By Manar and Sharifah Alhinai
Born in New Jersey in 1992 to a Jordanian-American father and a Palestinian-American mother, the United States was the only home that Amani Al-Khatatbeh had ever known. But the events of September 11 forever changed the environment she had lived in. Al-Khatatbeh and her family found themselves ostracised and facing violent attacks for their Islamic beliefs. The young Al-Khatatbeh even tried to conceal her Muslim identity to avoid negative judgement or mistreatment from her counterparts at school. When she was 13 years old, she and her family moved to Jordan, where Al-Khatatbeh fell in love with Islam and her culture, and began to reclaim her Islamic identity by wearing the headscarf.
Following her mother’s illness, however, Al-Khatatbeh moved back to New Jersey, but with an altered perspective. With a newfound pride in her Muslim identity and a frustration at how Muslims were misrepresented in the mainstream media as well as the shortage of Muslim voices within it, Al-Khatatbeh founded muslimgirl.com, a blog that reclaims the narrative of Muslims, especially that of women, in 2009. Muslim Girl has published articles on topics that touch the modern-day woman. They are written by Muslim women, in their own voices, and allows them to speak up for themselves.
The design that Amani Al-Khatatbeh is wearing is the result of a collaboration between her and Adidas. Image courtesy of Muslim Girl.
Today, more than a decade after Al-Khatabeh established it in her bedroom at 17 years old, Muslim Girl is a media company with content that has been consumed by millions worldwide, and Al-Khatatbeh herself has become known as a formidable force. In addition to establishing a successful media platform, she authored Muslim Girl: Coming of Age, which was listed in the Forbes 30 Under 30 List. Al-Khatatbeh was later named one of the 25 most influential Muslim Americans by CNN. In 2017, Al-Khatabeh founded Muslim Women’s Day in an effort to celebrate and uplift Muslim women, who were increasingly facing attacks at the time. The occasion is annually marked on March 27.
In this interview, the 30-year-old discusses what it means to be a third culture kid and how it shaped her journey, reflects on the past and future of Muslim Girl and provides us with insight into her upcoming project.
How did your experiences as a third culture kid shape your career path? Do you think you would have chosen a different career path if you hadn’t been one?
AA: I feel like my whole career is a reaction to being a third culture kid. My dad immigrated to the U.S. in the 80’s, and was not far off from his Jordanian culture when he started raising a family. My mum is a Palestinian refugee, the daughter of Nakba survivors — she grew up in America and was a mall kid rocking a Farah Fawcett haircut in the 80’s. I was the first born and raised in the U.S. and grew up with one foot in two doors. September 11 happened very early on in my childhood, and suddenly, I became an outsider in the only home I’ve ever known. The Internet became the space I turned to for the community I didn’t have in real life.
What have been some of the challenges of building a media company in the United States that revolves around Muslim women, their narratives and their representation? How did you overcome them?
AA: When you’re on the frontlines of certain spaces, people can treat you differently and like you should be grateful to be there. There’s a lot of imposter syndrome — like when we became the first Muslim media to cover a Marvel red carpet alongside Hollywood titans, I gave a pep talk to my team to remind them that we belong and deserve to be there, too. The truth is that often, we have to work much harder with far less privilege and resources to get to where we are, and we earned every step to get there. The more we own it and take up space, the more we make room for others to do the same.
Muslim Girl started off as a blog, which you worked on from your bedroom beginning in 2009. Today, it is a big media company that organises events and programmes, has a podcast, and so much more. How do you hope Muslim Girl, thirteen years on, will serve Muslim women living abroad?
AA: Muslim Girl is impactful in today’s landscape because we understood very early on the power of the Internet and social media to melt away borders between us — geographically, culturally, and beyond. Having no borders has empowered us to build connections and a community based on an awareness and a commitment to bridging the gaps that divide us. Ultimately, we’re all interconnected in some way. For example, policies shaped by our elected officials in the U.S. could shape life circumstances for our brothers and sisters in a Muslim country living abroad. Increased xenophobia during our elections could reignite a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe. And it goes on. When we put pressure to pass the mic, we help empower the voices of those being drowned out.
What drives you to continue working on Muslim Girl, especially given the evolvement of the representation of Muslim women?
AA: It’s easy to take today’s visibility of Muslim women for granted, but it wasn’t always this way! Things had changed so quickly over the past several years online that it’s easy to forget when Muslim Girl was first starting out. Almost any mainstream coverage about a Muslim woman was completely focused on her hijab. We were only ever defined by the way we dress, and even that was a step up from the defining post-9/11 image of Muslim women as being oppressed. I’m proud that Muslim Girl grew into one of the most influential forces in media to change that. We’ve become one of the earliest mainstream case studies that show our demographic not only exists, but it’s active, dynamic and vocal. One of the most important things that Muslim Girl’s success has done for the community is prove that Muslim women have a presence, and, therefore, can’t be ignored. There’s no excuse that ‘we couldn’t find a Muslim woman to do X’ anymore because here we are, talking back — loud and clear. Now, we’ve made it almost impossible to talk about Muslim women without including us, but we still have a long way to go to get our stories the treatment they deserve.
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