Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is the founder of Muslim Girl, a website for young Muslim American women and the author of Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age. She’s smart and funny and thoughtful, and great at communicating to non-Muslims her experience as a Muslim girl coming of age in post-9/11 America.
I’m a white girl who lives in gentrifying Brooklyn, land of white hipsters, and grew up in West Virginia, land of Trumpsters, and I often feel self-conscious about the bubble I’m in. I know I need to work on staying woke.
I was thinking about that in the wake of Trump’s election, when I realized that I was reading a lot about why the Muslim ban is stupid and offensive and probably unconstitutional, but that not enough of what I was reading came directly from the people most affected by Trump’s policies: the Muslim community. And that’s not because Muslim people aren’t talking about this stuff—they definitely are. This was on me. This was a problem with my own media diet.
That’s when I started reading Muslim Girl, Al-Khatahtbeh’s website. It’s so great, you guys! I highly recommend it, even if you’re not Muslim. Especially if you’re not Muslim.
And then, because I just couldn’t get enough, I emailed Al-Khatahtbeh and asked her to talk to me. Here’s our conversation:
Part of the reason I wanted to talk to you is selfish, because I realized that I’ve been thinking a lot about how policies affect the Muslim community, but I haven’t actually spent that much time talking about it with anyone who is Muslim. And since the point of this is that I need to be a better listener, I wonder if we could start with what you think is important. What’s the first question you think I should ask you?
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: That’s such an interesting question, but it’s funny, one of the first things I would ask myself is actually a question I do get asked a lot. I’d ask myself why Muslim Girl, my site, needs to exist.
And the reason why Muslim Girl exists is because I was growing up a Muslim girl after 9/11. When 9/11 happened, I was nine years old, and it was really difficult. I went through so much alienation because of the things people were saying about me. I had to go through all the things that teenage girls go through today—hypersexualization, bullying—and on top of that I had to deal with a period of some of the most intense Islamophobia in history.
When I was in high school, I developed an interest in politics. I would keep the TV on C-SPAN and watch it nonstop, and at the time one of the main things they were having conversations about was Muslim Americans, but no Muslim Americans were included in the conversation. So all the time I would call the number on the screen that they put up there so you can call and talk to them, and would spend hours on hold just trying to get my voice represented.
Finally, when I was 17, I was like, OK, I’m sick of this. I wanted a platform for Muslim women’s voices, so I did what any pissed-off millennial would do: jumped on social media.
It was also for selfish reasons, because I wanted to find other Muslim girls like me who went through what I went through. So I started this space online, and it got so many members so quickly. And many of them weren’t Muslims, which showed me that a lot of people wanted to hear what we had to say.
How have your thoughts on what it means to be a Muslim woman evolved since you started the site?
AAK: I think for me, personally, I’ve been much more confident and gutsier in defining my own interpretation of Islam, applying its principles to my lifestyle and my needs. As Muslim American women, we’re one of the first to walk this path. As people born and raised in America, we can’t separate America from our experience with Islam. So we’re walking this new path and just winging it, figuring things out as we go.
As far as Islamophobia goes, instead of being defensive, like, “Oh, please accept us—we’re not all terrorists,” with this younger generation rising up its more affirmative, more provocative, more telling people: This is who we are.
How did the election affect that?
AAK: What scared me about this election cycle was seeing how much of our hard work could get thrown in the dirt. It was 15 years after 9/11, 15 years of the Muslim community pouring our hard-earned resources into outreach, into initiatives to promote tolerance. We did all this hard work, and now it’s like, wow, it was so quick for people to forget all that.
As a Muslim woman my biggest fear is that another generation of Muslim Americans is going to have to go through what I went through. But the bright side is that it’s not that bad because my generation didn’t have anyone to look up to, and this younger generation, they have us. We’ve been through the ringer before.
Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like, as a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf, to be such a visible religious minority?
AAK: Yeah, of course. Whenever a news story goes viral and it has to do with a terrorist or a shooting or something, the first thing we’re thinking is, Please God, don’t let it be a Muslim. Because we know that if it is, we’re going to be the ones who have to pay the price. As Muslim women, we are lightning rods for all this racist attention. In any situation of escalated tensions, we feel like we are walking around with targets on our head
I think, for a lot of us, the period right after the election but before the inauguration was the worst—it was a lot of wondering what would happen, but not knowing for sure, and not knowing what to do about it. Since Inauguration Day we’ve seen a lot of our worst fears confirmed in the form of executive orders and cabinet appointments, but on the other side there have also been marches and protests around the country. Does that renewed energy make you feel optimistic?
AAK: I definitely think that it is great. If anything, I really hope that the legacy of this moment in history is that it mobilized so many of us. Sadly, a part of me doubts whether we’ll be able to do that, because I don’t think that enough facets of American society are mobilizing.
But it’s like, this has been great—but if people are going to look at this moment and say that the silver lining is that the election put racism out in the open…. Well, before the election you could have asked any person of color in this country if racism exists and they would have told you that it absolutely does. We didn’t need to throw all these millions of people under the bus by electing this guy to figure out that racism is real in America. That said, personally, this is the first time in my life that I’ve seen this many people stand up for Muslim women, or Muslims in general, and that’s awesome.
You’re probably sick of white people asking for advice on how to be a better ally but…any advice on what we should do if we’re not Muslim and want to be a better ally? Asking for a friend.
AAK: One thing I’ve been seeing in the wake of the election is that a lot of our allies have turned to putting on safety pins or putting on headscarves to show solidarity, and I appreciate it, but I don’t think those are proactive enough to make a difference. Especially because we’re staring a potential Muslim registry in the face right now, we need to be more proactive. I actually made a video about this after the election.
I encourage you to turn to your immediate social circle and talk to them about these issues. That’s so important. Because what’s the point at being out at this protest if you’re not changing the opinion of your racist father at the dinner table? If you correct one person and say, “Whoa, dude, that’s a microagression, it could affect people,” that helps. That ripples outward.
The first book reading I did after the election was in a red state in the South, and we had this great conversation afterward. During that, this one white woman in the audience addressed the room. She said, “I just want to tell my fellow white people who are here, when someone says something racist or Islamophobic, it’s more effective when they’re corrected by someone of equal social status or higher social status.” She’s right. And I think that’s really important to remember.