“I was only nine years old when 9/11 happened, so I grew up under one of the most Islamophobic eras in modern history. It was at that age that I was called my first racial slur and became aware that I was ‘different.’ It was a childhood of being constantly bombarded by negative messages from the world around me about who I was and what I believed in. That’s a lot of weight to put on the shoulders of any little girl,” says Amani Al-Khatahtbeh. But as it turns out, Al-Khatahtbeh proved to be not just any little girl.
After the 2001 terrorist attack, Al-Khatahtbeh was one of the 3.45 million Muslims in the US who saw their lives change overnight – she was typecast and treated as a stereotype. Her family had settled into life in the US, with her Palestinian refugee mother and Jordanian-American immigrant father running a business in New Jersey, selling video games and music. After the attacks, however, other vendors turned on them, launching a petition to kick all Muslim businesses out of the building. “Our house was vandalized, and someone threw an egg through our window that almost hit my infant brother on the head. I was bullied at school. By the time I entered middle school, I tried hiding the fact that I was Muslim from my peers and educators because I was so afraid of what they would think of me,” she recalls.
When the family moved to Jordan in 2005, Al-Khatahtbeh struggled with the transition. “It was probably one of the most challenging periods of my life,” she says. “Imagine dealing with all the crazy stuff that comes with being 13, and then your dad decides to uproot you and your family. On top of that, I enrolled in a public school instead of an American one. I was in eighth grade-level Arabic classes and barely knew a word.” Despite the initial resentment, it was a move she eventually learned to be grateful for. She learned how to read, write, and speak Arabic while getting to know the real Middle Eastern way of life. “The experience revealed to me the stark contrast between the reality on the ground and how it was being depicted in Western media, and it awakened my dream to change that. I fell in love with my culture, background, and religion, and decided to start wearing the headscarf to reclaim my identity that Islamophobia was trying to push away from me.”
Al-Khatahtbeh returned to the US proud of her Muslim identity but wearing her hijab saw her lose “a ton of friends.” Unhappy with the portrayal of her faith and identity, she decided to create a platform where Muslim American women could be heard. “It felt like the post-9/11 conversation was always about Muslim women but we were never the ones doing the talking,” she explains. She launched MuslimGirl.com in 2009. “I had a hard time relating to the kids at my school and dealing with the real issues that American Muslim girls experience. I figured there had to be other girls like me going through the same things, and I wanted to create a place where we could find each other and have our own conversations.”
Originally published in the April 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia
Tackling taboo topics such as worshipping while menstruating and Muslim dating apps, the website rapidly attracted an engaging audience. Al-Khatahtbeh, who now lives between Hollywood and New York, says, “The fact that half of our audience is non-Muslim means we’ve become a resource for greater understanding.”
In 2016, Al-Khatahtbeh published Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age. In this New York Times editor’s pick, she shares her candid account of what it was like being a young Muslim woman after the September 11 attacks. The success of the book and her site saw her land on the Forbes 30 Under 30 in Media list at just 23, yet she insists that there are still “many more doors to knock down.” “There have been many polls, surveys, and studies done that demonstrate today’s anti-Muslim sentiment as being worse than immediately after 9/11,” she shares. “Hate crimes targeting veiled Muslim women specifically have skyrocketed. We’ve turned back the clock: Trump has made people think it’s socially acceptable to be outwardly racist and that you can get away without impunity.”
This turn of events galvanized her to launch Muslim Women’s Day, celebrated on March 27. “We launched it in 2017 on the heels of the US presidential election and around the same time as the Muslim travel ban. It was our way of responding to hate with love. We wanted to push back against adversity with a day to celebrate and uplift Muslim women at a time when they were increasingly under attack.” It’s important for women to be each other’s keepers, she believes.
“It’s a revolutionary act to defend, protect, and empower one another against all odds.” While there’s still a long way to go to a world without prejudice, Al-Khatahtbeh sees small changes happening daily, including in the fashion industry, with the rise of social media and more modest designs and labels. Her favorite designers include Alexander Wang, Balmain, Chromat and Ibtihaj Muhammad’s Louella. “I believe Instagram has had a huge impact on today’s trends and Muslim women’s increasingly influential role in being part of and creating them. Our feeds have become a curation of our own tastes, interpretations, and expressions without any limitations. It’s not surprising that the industry is now following our lead.” With a book, a dedicated day, a bold website, and an appearance in Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You” music video, which also starred Ilhan Omar, Al Khatahtbeh’s quest to create “meaningful change in the culture around how we tell our stories” is far from over.
Photography: Nikolaus Jung
Style: Engie Hassan, Deanna Von Bonin
Makeup: Hadia Kabir
Clothing: Nathalia Gaviria