Amani Al-Khatahtbeh will tell you herself: as a commodity, Muslim women are hot right now.
But personally, to the intrepid 23-year-old New Jersey native, the timing feels ripe to set the record straight. Over the past year, she has been called on as a representative voice and profiled extensively for her work as founder of MuslimGirl, the web’s premiere space for Muslim women to cultivate their voices. What started in her childhood bedroom as an after-school outlet for her to push back against what she saw as lack of visibility, MuslimGirl has grown ten-fold — from a blog to a successful startup — in less than 12 months, bringing the global perspective of her team to the forefront of a larger conversation about feminism, identity and race. She’s secured content partnerships with big organizations, independently joined the Malala Fund as a consultant, jetted to Dubai for the Global Islamic Economy Summit, pitched in at a new civil society council managed by UN Women, and was scouted by Forbes for a column. Her name is out there, her group is being taken seriously by investors, and her family is on board with the mission.
Long story short: she’s killing it.
But if you met her once, you’d know such success comes not only from the world’s demand for the female Muslim perspective, but as a result of her tenacity. At lunch with Women in the World, reflecting on what she describes as a “remarkable” turn of events, spirited Al-Khatahtbeh is in awe of how life has unfolded. In May, she uprooted from Washington, D.C. for a high-profile job that fell through. She found herself broke in New York City – she still is, she laughed – for seemingly no reason, but saw it as a serendipitous window opening. MuslimGirl was popular, but not a powerhouse, and she felt tired and anxious from juggling her career with her passion project. So she picked what inspired her most, kicking a pre-installed sense of preparedness into overdrive and bringing a savvy mogul to life.
Al-Khatahtbeh immediately found herself wondering how to explain the decision to other people, her guardians especially. Like so many immigrant parents, she explained, they were skeptical of the startup at first and worried that the Rutgers graduate was deviating, turning a hobby into her entire life’s focus and swallowing her savings whole. Then, in August, MuslimGirl crowdsourced over $25,000. What started as a seven-person writing team now boasts a worldwide staff of forty, who Al-Khatahtbeh calls “just girls trying to make this happen.” This, of course, is a website with columns like #MuslimGirlProbs and Baddie of the Month, but it’s also a dynamic exploration of what it means to be a modern woman. It is unbounded work at the crossroads of religion and gender equality, the prerogative of which is changing not only western perspectives but the attitudes of some Muslim men, who Al-Khatahtbeh hopes will recognize their role in limiting the community’s women and recognize feminism falls in line with Islam. “[Our religion] actually founded the concepts of gender equality that are recognized in feminism today, so it’s only natural to be feminists,” she said.
When Al-Khatahtbeh talks about her team, she lights up. Sisterhood with women like Hadiya Abdelrahman, who helped bring MuslimGirl to their Rutgers campus, is largely based around mutual understanding, breeding respect. “Amani gets up every day ready to face a hostile world,” Abdelrahman explained. “And she does it time and time again.” Muslim women, especially those who choose to wear the headscarf, are vulnerable targets and hateful rhetoric spouted by pundits like Donald Trump. It’s a reflection of the greater attitude toward minority cultures, Al-Khatahtbeh explained and it puts them up against violence and social complacency. But they have MuslimGirl: “a powerful weapon that intends to combat [the] real life or death consequences for Muslim women in Western societies,” she wrote for Forbes.
Like Al-Khatahtbeh, many in the MuslimGirl posse are first-generation American children of immigrants, or as she described them, “the ones who have one foot in both doors.” Her parents – an immigrant from Jordan and a refugee from Palestine – came to the United States with empty pockets and worked tirelessly to create stability for Al-Khatahtbeh and her two brothers. At 13, the family took a trip to her father’s native Jordan and, for the first time, Al-Khatahtbeh experienced a society and culture built on her religion. “Leading up to that, I was almost ashamed to say that I was a Muslim,” she said. She was so moved by the experience that she chose to don the hijab upon her return.
“It opened my eyes. [Muslims around the world are] so different than how we perceive them to be in the U.S., or how they are portrayed here,” said Al-Khatahtbeh explaining that she saw Islam in a very “pure” form. “I started learning about it directly from the people themselves… that’s when I really fell in love with my religion.” Before the trip, anti-Muslim headlines stemming from the September 11 attacks and subsequent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan had left her feeling alienated. The headscarf gave her an opportunity to outwardly identify herself, but on the morning she was to wear it to school for the first time, Al-Khatahtbeh nervously cried to her father. “If I walk in there now with this on, that’s it,” she recalled thinking. “I have to commit to it, but if I want, I could take it off now and act like it never happened.”
She walked into school that day with her head covered and lost friends as a result, but never looked back. In a hijab, Al-Khatahtbeh became her school’s “resident Muslim expert,” forcing her to study up on Islam to push back against inevitable xenophobia. She calls the site, which has grown to cover a much broader range of the Muslim experience than just a woman’s choice to wear a headscarf, a “natural route” from this education.
And for her parent’s initial aversion to MuslimGirl? “Now they can’t stop talking about it.”
Rita Stephan, one of Al-Khatahtbeh’s many mentors and a visiting researcher at University of Maryland, said the site is an expression of a widespread desire among Muslim women to see themselves outside of Western binary that limits their role to “victim, submissive, exotic or violent” (in a world that starts wars over the idea that they need saving, women and children are disproportionately affected by violent conflicts, Al-Khatahtbeh pointed out). MuslimGirl isn’t the first time Muslim women have come together to express themselves, Stephan said, citing the Eastern Women’s Conferences of the early 1930s that brought together Egyptian, Lebanese and Palestinian women to defend their rights. “The reality is, if you go and talk to Muslim women, they’ll say, ‘We are sick and tired of parachuted ideas that [other people] come to save us!’ Look at what we’ve done!” she said. “This isn’t new. This wasn’t inspired by a Western or global ideology, it was based on response to their own struggle and their own realizing their need for activism and social change.” Trapped in the limitations of Western depictions, Stephan indicated that Muslim women and girls benefit from outspoken organizers like Al-Khatahtbeh, who she considers one of many charged young role models in the community. “I see her showing other young women that they [can say], ‘I, too, can be proud of my American identity and Middle Eastern heritage, and my Islamic religion, and still be successful’,” she said. Her mentee is helping break a narrative, showing Muslim women in all of their dynamic realities, in all of the ways they exist. “We are humble, we are go-getters, we are all of these things,” Stephan said.
Al-Khatahtbeh embraces the role, explaining that the title comes with the territory. “It’s all new to us, too, and that’s part of the reason why our audience appreciates us so much and always has our back.” Representation means just as much to her — recently, she saw activist Linda Sarsour at a march against police violence and took a picture, so as to never forget the sight of a hijab-wearing Palestinian woman giving an energetic speech in front of the Capitol Building. “I never thought I would see that,” Al-Khatahtbeh said.
What she forgets is that she is that picture – to her peers, to her mentors, to the younger Muslim girls logging online at the end of their school day. Even at securing deals in board rooms, she fights imposter syndrome and wonders if “the jig will be up soon” — but you’d never guess. “For me, the end-game has always been cultivating a voice for Muslim women, creating presence for Muslim women, becoming a force to be reckoned with as Muslim women,” she said, smiling.
“I guess I’m an entrepreneur now.”
Follow Alli Maloney on Twitter.