Whether on stage, via podcasts, fashion, or television, 25-year-old Libyan-American journalist and public speaker Noor Tagouri is shifting perceptions. Her grassroots reporting is inciting conversations about marginalized communities one shell-shocking story at a time. Her most recent podcast, Sold in America, which highlights the sex trafficking industry in the US, has been downloaded 1.5 million times. The storyteller talks finding her higher purpose with her friend, model Ashley Graham.
Published in the February 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia
ASHLEY GRAHAM You’ve been traveling around the world to share stories, including your own, since you were 18. When did you know you were meant to be a storyteller?
NOOR TAGOURI: Since I was a little kid. My earliest memory of trying to tell a story was when I was three years old. I went up to a microphone at the mosque and looked at the entire crowd and just started to breathe really heavy before walking away. I was always a natural at asking questions. I wanted to tell stories even before I understood what journalism meant. I remember being captivated by Oprah Winfrey, watching her show every single day, and trying to emulate her. I’ll never forget going to my grandmother’s senior citizen arts and crafts class. I asked everyone questions and got to know every person there. One man stood up at the end and said, “We’ve been in this class for three months and didn’t know each other’s names. You got everyone to share their life story.” That was the moment I knew I had Oprah potential.
What did your parents think?
They encouraged me. My dad would sit me down and we would watch the news together while my mom would take me to writing and reading camps. They saw that it came naturally to me. It all made me realize what my purpose was from a young age. A lot of us are familiar with what we want our legacies to be but, unfortunately – because of society, family standards, expectations, or fears – that can become muddied. I feel lucky to have known it for a long time.
While you and I come from different backgrounds, we actually have a lot in common. I recently interviewed you for my podcast, Pretty Big Deal, and we had a thoughtful and honest conversation about identity and owning who you are. Growing up, what was it like balancing your Arab heritage with your Muslim-American identity?
I was really insecure about the color of my eyes and hair. I remember walking into my first-grade class and sitting next to the only other girl who had dark hair. I asked her if she was Muslim too, because I had never seen anyone else with dark brown hair at school. I grew up in a very conservative, white town in southern Maryland; we were the only Muslim kids in school. It was something I struggled with. I remember my mom filling out identity forms and I would put mine at the bottom of the pile because I didn’t want anyone to know that I spoke Arabic. When the holidays came around, my mom would make an Eid board and I would be so embarrassed that I’d ask her to take it down. I always felt like I stuck out. I never saw people who looked like me. I didn’t see them on television, in my dolls, or in the textbooks I was reading.
Can you tell me more about your origins?
Both of my parents came from Libya. It was difficult to maintain a connection to my heritage and where I was growing up. I was taught what it meant to be a good Muslim – be good to other people; serve God by serving your community, family, and your purpose. That was where I felt I had the biggest connection. It wasn’t until I moved out to Washington DC that I experienced my own culture shock. I saw so much diversity and so many people embracing their full identity and I wondered why I couldn’t do the same. I knew who I wanted to be – a storyteller, a journalist on television – but deep down I felt that I would have to sacrifice aspects of my identity to do so. Later, I realized that didn’t have to be the case.
A lot of people have misconceptions about wearing the hijab, and you’ve taught me a lot during our personal conversations and on my podcast. What was it like to make that major decision?
During that period when I was trying to find myself, I debated what it would be like to wear the hijab. We knew that it had to be my choice. My mom put it on when I was two years old. My little sister put it on when she was 12, before I did. I remember wondering, will this give me the strength that it has given them? Can I commit to it? I remember that Oprah, Lisa Ling, and Katie Couric were the firsts of many; maybe I could be the first, too. This was America; a place where people were always breaking down barriers. I could be the first person on American television telling stories in a hijab. Why did it have to be one or the other? I embody both American-Muslim identities. They are true to me and one is only stronger with the other.
What was your family’s reaction?
My mom did not think I was going to keep it on. It didn’t matter to my parents whether or not I wore the hijab because it was something that had to be from me and true to my heart and identity. They had seen the rebellion I had with it when I was younger. When I realized that the rebellion was because I was trying so hard to be like other people, I recognized that I could be the strongest version of myself by being true to me.
You always talk about seeing your hijab as a strength, not a weakness – in your life, identity, and now, even your career. What about it makes you feel so strong?
I believe that what society deems as our weaknesses can actually – if we allow them – be our biggest strengths. As a teenager, once I put on the hijab, I had Muslim women tell me that it was always going to be the scarf or the job. In my gut, I knew it needed to change. I knew I was going to be a great journalist with it on and because I had it on. I never thought, I want to wear the hijab and be a journalist so that I can break barriers to break misconceptions. That wasn’t my intention. I just really loved telling stories. It wasn’t until I started working in media that I was confronted with the huge lack of understanding of my community. Now, it has become a responsibility. I need to make sure that I am making a change in my industry. It isn’t just about my community, but rather all marginalized communities. The hijab has always been a personal and constant reminder of living for something bigger than myself. I don’t wear it simply because I want to dress modestly. I don’t think just because a person has a hijab on, they are now modest. It’s about character. In America, though, it forces you to wear your religion on your sleeve. In a country where being Muslim is quite difficult right now, it is taking a risk, standing in solidarity with your community. I am proud of who I am and I am not going anywhere. Every time I walk into a boardroom or a university in the Midwest, eyebrows may raise, but it’s almost a way to demand respect. I have something to say and you should listen but come to me with your curiosity, questions, and preconceived notions so that we can have a conversation.
Let’s talk about your career. You have a special way of telling stories. Your most recent projects include Sold in America, the documentary and the podcast, which are investigative looks into the sex trade in the US. Why did you choose this topic?
I experienced sexual violence at 12. I remember feeling traumatized. A couple of years later, I heard about trafficking in Asia. I thought, if what I experienced was so traumatizing, I can’t imagine what others have gone through. What pained me was sexual violence, and my skill set is storytelling. The other thing that distresses me is the misrepresentation of marginalized communities. I realized this was my purpose when I was working at a local television station. I finally had my dream job, but it wasn’t as easy as I thought. I was being harassed. People heckled my videographers and I. But I realized early on that the stories I was meant to tell belonged to those with voices but to whom no one was passing the microphone. I quit my job and self-produced my own investigative documentary on people with intellectual disabilities. I put this story out there with no idea of what was going to occur and, sure enough, I was approached by a media company.
What are your thoughts on the current state of media?
We are constantly being forced to fact-check, dig deeper, do more proper research, and be highly aware of the representation. On the other hand, it’s difficult because the US has a president who is constantly calling the media the “enemy of the people.” That is incredibly dangerous. I remember, five years ago, I wrote this note: “Journalists risk their lives to shed life on abuse, suffering, and injustices around the world. They are our eyes, ears, and our voices. An attack on journalism is an attack on everyone who values the freedom to speak their minds and know the truth.” It still stands true today. We are public servants. We serve our communities and equip people with the knowledge in order to go forth and make decisions about policy and public justice.
How can we navigate around “fake news?”
It’s difficult because there is such an overload of information. Anyone can put anything out there. How do you know what is fake news and what isn’t? Podcasts are often on-the-ground reporting. It’s important to discover who is telling the story and ensure that it is someone who is constantly referencing where they are getting their facts and their storytelling process.
You don’t only talk about creating change, you also work to create it through your activism. You and your family recently started the I See You foundation to alleviate homelessness in local communities. How did this come about?
My family has been working together to alleviate homelessness since I was 14. We stumbled upon a woman who ran a women’s shelter and my mother asked her what we could do for her. We’ve since operated toiletry drives and filled out grocery runs. My mother always made sure that she bought the same nutritious food for others that she did for the family – whatever you want for yourself, you should give to others. We pass out winter care packages in the street in Baltimore and Washington DC. My mom once went up to a couple and she asked them what they needed. “To be seen,” they replied. From that birthed the name I See You and my mom started the namesake foundation. Since I grew a social media following, we’ve been using it to support opportunities for good deeds. My mother always said, “Never forget that when you have the opportunity to give, you don’t lose anything. We are always in a place of growth when we serve our communities.”
Our friendship formed over fashion and beauty when we first met during New York fashion week February last year. You’ve partnered with Gap, Reebok, Calvin Klein, Herbal Essences, and Target. You even got married as a result of a fashion collaboration! What role does fashion play in your life, and how does it influence your skills beyond media platforms?
I’ve always had a love of fashion. I used to sketch, sew, and take fashion classes. I loved it because I was forced to be creative with it. Even when I wasn’t wearing the hijab, I would layer and try to find a cool style, without looking like I was trying to dress modestly. When I started wearing the hijab, I knew I was wearing something that was going to make me stick out. I’m married to someone who is in fashion – it’s an art I really appreciate. When it comes to collaborating with brands, I’m able to use my skills to share my experiences. Reclaiming the power of women. Finding new ways to challenge myself through how I carry myself and what I wear also takes me out of my comfort zone.
What advice do you want to leave readers with?
Find your voice and maintain it. It’s always better to be the blueprint, not the carbon copy. What you want is right outside of your comfort zone. Know that you are living for something bigger than yourself. Use your insecurities towards finding your truest purpose. Lastly, remember what your intentions are for everything. Live in service and in gratitude and everything will be OK.
Editor Caterina Minthe
Photographer Andrew Day
Stylist Marwa Biltagi