Girlboss Spotlight: Amani Al-Khatahtbeh
Our Girlboss Spotlight is shining on Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, the founder and Editor-in-Chief of MuslimGirl. Amani is a powerhouse, and she has been and continues to fight injustices and pave the way forward for Muslim women. Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is an American author and tech entrepreneur. She is the founder and editor of MuslimGirl, an online magazine for Muslim women. Al-Khatahtbeh grew up in New Jersey. Her family temporarily relocated to Jordan in 2005 to escape Islamophobia. She founded MuslimGirl in 2009 when she was 17 and a senior in high school. With friends from her mosque, al-Khatahtbeh published blogs on the site. Following high school, she attended Rutgers University, graduating in 2014. She then worked for a non-profit based in Washington, D.C. before moving to New York and briefly working for a major media organization.
That ambition that drove you to start MuslimGirl, is that with you today? Or has it changed to something more?
I think that passion to start it at the beginning, the need, and the urgency for me is alive now more than ever. It’s really powered by what is taking place in the world around us today, and the work is never over. If anything, we’ve had our work cut out for us over the past year. So it’s still there, (the ambition) it’s just taking different forms now.
What kind of forms are those? Do you think your voice has amplified because of it?
Yeah! I think that MuslimGirl really has been a tremendous impact in terms of amplifying Muslim women’s voices in the media and reclaiming their narrative. Now that we’re in these spaces, and as we enter in these spaces I think the question is becoming how can we most effectively use them to empower as many voices as possible. So we’re finding new ways to do that, this past Ramadan we introduced the new MuslimGirl foundation, and this semester we’re launching our scholarship fund, where we are basically providing ten-one thousand dollar scholarships to empower Muslim women’s voices in the media, which we’re incredibly excited about. We’re finding different ways that we can really keep pushing forward.
On social media, you exude a fierce and powerful confidence. You’re presence in the media has been normalizing a Muslim woman in these spaces. I know your family moved to Jordan after 9/11 to escape from Islamophobia. Basically, how did you reclaim that confidence, and what advice can you give to Muslim women who don’t have that confidence? Especially in a Trump world.
Of course you see, on social media, the bright side of things and you see the confidence, all the events, the shine, and glamour and stuff like that but there’s a lot of difficulties that go on behind the scenes too in terms of imposter syndrome, anxiety, and insecurity. Being in these spaces, like you said, we typically don’t see people that look like us and a lot of times I’m the only person in the room who looks like me. When you’re talking about pictures with famous people and stuff on my Instagram – My very first red carpet that I walked was two years ago for the MTV VMA’s and I wasn’t even aware that I was walking the red carpet, I was kind of just thrown into it as soon as I arrived. I was on the sides of it for the people that were about to go on camera and stuff and I looked behind me and suddenly right behind was Ashley Graham, the incredible model and in front of me was Nicki Minaj and all these incredible people. I was standing there and I was like oh my god I can’t do this, this is crazy, no one even knows who I am here, how am I going to walk alongside these people on the red carpet, there’s no way, I started to freak out and I was going to turn around, but when I turned around to go back from where I came, I saw along the fence there was all these kids that were hanging off the fences, trying to get a glimpse of these people on the red carpet, trying to see of their favourite celebs. In that moment I changed my mind and decided to go forward with it because I was like wow these are all young people and it would probably blow their mind to see someone that looks like me, wearing a headscarf, on a red carpet. Not just any red carpet but for MTV VMA, straight pop culture that you wouldn’t expect a person who looks like me to be in. So I was like all right, square up, chin up and just do it, and I went forward with it for that purpose. I remember right after that, because it was being live streamed, I went on social media and I saw all these Muslim girls and Muslim women who follow me, all of them were tweeting like oh my god I never thought I’d see a hijabi on the red carpet, or who’s that hijabi? Even for us as Muslims it’s such a huge confidence boost, that we’re part of this society too, we’re here, and we’re visible. When we have reflections of ourselves in the media and the people we look up to and the things that we watch, that just reminds us of our own-shared humanity, like we’re people to and we’re being counted. That’s definitely been the mentality since I started MuslimGirl and since I came back from Jordon. Before I went to the Middle East for the first time, I was a teenage girl and I was so low on confidence because of everything going on in the news after 9/11. I started hiding that fact that I was Muslim from my peers and from my educators because I was afraid of how they would judge me based off of what they would hear and stuff. After going to Jordan and having that experience first hand outside of everything that I was hearing in the news, it allowed me to see how big of a difference there was between real people and how they were being misrepresented in the media. So when I came back that was what gave me the confidence, like people have to know this, we have to push back against media misrepresentation because it’s actually impacting policies that are life or death consciences for us. That was the time I started to put on my hijab because for me that was my reclamation of my identity. That was the first major catalyst in me regaining that confidence in myself was like putting a scarf on my head because that was my defiance of Islamophobia. In the face of everything going on, the first thing I want people to know about me is yes, I’m a Muslim and I’m proud of it, it’s not something I’m going to shy away from.
What would you say to Young Muslim women, in terms of chasing after what they want to do and not letting their hijab or the fact that they’re Muslim hold them back?
I would say that we owe it to ourselves and we owe it to each other to put our voices out there because as scary as it might be, when one of us finds the courage to do that it inspires courage in other women that see us to do the same. It really does always start with that first person, and it create a ripple effect and that’s something we can’t neglect, the power of when that happens. It might be hard, but you’ll be surprised where you find support from when you are in that position.
Recently, you were offered the change maker award from Revlon and you rejected it, because the brand ambassador is actively supportive of IDF actions in Palestine. There’s no way that could have been easy, what was the hardest part in coming to that decision and going through with it for you?
The hardest part, I think, I mean it’s always hard to put yourself in that position, right now I’m getting attacked by so many people who disagree with me, but it’s like I was aware of the potential backlash that would ensue by doing that. I basically just knew in my heart that it was the right thing to do, and at the end of the day you have to live with yourself and your decisions, so for me it was do I 100% believe in my consciousness, that I’m doing the right thing here, that this is what needs to be done? Yes? Okay, gotta do it, let the chips fall where they may. It’s really hard but as you can also see by the huge positive response, and the overwhelming messages of support and the impact it’s made. I wasn’t expecting for it to get this much coverage in the news and stuff, and the fact that people are talking about girls like Ahed Tamimi now, that was the whole point, that’s exactly why I did it in the first place. It’s like great, it’s beautiful, it’s important for us not to bite our tongues and remain silent, like going back to your last question about how to find the courage to be the first girl and not hold yourself back, when you are the person that finds the courage to talk about something that everyone probably has on their mind but no else is saying, than you inspire others to do the same, you make it okay to talk about those things. People can attack me on social media all they want, but I know they’re doing that because they want to silence me and we have to speak our truth, we can’ t try to change ourselves, and try to bite our tongues especially when it means being on the wrong side of history.
What do you hope that people can take from your actions?
I really hope that people can really just see the power of what happens when we talk back. A lot of times it feels like since we’re so underrepresented and misrepresented we have to take any scrap of an opportunity that’s given to us, or that’s offered to us. A lot of times we do so without really considering the consequences or what those decisions could mean, we just take them. There’s power in staying true to your belief, and it’s okay to turn down an opportunity if it’s something you don’t believe in, it’s not the end of the world. If anything, you can be doing an even bigger service to your cause by basically taking the stand that you feel is right. I hope people see that, and I hope more people are encouraged to use their voices in a positive way as well.
I read all the articles that major publications released after you rejected the award, and they are all the same in that they’ve only talked about what they could get from your social media. All the Headlines sort of said the same thing ‘Muslim Woman Rejects Award Because of Gal Gadot’ but that’s not true, that is way off from the truth. The wording of ‘Muslim Woman’ but then saying ‘Gal Gadot’ paints you as a stereotypical Muslim woman, and what they’re typically saying is that this Muslim woman hates Gal Gadot, or that she’s against her. How do you feel about that?
I think you bring up a good point, that’s so true. Someone on my social media said something like that, like they shouldn’t be calling you ‘Muslim woman’ unless they’re also calling Gal Gadot Israeli woman. That’s the thing; I published an open letter on MuslimGirl.com, calling on Gal Gadot to really pay attention to what’s going on with Ahed Tamimi right now, and I made it clear in that letter that this isn’t about Gal Gadot, it’s not. It’s just because of that fact that she’s vocally in support of the Israeli military’s actions, and that’s the reason why I feel that I shouldn’t be normalizing that type of narrative in our mainstream culture. It comes down to basic human right, that’s what this is about, it’s not about Gal, it’s not about me, and it’s not about MuslimGirl. It’s just about if we’re goanna have the audacity to say that we are leading the charge on women’s empowerment, and we’re feminist leaders than we better make sure that we’re inclusive of all women and girls and that we can all agree that we stand up against violence against all women, in all its forms. We can’t pick and choose. That’s what it comes down to, I got offered this opportunity, but it’s about creating space for the girls that aren’t in the room, the girls that are invisible, and that’s who this is about really, it’s not about Gal at all.
I really dislike when its like characterized like me refusing to work with someone because of his or her political beliefs, because that’s definitely not what it is. Again, I think that’s more truth about how we get so misrepresented in the media and people trying to tell our truth for us. The more of us in these spaces, the stronger our voice becomes.
Do you ever feel pressured to keep a certain persona because you know so many people look up to you?
Yes of course! It’s definitely a lot of pressure to be called a role model because at the end of the day I’m also trying to figure this stuff out too, I don’t know all the answers either so we’re all kind of in the same boat. That’s why I told myself in the very beginning, when MuslimGirl started to get the attention that it receives today, I was like if I’m going to be called a role model, the best thing I can do as a role model is not be perfect, that’s not what it’s about, it’s about being honest. As long as I’m honest about the challenges that I also experience, that I’m sure other Muslim women can relate with, as long I’m honest about where I’m at and what I’m trying to do here, that’s the best thing that I can give back, but of course, it’s definitely a lot of pressure. It’s a responsibility that I want to honor and live up to, I know a lot times it’s really easy for people in any spotlight to be like I’m not a role model and you shouldn’t look up to me, and I understand that but I also understand the importance for the people consuming MuslimGirl and that’s not a responsibility I want to shy away from, so I hope that I’m able to live up to it.
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