Behind the veil: MuslimGirl's founder is out to smash stereotypes

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, the 24-year-old founder of MuslimGirl.net, talks to Shona Ghosh about tackling stereotypes, her views on Donald Trump and the demands of being a successful entrepreneur.

Behind the veil: MuslimGirl's founder is out to smash stereotypes

A quick search online for tweets and videos directed at the @MuslimGirl handle on Twitter throws up some ugly results. One is a video entitled: "The Government Needs to Deport Or Kill Muslims Now." Of the two comments posted beneath it, one reads: "F***in outstanding sir the only good muslim is a dead one man woman or child [sic]."

The video has been viewed just 121 times. It’s a minor act of racism from someone seemingly tweeting into the void, with few followers. But it’s part of a constant trickle of abuse faced by 24-year-old Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, whose most defiant act was simply to set up a website catering to Muslim women in the West.

She is the founder and editor-in-chief of MuslimGirl.net, which offers a safe space to young Muslim women, and aims to combat the negative stereotypes about their religion so prevalent in the Western media. 

Al-Khatahtbeh is not necessarily what you might consider a typical spokeswoman for Muslim womanhood. She grew up in New Jersey, in a Jordanian family, comes replete with Jersey girl accent and, during her meeting with Campaign ahead of a DigitasLBi session at Cannes, was sporting a pastel pink headscarf and something resembling a knee-length tutu. 

But the US media’s obsession with the appearance of Muslim women is partly what drove Al-Khatahtbeh to set up MuslimGirl. 

"A lot of conversations relevant to Muslim women centred on dressing and the public sphere. It was menial, on whether they could wear nail polish while praying," she says. 

"There was nothing speaking to he larger issues, especially for the generation growing up post-9/11."

Humble beginnings

In its earliest incarnation, MuslimGirl.net comprised Al-Khatahtbeh blogging about her day-to-day experiences as a Muslim schoolgirl in the US, along with a school friend. The blog was hosted on LiveJournal, an early-noughties equivalent of Tumblr, where Al-Khatahtbeh struggled to find content that catered to young Muslim women. 

Her blog became so popular that she spun it off into its own website, which has evolved and expanded into a slick-looking media operation, with a network of contributors and financial backing from the Malala Fund.

Until last year, Al-Khatahtbeh worked in media relations for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. The seed-funding, combined with having to manage a staff of five plus 50 freelancers, means she now works full time for the site.

Al-Khatahtbeh has met luminaries such as Bill Clinton to discuss marginalised narratives, and Michelle Obama to discuss gender equality.

None of this is to say MuslimGirl.net itself is a dry, political affair. The site’s tone is less foreign policy and more Vice, with articles ranging from "14 Make-up Tutorials to Slay Your Eid Selfies" to breaking-news coverage on suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia. 

The site is split into Beyoncé-inspired categories, including #Fire, #Fierce and #Woke, all of which would likely be incomprehensible to anyone over the age of 30.

Al-Khatahtbeh is a savvy millennial – she takes a constant stream of selfies, and posts on Snapchat throughout her meeting with Campaign, displaying almost baffling multitasking skills. 

She has also appeared on the Teen Vogue YouTube channel in a series called "Ask a Muslim Girl", answering questions on what dating is like, the significance of the hijab and what she thinks of Donald Trump. 

So, what does she think of him?

"I’m in total shock that it’s become socially acceptable for people to be so outwardly racist," she says. "I’m in disbelief that a prospective presidential candidate can say such racist and horrible things, [counter] to American principles."

But for Al-Khatahtbeh, Trump’s comments – earlier in his campaign he suggested a mass ban on Muslims entering the country – represent "a lot of deep-seated resentment that millions of Americans harbour". She adds: "Every Muslim person who wears a headscarf is one hate crime away from a life or death situation."

Facing up to the threat

This might feel like an exaggeration to anyone who doesn’t stick their head above the parapet for a living. But Al-Khatahtbeh has had to brush off threats, online and offline, almost from the beginning.

Her subject matter is perfect fodder for the rising tide of trolls who, with little threat of real-life consequences, are free to set up temporary social-media accounts, hurl abuse at their targets and then disappear.

Al-Khatahtbeh is a woman, vocal feminist and Muslim, all three of which seem to set off a particularly virulent online crowd. She describes the online harassment as "horrible", but adds that increased levels of negativity mean the message is getting through, however unwilling a certain subterranean section of the internet is to hear it.

"It’s the double-edged sword of social media and the internet – the same platform that gives us a fighting chance can also be used to harass us," she adds. "It does [have an] impact [on] us personally."

A voice for Muslims

Al-Khatahtbeh is, in some senses, one of the lucky ones. She lives in the US, had a good education, went to college and has strong support from her family. Does she feel under-qualified to speak for Muslim women in, say, Algeria, or Syria?

She acknowledges that the site is geared to a Western audience, pointing out that articles are published in English: "I do have a different lived experience, it’s privileged, and I have experienced a different set of issues.

"I’d never accurately represent voices of Muslim women in African countries or in Arab countries – they are very distinct." 

But, Al-Khatahtbeh adds, being an American Muslim has its advantages, such as having access to policymakers. "That’s how MuslimGirl’s been influential – it elevates the voices of Muslim youth," she says.

Even without regional coverage, the site has recorded a 500% increase in its Middle Eastern readership (Al-Khatahtbeh won’t reveal site numbers), expanding beyond its home audience. Half the site’s readers are now from outside the US. 

Seven years in, she is finally mulling business models for MuslimGirl; beyond the seed-funding, she is also exploring other revenue routes such as sponsored posts and product placement. She will use the money already raised to invest in video production and, potentially, podcasts.

So what’s Al-Khatahtbeh’s advice for entrepreneurial types at brands and agencies, thinking about doing their own thing or shaking up things from within? "There is hard work and sacrifice behind the scenes," she says. "In my generation, the number of entrepreneurs has risen so highly in this age group that it seems like success comes easily.

"But it takes hard work and sacrifice, and it can take everything you have in you to push it forward. Make sure your heart’s in it, because it’s the only way to go far."


Brands in the US and UK are missing a trick by not catering to Muslim youth, according to Al-Khatahtbeh, with a good proportion of them struggling to find clothing and other products geared to their religious beliefs. 

The US Muslim population is small; it accounts for about 1% of the total population, at 3.3 million, based on Pew Research Center data. However, that share is predicted to double by 2050, boosting the consumer base for brands that take Muslim consumer preferences into account. As such, Al-Khatahtbeh says, brands such as those offering more modest garments, for example, that target only Middle Eastern countries are making a "dire mistake". 

Speaking at Cannes, she added: "There’s a huge misunderstanding [about] which target audiences they should be reaching. The buying power of US Muslims is billions of dollars – that’s virtually untapped by major brands." 

The success of MuslimGirl.net among a younger Muslim audience, she argued, was down to the site carving out a niche among bigger media players that "excluded" Muslim narratives: "Young people are using their consumer power to drive diversification in society."