On Being the Media’s Token Muslim Girl

By
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh.Photo: Amani Al-Khatahtbeh

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is the founder and editor-in-chief of MuslimGirl.com, a blog she created for Muslim women in the U.S. This is an excerpt from her first book, Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age.

“The media is hype about Muslim women right now, but only the ones that fit a certain kind of image,” I told Contessa Gayles. I was finishing up my makeup in the bathroom of Muslim Girl’s overpriced Williamsburg studio as she taped our conversation, getting footage for a CNN interview we were about to shoot.

It’s so meta. You have to wear a headscarf, of course, because the media’s lazy perception of Muslim women — and the only visual they’re keen to perpetuate — is that all of them wear headscarves. Plus, the Muslim community can more easily see you as a woman leader if you satisfy this requirement. That’s the qualifier. Then, after that, you have to be some level of attractive, of course. In societal terms, that means a lighter complexion is a major bonus. That privilege has been on my mind a lot this year: If I was a Muslim woman with darker skin, maybe a chocolate color rather than the honey-caramel flavor that was acceptable for being not too foreign but just enough, then I doubt I’d be getting as much airtime as I am right now. Maybe not nearly as many people would care about hearing what I have to say.

Then, of course, you have to be fashion-forward. Like, you need to wear a headscarf and show that you’re still different, but you need to make them forget that you’re different by mixing it with the perfect combination of Western trends to remind everyone that you’re also the same. It has to be a testament to our country’s obsession with the way women dress: Even when the outward intent of media attention on Muslim women is inclusivity, the extent of it has gotten stuck on our presumably outrageous ability to dress modestly and with good taste — according to our society’s standard — at the same time. “Muslim Women Push Back Against Stereotypes!” was the hot headline in varying degrees — the story was always about the way we dress. Not, for example, our activism, our business acumen, our personal success. Before Muslim Girl started consciously reshifting the attention of the media, recentering the actual Muslim women whether they were behind headscarves or not, for a good amount of time the headscarves were the story. The narrative was exclusionary and always centered around how we are able to make moves in spite of a marker on our heads, or, possibly even worse, because of it. There is a renewed sense of animosity among some within the Muslim community whenever a new story goes viral of a Muslim woman that wants to be “the first hijabi _________” — fill in the blank with preferred career, profession, or vocation.

When we get tokenized for our identities, the single story that Chimamanda warned us about easily happens. One Muslim woman’s story is taken to represent Muslim women like a monolith, like an absolute truth that exists for all of us. The intricacies of the different identities that exist among Muslim women far beyond their faith are melted away. One question that Muslim Girl often struggles with is that of our representation of Muslim women and their diverse struggles in other parts of the world. The truth is that Muslim women come from literally every walk of life, and being fully aware of our own Western privilege, we cannot possibly attempt to speak on their behalf. However, our privilege affords us influence that many women in other parts of the world do not possess. When we do not have the opportunity to uplift them into these spaces, the best that we can do is use our unique position to create an impact that we hope will ripple out. This is the premise upon which Muslim Girl was founded. Knowing that failed domestic and foreign policy has fallen on the mischaracterization of the Muslim woman’s narrative, reclaiming it would alter the public’s perception of our needs and opinions and cultivate a stronger presence for us in the public sphere. When that happens, especially as residents of the primary exporter of failed foreign policy in the Muslim world, we wield power to change policies that directly impact the lives of women abroad. We can never speak on their behalf or have our single stories represent their struggles, but what we can do is attempt to use our privileges to make radical change.

I look back at my reflection. A part of me resents the light-colored contacts I wear: an abstract mix between periwinkle blue and seafoam green, framed by the dark, thick eyebrows that my classmates would chastise me for in school and the black Middle Eastern lashes that my elementary school nurse once told me I should have thinned out, because they were too much.

At the same time, these light attributes have become colonized as Western standards of beauty. The high demands of the media world create intense pressure to cater to and unrealistically live up to them. The racial undertones are palpable. With brown eyes, I’m Arab. With gray eyes, I’m exotic, racially ambiguous. With my contacts in, people ask me where I’m from out of admiration. Without them, people ask me where I’m from because I look too different to possibly be from here.

“You can talk, but you also have the look,” a producer told me once. I could tell she hesitated so as to not offend me. It’s no surprise to me that appearance is often the gatekeeper. In my case, my media-standard look has garnered me access to spaces and people to which I would otherwise be denied. They’ve given my voice and what I have to offer a vessel through which people might give a second listen to what I have to say, as sad as it is that people might barely pay attention otherwise.

I still feel intense pressures regarding my body image, despite having lost a hundred pounds in a year. I’ve always felt indescribable pressure to lose weight, become smaller, less in the way. My weight loss reminded me of declawing a feline. The woman shrinks, she takes up less room, her body makes everyone else in the room more comfortable. And, no, it’s not always about health. Even at my highest weight, my doctor told me that my health was the ideal profile for anyone my age. I was just as awesome at my heaviest. But when I became lighter, people finally began to see me — just for the wrong reasons.

“Sometimes you have to play the game to change the game,” I admit to Contessa. Play the system so you can share the stage with Bill Clinton and then mention the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Deal the cards right so you can get invited to speak at a White House summit and then remind the audience that our government drones Muslim girls like you in other parts of the world. That’s what privilege looks like.

The bathroom conversation never made it into the final cut. The featured image for the CNN profile was a landscape close-up frame of my eyes.

From Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh. Copyright © 2016 by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.