awareness on issues that disproportionately concern Muslims in a tangible way.
After she graduated college, she went straight to Washington DC and registered the website as a non-profit organization. She has now been operating MuslimGirl.net for five years, and she's watched its trajectory rapidly shift from a blog to a fully formed social movement. The website's staff is currently looking for an office space in New York; right now they mainly work out of their own bedrooms on their laptops. "The MuslimGirl staff and network of writers is entirely managed online and spans continents," explains Amani. The revolution is at their fingertips.
One of the earliest pieces published on MuslimGirl is still one of their most popular articles. Just this past month, during Ramadan, it was again the most read page on the site. The piece, which is entitled "Taking on your Period During Ramadan," tackles a topic that is somewhat of a taboo--given that women and their bodies (and the functioning of said bodies) are largely unexplored by Muslim commentators. Every month, when a woman is on her period she is omitted from praying. During Ramadan, women on their periods aren't allowed to pray or fast, and instead they're asked to be introspective and take time off to nurture themselves. "At the time when we published it, we were teens and had never really openly discussed it before, so it was a big deal for us," says Amani. "It was exciting to empower younger Muslim girls that we weren't excluded during one of the most important months of the year just because we were women."
This year, Amani went on CNN to talk about the website and how it's endeavoring to change people's perceptions of Islam. Last year, with other members of MuslimGirl.net, she represented American Muslim women at the United Nations Youth Assembly. "It's about developing a generation of leaders, of strong voices and women who are not afraid to participate in society," she says. " I want to show people that Muslim women do talk back. And if you want to hear what we're saying, here's a great source!" Now she's working on the website full-time to cement its vision and give more visibility to Muslim women and their voices.
Amani and I both had positive experiences growing up Muslim. She was raised in the States, which, obviously, marred her adolescence: Growing up in New Jersey, constantly going back and forth to New York, you carry weird psychic baggage. I can still recount the intensity of loss that I felt when I stood at Ground Zero for the first time; as a Muslim, it's almost inexplicable. "I was in elementary school when September 11th happened, you know? That was very difficult to maneuver and deal with growing up," Amani says. "Our definitive moments, the creation of who we are as Muslims--and people--took place on one of the biggest assaults of our identity in modern history." We are defined completely by a moment of violence. No matter who you are, if you're Muslim, you've felt the wrath of USA.
Every Muslim has a story of shame: "When I was in Middle School and my classmates would ask me if I was Muslim, I was so embarrassed to say that I was. It wasn't until I visited the Middle East, and I started learning more about Islam, or started actually meeting Muslim people and heard stories in their own voices, that I started feeling overwhelmed with pride that I came from this type of background and culture," Amani recounts. It's easy to dismiss someone's lack of pride and declare it a sign of weakness, or even as a pathetic inability to stand up for oneself, but being demonized--and having that being all you know of your own culture and religion--has been a cornerstone of the Muslim identity that Amani and I know. Gone are the days of fetishized orientalism; now it's a violent undermining that occurs, with spokespeople like Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens, both of whom have publicly declared that all Muslim women are oppressed, while never asking Muslim women for their input. How many conversations have I encountered when people declare that they "know so much about Islam." Everyone seems to know about Islam, but nobody seems to have met, or talked, to a Muslim.
"The main foundation of MuslimGirl is to encourage and promote autonomy of every Muslim woman to practice Islam the way they see fit," says Amani. "Older generation of Muslims stress the need to point out when others are sinning and correct them, but we should put emphasis on focusing on your own actions, because part of Islam is also not involving yourself in other people's affairs and business." Muslim girl to Muslim girl, I completely felt what she was saying: We have one foot in Muslim culture and one foot in Western culture, which can be disorienting and confusing. There should be more compassion.
A cornerstone of the MuslimGirl philosophy is that Muslims work better together. "As millennial Muslims, we have much bigger fish to fry, and much bigger issues that are impacting our community as a whole. We cannot afford to be judging each other and tearing each other apart. It's extremely damaging but it's also none of our business. No one person has authority over another person to say "You're doing it wrong;" "You're going to hell;" You're going to heaven." Western feminists claim that Islam and feminism are antithetical, but, as Amani makes clear, the principles of feminism can align perfectly with Muslim ideals.
MuslimGirl is about portraying the genuine lives of Muslim women living in a Western society without censorship or judgment. "Earlier this year we wrote a story on Mia Khalifa, the Lebanese porn-star," says Amani. "We basically wrote an analysis of the porn that she does--especially ones in which she just wears a headscarf--and what implications that has on Muslim women and how Westerners view them." The article went viral; not publication could write about Mia Khalifa without citing MuslimGirl, which was an openly definitive moment for the publication, one that launched them into a different stratosphere. "We suddenly realized that we were writing about something completely new--porn with a hijab on--and we were injecting our voices, and making history. After that it was hard to ignore us, which is wonderful."
Having an authentic voice comes at a price, and the hate mail since that incident has been copious: "I got one email that really stuck with me the said, 'You guys are fake Muslims! I come on this website expecting to be inspired and then the first thing I see is an article about porn! I'm gonna let everyone know you're a sham!'" Amani recounts. "I had to take the time to write a proper response and let this person know that this website is run by Muslim women and it's written for Muslim women." She feels strongly about showcasing a diversity of opinion and highlighting the array of multidimensional attitudes that exists within Muslim culture. She insists that Muslim girls can have a multiplicity of vastly different experiences--some of which may involve porn--and affirms that she doesn't want to dilute just to maintain a one dimensional image of Muslimah sisterhood in order to appeal to conservative Muslims. To her, the Muslim experience is far more complicated, dirty, and flawed--and that's a beautiful, nuanced thing.
"I wrote to the person [who sent the hate mail] saying, 'It's totally contradictory to what we're trying to do! We're trying to showcase all the experiences, all the voices.' They responded really well to us after we explained that. They understood that it was an important story to cover." Clearly, Amani is helping to shift the dominant narrative, putting the power to define it back in our hands. As she shares this story I smile at her through Skype, and she laughs back: "We're stealing the mic!"
A few years ago, I attended a seminar entitled "Is Islam A Religion of Peace?" at NYU's Skirball Center. I remember feeling so frustrated by the question itself. To me, it seemed like the Intelligence Squared Committee (who hosted the event) had already made the decision when they first posed the question; isn't framing it like that intimating something? The air of "openness" seemed deceptive and unnecessarily coy--let's not forget that mainstream media consistently overrides the opinions of the mass majority of Muslims.
Renowned Muslim apostate Ayaan Hirsi Ali was on the panel against the question, unsurprisingly declaring that Islam was not a religion of peace. As I watched her, I was overcome with feelings of disbelief. This woman, who's so clearly motivated by a certain agenda (Hirsi Ali is an ex-Muslim and has a savior complex) is consistently given platforms because her opinions align with the image of Muslims that has been propagated since September 11: She says that we are savage, deadly, and dangerous, that our way of life is not fit for the West.
After I tell this story to Amani, she shares her story of when Ayaan Hirsi Ali got her own minions to go after her on Twitter after they disagreed during a discussion about Muslim women. Countless trolls sent Amani hate mail insinuating that the only reason she felt positively about Islam was because she was American, not because she was Muslim. "They were saying that I was too Westernized to talk about Islam," she says. "They even pulled up pictures of me from my past where my skin, for whatever reason, looked lighter and kept saying: look, she's not even Arab!" The erasure and desire to remove identity is a classic tactic. Amani doesn't fit the stereotypical idea of a Muslim woman--uneducated, unvoiced, and tacit--and she makes people uncomfortable for that reason. People find that her articulation, eloquence, and engagement a direct confrontation of what they consider Muslim women, especially ones that wear the hijab, to be.
Having diversity of voice is so pertinent to what Amani is trying to achieve. It allows for the conversation to be more inclusive, and it also emphasizes the complexity of Muslim women's voices and reveals how much we have to say. When earlier this year Gawker published an essay called "Practicing Islam in Short Shorts," MuslimGirl posted a feminist analysis of the piece. "It's still controversial for its deconstruction of patriarchal notions found in modern interpretations of Islam," Amani notes. Another article that really sparked a heated debate was "Stop Using #MuslimLivesMatter," written in response to the hashtag that popped up during a wave of Islamophobic hate crimes earlier this year. The piece asked the Muslim community to be wary of appropriating the hard-earned attention surrounding #BlackLivesMatter, and questioned the importance of allyship without co-opting a movement.
Amani is out here trying to dismantle what a "good Muslim" looks like. "The best way to do that is by not staying silent on these stories," she says. "As soon as we share the stories, tell our experiences to other people and put them out there, that's how you dissipate the judgment. We have to talk about what's taboo--we have remain authentic to our experience." Talking about smoking weed, talking about sex, or talking about abortions as a Muslim is revolutionary. Hirsi Ali might think it's a product of being in the West, but really it's a product of the times. Being blasphemous, and speaking openly about it, allows for dialogue. Asserting authority over these topics, allowing movement, and eliminating the intense obsession with purity creates real change.
Towards the end of the conversation I started to cry. Hearing her speak so strongly about all the things that I had theorized and felt, growing up all these years, made me feel less alone. I felt myself reflected in her; her desire to prove that Muslim women weren't being silenced--that we could speak and that it was time for others to listen--fill me with an incredible sense of purpose. "MuslimGirl is a testament that we're making a difference," she says.