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INTERVIEW

"I wore the headscarf in order to come face to face with Islamophobia"

25-year-old Amani al-Khatahtbeh is one of the few voices of Muslim women to be heard in Western media

Born in New Jersey, but with roots in Jordan, 25-year-old Amani al-Khatahtbeh is the founder of the digital platform MuslimGirl. What began as a blog written by a teenager has ended up as a hugely successful project with thousands of readers and some one hundred collaborators around the world, featuring on mainstream media such as Fortune, Forbes, the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera. Al-Khatahtbeh recently visited Spain for the first time to talk about how she turned her cause into a successful business. She was attending the Sustainable Brands conference, alongside such companies as Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Vice. She is the only woman in her family in the US to wear the headscarf.

Why did you decide to create MuslimGirl?

I was really angry. It was a combination of factors, but I suffered harassment, bullying and Islamophobia at school after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. The media began to only focus on the War on Terror, on Islam... and without even giving a Muslims a say in the debate. This spread hatred towards everything to do with Islam. I didn’t only suffer directly as a Muslim woman, I was tired of seeing blond white non-Muslim women talking about how Muslim women are oppressed without actually asking for our opinion. There weren’t many Muslims in my community, I didn’t have anyone to speak to about my problems or to offer me answers, so I found my space on the internet.

Why Muslim ‘girl’, in other words, why only ‘Muslim woman’?

There was no space to really talk about things that I cared about and which I saw as a problem. I had no problem registering the MuslimGirl.net domain, almost for free! The only content I found at the time was to do with issues such as what a Muslim woman should or should not wear in public, nothing to do with the problems that I was facing as a Muslim teenager in the US. I felt alienated, I had self-esteem issues and quickly found many other women who felt like I did. The blog grew really quickly, dealing with everything from fashion to politics, and from culture to feminism.

For many, feminism and Islam are incompatible...

For me, the phrase ‘Muslim feminist’ is redundant. If you’re a Muslim, you have to be a feminist because gender equality is one of the principles of Islam. This idea that all Muslims oppress their wives is highly politically motivated. Patriarchy, misogyny and sexism exist in most societies and religions. Nevertheless, it is as if it’s taken for granted that they’re problems that go hand in hand with Islam. The number one cause of death among women in the US is domestic violence. And we say ‘domestic’, and not sexist. Islam ought to be as revolutionary as when it was born, we need to find a more progressive interpretation of Islam.

Why did you decide to wear a headscarf?

I wear the hijab because for me it’s a means to reclaim my identity. I decided to put it on after my first trip to Jordan. I was still at school. I’d fallen in love with my roots, after having tried to hide the fact that I was a Muslim at school, and I decided to wear it when I returned. My mother doesn’t wear it, I'm the only woman in my family in the United States who wears it. The first day, before going through the school door, I burst into tears, I was so afraid of being rejected. But I decided to wear it as a declaration of my pride in being a Muslim in a society that wanted to force me to feel ashamed. I wanted to come face to face with Islamophobia. Now for me it’s more a socio-political symbol, rather than a religious one, because nowadays it means so much more in our society.

European courts ruled that employers can force female staff not to wear the headscarf.

There’s one thing we fail to understand, and it’s that forcing a woman to remove her headscarf ends up being the same as forcing her to put it on. They’re no better than any of those Middle Eastern countries they see as being barbaric and backward. At the end of the day, they’re deciding what a woman can or can’t wear. Leave us alone! We need to ask ourselves whether it’s really about women’s rights, or the problem comes from the fact that we feel uncomfortable with a woman who decides to cover her body.

You’ve signed deals to distribute content with big media outlets such as Teen Vogue. Do companies see Muslim women as a business opportunity?

Sure, there’s a business opportunity and, in the end, we all play the same game. It’s the system, the only way it works is through page views and clicks, and what we’ve done is we’ve tried to make the best possible use of it. But all our content is produced by freelance Muslim partners, we already have a staff of six and we ensure that in all our agreements Muslim women get something out of it. For example, Nike's initiative to make a hijab is great, but I’m sure there were Muslim designers who’d done it before and we’re forgetting about them. Visibility isn’t the same as representation.

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