How To Amplify Muslim Women’s Voices

BY Emily PrichardMarch 8, 2018

Nafisa Bakkar, Founder Of Amaliah

Move over, millennials. Society is sitting up and taking notice of Generation M: the segment of young, brand conscious Muslims aiming to change the world. Au fait with social media, savvy enough to challenge tired media tropes and passionate about representation, they’re a genuinely empowering force to be reckoned with – and they won’t be ignored.

Take Huckletree West members, Amaliah. They’re on a mission to amplify Muslim women’s voices through the written word and beyond, and their pioneering work has garnered recognition in Forbes, Wired, Metro and CNN. Founders Nafisa Bakkar and Selina Bakkar were today nominated for The Dots’ 200 Women Redefining The Creative Industry by Broadly editor Zing Tsjeng. New to their story? You need to get on board.

This International Women’s Day, we caught up with Nafisa for her insights into the content platform self-proclaimed as a “mix of Stylist, Refinery 29 and a teeny bit of Vice” and to find out how Amaliah is making it easier for Muslim women to exist in the contemporary world.

Hi Nafisa! Let’s start from the top. You’ve previously highlighted the need to showcase more than just politicised Muslim voices. Why was it important for you to bring Amaliah into the world?
“For us, it was all about creating a space where Muslim women could just exist, as a lot of the time Muslim women get commissioned in the media to only write about the boring stuff. We have over 100 contributors who write about everything from dodgy dates to current affairs and everything in-between.”

Over time, Amaliah has expanded from its initial incarnation as a fashion startup to a content platform. Tell us about your personal journey and how that in turn has influenced the evolution of the business.
“My plan before uni was to be an investment banker and make loads of money but then I realised that I’m not focused on money! I had the idea of Amaliah in my head and the first idea was curated fashion aimed at Muslim women who wanted to be able to cover up. I would go to ASOS to find a maxi skirt and they would all have a sheer panel or a thigh high split. From that, I realised the focus was on identity because for a lot of Muslim women, how they look is a huge part of that.

It was actually a comment made by David Cameron when he was in office that made us move towards a new Amaliah. He said Muslim men get radicalised because Muslim women are traditionally submissive. Obviously Muslim women were like, “What are you talking about…?!” so on Twitter, the hashtag #traditionallysubmissive’ started trending with Muslim women holding up placards with their achievements.

We were a couple months into the company at this point and had conversations about whether we should be speaking about this – so we wrote a piece and it opened the floodgates for it being a place to challenge and celebrate things that were happening in Muslim culture. The fascinating thing was when we started to get submissions from people who had never written before, because they’d never found a place for them.”

Your belief in wider representation carries through not just your own content, but into the wider world, too. In the last month or so, you’ve been sharing insights with some of the world’s leading creative agencies. What can they learn from Amaliah?
“We’re increasingly getting more and more interest from agencies, brands and publications asking to pick our brains and understand more about Muslim women because they recognise us as the platform to do that. We realised that when we think about our ethos, it’s “How do we make it easier to exist as a Muslim woman in today’s world?” and that there are several touch points to make that easier.

Amaliah.com isn’t by itself going to reach the spectrum of interaction that these women have. This is when we realised that advertising and brands have a huge impact on culture. In the last two years we’ve seen what I call a ‘diversity frenzy’ of “We need to talk to Muslim consumers – what do we do?!”

We want to make sure that Muslim women are represented authentically and we want to see Muslim women being represented beyond a token tick-box.”

Let’s break down that token tick-box. What are the main stereotypes that you’re tackling?
“In terms of advertising, the Muslim consumer has been seen as the one in Middle East – the rich, opulent woman and that is definitely starting to change. People are realising that there are a lot of Muslim women in the UK, Europe and the US.
In terms of brands, we are trying to get across that there’s 1.8 billion of us and we’re not all going to be represented by the same visual that we’ve seen across Tesco, Dolce and Gabbana, H&M etc – a light complexion, wears a hijab, is uber cool etc.

The biggest stereotype is recognising that there’s diversity inside a ‘diverse community’. Internally in our community, we’re so used to reacting to these stereotypes and comments instead of stepping back and thinking about what we actually think about these issues and who are we as Muslims, individuals and in the context of society. When you’re constantly reacting, you’re not given space and time to think about your thoughts and they constantly change. That’s why Amaliah is a space to shape your thoughts through reading and experiencing different things.

There have been times where Muslim women have been forced into being a spokeswoman for the whole community in the media. I’m very aware that in some contexts, we are the first Muslims people ever meet and so by default, we are now the archetype of what a Muslim woman is. I’ve prayed in the Meditation Hut at Huckletree West a few times (it’s the nicest prayer space I’ve ever had by the way) and I’ve noticed people have been concerned if they should stay or leave. So in that context, I will explain because sometimes people are worried that their confusion will come off as ignorance.”

From mental health support for postnatal depression to reviews of the latest Glossier beauty products, your articles strive to explore topics beyond those traditionally assigned to Muslim women in the media. Which content especially resonates with your audience?
“Relationship content – it’s about human nature and being nosy because that isn’t something that only taps into Muslim women’s lives. People want to know about other people’s sex lives, other people’s divorces and experiences, etc. Also, there haven’t been very many places that speak about it openly, so to hear candid and honest stories of Muslim women going through these journeys is refreshing and people seek comfort in that. So many people message us saying “Thank you for writing that piece” or “I’m going through a divorce” or “I’ve just had a baby too”. It’s amazing how much it resonates.”

With over 100 women submitting content to Amaliah, there’s clearly the need for such an outlet both for your writers and audience. How did you build up your pool of contributors?
“Honestly, what we did in the beginning hasn’t changed that much to what we do now. Even now we just DM Muslim women and say “Hey, this is what we are, do you want to get involved?” We do that on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram from the Amaliah account and our personal accounts. A lot of it is also making sure we are constantly reaching out to all the sub-segments, eg the mummy Muslims, or the sub-minorities. We have always been mindful of pushing ourselves and reaching out into communities we might not necessarily resonate with or come from.”

What were the biggest challenges facing you as you built the business?
“I always worried that I didn’t have the network, contacts, skillset or capital that we’re told we should have before we embark on something like this. And so, I spent a long time trying to fill those gaps by learning coding, reading books, going to events and reaching out to people to make sure I had the right foundation. A lot of it was confidence because you look out into the world and know there’s challenges for female founders and also being women of colour.

The biggest challenge for me has been leadership and management because I think everything else you can learn but with this, it’s human nature. At times I’ve felt like more of a councillor than a manager! Also the sheer mental pressure you take on when running your own business. You’ve got your team relying on you, and the challenges that come with running something that so community focused. My friend once told me that when running your own business, you never know what you’ll be Googling next week and it’s so true.”

Beyond the tough aspects of being a boss, there’s always time for fun stuff too. We’re loving your no-tech Friday craft sessions! What else are you doing to build a strong team culture?
“On a Friday we do ‘Mad, Sad, Glad’ where we’re all in a room and have five minutes to write about three things from that week. I found that it helps give you context of what everyone’s going through and what’s been important to them.

Sometimes it really does turn into a mini therapy session and part of it is letting the team know that it’s ok to have a crap day. I have found that women are given less leeway to do this. I wrote an article where I was saying that the biggest place an identity crisis happens is in the workplace where you can only bring part of yourself. It leads to distractions and has real repercussions in productivity if you can’t bring your whole self.”

It’s 100% true. We’re big believers in balancing up work life with downtime to recharge. We’re also really excited to count you as part of the community at Huckletree West. Do you have any favourite spots in the space?
“I think the Kids Studio and the Meditation Yurt is brilliant. When mothers, like Selina (my co-founder), are in the workplace, there can be a real embarrassment in bringing children into the office. Spaces like this make so much more comfortable to do so. I think more acceptance of mothers and children in the workplace is so important. You guys have done a great job here.”

Thanks, Nafisa! Finally, in honour of International Women’s Day, give a shoutout to some women who have inspired you or helped you along the way…
Shazia Saleem because I remember seeing her speak before Amaliah even started. She used to work in Peter Jones and she was working on her idea for about 7 years while working full time. When I heard her talk, everything was grounded within Islamic values and I remember sitting there in awe thinking “Oh, it can be done!”.

Alex Depledge, founder of Hassle.com, which was a cleaning marketplace which then got acquired after 3 years. She now runs a company called Resi.io – she’s a Northerner who’s totally honest and helped us out in the very beginning. She offered us two desks in her office and said we could see and learn from what was going on – super inspiring.

Tobi Oredein, one of the founders of Black Ballad, too – an online platform aimed at black British women. She’s someone who’s helped us so much but we’ve never actually met! She’s in Forbes 30 under 30 list and it’s great to have the values we share in shaping thought.

We also met up with Carrie from Mumsnet last week and she’s incredible. So lovely because we put these companies on a pedestal and to see the woman behind it being so down to earth was inspiring.”

Share the same vision as Amaliah? Get involved! Pitch your idea to Nafisa and the team here.

AUTHOR

Emily Prichard

Manager, Brand and Creative