Ausma Khan, PhD, writer, human rights lawyer and activist, liked the concept of ‘Muslim Girl Magazine’ so much that she left a teaching position at Northwestern University to become editor-in-chief of the magazine. “Most representations of Muslims in the media are negative,” she said. “Muslim Girl Magazine challenges those perceptions by telling the stories of Muslim teens who are proud to be American and who contribute to American society in so many positive ways. This is a chance for their voices to be heard. Our editorial mandate is to enlighten, celebrate and inspire them.”
Challenging stereotypes about Muslim girls in America, Muslim Girl Magazine re-defines the face of Muslim youth in America. Its innovative content showcases teenage girls who are equally proud of their identity as Americans and Muslims, while not shying away from the conflict inherent in being both.
Ausma Khan said: “We’re showing Hijab-wearing basketball players alongside contemporary fashion designers and artists. We want to dispel the notion that Muslim teens conform to one particular model. Veiled or unveiled, Muslim girls participate fearlessly in sports, the arts, international travel and their local mosques.”
Muslim Girl Magazine launched with a planned circulation of 50,000 copies per issue in the first year and expects to grow to 100,000 within two years.
The magazine is published by award-winning ExecuGo Media of Toronto, Canada and distributed worldwide by RCS of Los Angeles, California.
Asharq Al Awsat spoke to Ausma Khan about Muslim Girl Magazine. The interview proceeded as follows:
Q) What was the idea behind publishing Muslim Girl Magazine?
A) The idea was to reach an important market that is under-served and under-represented and to give Muslim girls a voice and to celebrate their achievements and values, while also enlightening and inspiring them.
The magazine arose out of a desire to make a real difference—both in the lives of American Muslim teens and in a broader sense, by increasing understanding and improving communication between communities. I developed the editorial vision for the magazine and then worked with a team of highly skilled professionals to bring that vision to life.
Q) From where does the magazine receive its funding?
A) The magazine is internally funded by the privately owned publishing company ExecuGo Media.
Q) What do you hope to achieve?
A) So many things! We want to make a difference in the lives of American Muslim girls by giving them a forum where they can express themselves and see their stories told in a positive and celebratory spirit. We want to give Muslim girls the tools for empowerment, education and enlightenment. It can be really difficult and isolating for Muslim youth when the only images they see of themselves are negative or frightening ones. We are seeking to provide a counter-point and we hope to bring out all those wonderful stories about Muslims that are rarely told. For example, one Muslim girl helped others in Malawi through the Peace Corps, another American Muslim girl worked with tsunami victims in Indonesia. We also feature an amazingly accomplished Muslim woman who is a BBC news anchor, a lawyer and journalist (Mishal Hussain). There are wonderful things that Muslim girls and women are doing every day to make a difference to their families, schools and communities. We think that telling stories like these will give Muslim girls confidence and will re-affirm their pride in their own heritage and values. At the same time, we are showing how much a part of American life Muslim girls are and how much they have in common with other teens. When you clear up misunderstandings and provide information to people who genuinely desire to know more about Muslims, that’s bound to make a positive difference in this world – individual to individual, community to community, and nation to nation.
Q) What is the magazine’s message?
A) Our mandate is to enlighten, celebrate and inspire Muslim teens in North America.
Q) What is your bi-monthly circulation?
A) We launched Muslim Girl with a planned circulation of 50,000 and hope to increase to twice that number by the end of the year.
Q) Is the magazine circulated in the Arab world?
A) Not yet, but we certainly hope to expand to other markets.
Q) On what information have you based the estimate of 400,000 American Muslim teenage girls?
A) On a research survey commissioned by our magazine, prior to deciding to go ahead with the publication.
Q) Out of the three, where do you see yourself more; Journalism, Teaching, or Law?
Up until December 2006, I was doing all three. I was teaching International Human Rights Law at Northwestern University in Chicago, while also running Muslim Girl.
I see my current career path as a continuation of the work I have always aspired to do. I love teaching because it’s a chance to communicate ideas directly in a way that matters – a way that challenges assumptions people have about the world and to get students to critically re-examine those assumptions. As an educator you learn so much in the process. In the last class I taught, my students tried to develop practical means of ending the genocide in Darfur. So these are important goals that reflect on the empowerment of peoples and the protection of individual and community rights. With Muslim Girl Magazine, I have the opportunity to do the same thing. I am able to communicate ideas that I think are important, pursue a lifelong love of the written word and empower an under-represented and under-served constituency in the process. It’s vitally important for positive, life-affirming representations of American Muslims to appear in mainstream media outlets. American Muslims are part of American society, they are engaged with it. The more we can find common ground, the better for all of us.
Q) What is your native language?
A) English. But I do also speak Urdu and understand some Punjabi. My parents were born in India and migrated to Pakistan after partition.
Q) Did you face any difficulties in launching the magazine and if so how did you overcome them?
A) I encountered the usual publication difficulties of delivering a high quality product on a tight schedule. We also thought very carefully about the editorial vision of the magazine and how best to represent North American Muslim girls authentically and with respect for their Islamic values. We measure every feature or concept we depict in the magazine against our editorial vision to make sure that we remain true to those values.
Q) Do you talk about politics in your magazine?
A) Only insofar as speaking about politics might have an impact on the lives and interests of Muslim teens. It would be great to do a feature on getting Muslim girls out to vote in the next U.S. election, for example. But primarily we focus on the things that Muslim teens and their parents want to know about. Our major features are stories about American Muslim teens themselves. We highlight the spiritual, intellectual and personal achievements of Muslim girls—anything from a Muslim Girl Scouts troop, to an all girls basketball team. We feature accomplished Muslim women who serve as role models to Muslim teens. We have travel features and advice columns and we ask girls to contribute their own ideas, as much as possible, about the things that matter to them. There is also an emphasis on the Muslim contribution to and perspective on the arts, another area that is under-represented.
Q) How do you deal with the sectarian differences amongst Muslim girls?
A) So far, this issue has not even come up. Our editorial vision is to be as representative of the actual North American Muslim community as possible and that means that we want to tell the stories of all these girls. In the American (and we think Islamic) spirit, we respect and appreciate diversity of tradition, heritage and practice. Our goal is to bring girls together and to celebrate the things they have in common, while fully appreciating and respecting the things that make them unique.
Q) What is the process of choosing the cover girl and is it a requirement that she wears Hijab?
A) We’ve asked girls to write in to us via the website if they would like to be on our cover. We are looking for girls who are proud to be American Muslims, who find their values empowering and who want to reach out to other girls. As long as a girl subscribes to Islamic values and dresses modestly and with self-respect, she does not have to wear the hijab to appear on our cover. We are looking for a girl who has a great story. Our first cover girl, Wardah Chaudhary, was really excited about the concept of the magazine and really keen to reach out to other Muslim girls and share her own experiences. She is a bright, articulate, wonderful young girl whom we think other teens will look up to and identify with. Again, we celebrate diversity and we seek to be as representative and inclusive as possible.
Q) Are teenage Muslim girls a good target market financially and why?
A) Yes. They tend to come from affluent, well-educated families and they are a large demographic with consumer spending power.
Q) What is the stereotype of Muslim girls in the US?
A) We recognize that most representation of Muslims in mainstream press is negative. There’s a frequent association of Muslims with terrorism because of actual events in the news and there are often representations of Muslim women as an oppressed group, again because of real events that can’t be denied, such as the Taliban’s wholesale oppression of women’s rights. Our magazine is saying that there is a whole other story that hasn’t been told yet. American Muslim girls subscribe to Islamic values because they believe those values are empowering and have something to add to their lives. There are so many stories about how American Muslim girls make a positive contribution to their families, schools and communities. Muslim girls and women are participating in sports, international travel, local mosques and especially in the arts. These are the positive stories we are telling and celebrating. We are connecting Muslim girls to one another, and enlightening and inspiring them in the process. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems within every community. Like every other group, we should be self-critical, thoughtful and reflective. We should take steps to ensure that Muslim girls do have opportunities and access to education, employment and empowerment. Where there are problems, we should work actively to fix them.
Q) You caused a bit of a stir by having cover girls; do you fear criticism from Muslim conservatives?
A) We weren’t aware that we had caused a stir and we do not fear criticism because we know Muslim Girl Magazine is an amazing project. We welcome input and feedback from everyone and we know that this is a process of growth and learning for all involved. We are developing our magazine in good faith and from the viewpoint that every community, religious or cultural, should celebrate intellectual and spiritual debate because an open dialogue about ideas and values is essential for intellectual growth. Our policy for communicating with others is mutual respect and tolerance, inclusiveness and openness, while remaining true to our editorial vision.
Everything that we do at the magazine is in line with Islamic values and very respectful of the Islamic tradition. However, there are a variety of viewpoints about what constitutes acceptable Islamic practice. We don’t make that judgment. We simply reflect the reality of the actual North American Muslim community. We believe girls should be defined by their ideas and by their achievements and that is what our magazine reflects.
Q) Are you hoping to gain revenue through sales or advertising?
A) Like all publications, we do hope to generate revenue through both sales and advertising. We have subscription requests coming in all the time and we have already had major advertisers such as Fox Broadcasting and Oxford University Press advertise in our magazine. We plan to work with many other major advertisers. I am very fortunate to be working with such a talented and committed editorial and design team, and also with highly skilled publishing, business and advertising professionals.
Q) Is there an advertising market for Muslims and in particular, Muslim women?
A) Absolutely. Although Muslim women and girls buy many of the same products as other women and girls, there is certainly a huge market for things that they in particular are looking for, for example, slightly more conservative fashion trends in line with their own values. I don’t necessarily mean headscarves or robes, but also everyday wear that isn’t revealing. When Muslim girls go shopping they want to look chic and fashionable, but they don’t want to sport low necklines or cropped tops. So the potential to design and market fashions that this market would love to buy is enormous.
Q) Are there any ideas to break into the international market?
A) We would love to expand to other titles and markets. We have had very positive feedback and an incredibly enthusiastic response from the UK, the Middle East and South Asia, so we know the potential and the demand are both there. God willing, this will be a successful endeavor that will truly make a difference to the lives of Muslim girls.
We believe there is a real need for a magazine like Muslim Girl, where Muslim teens can have a voice and show who they really are, whilst reaching out to teens from every background. We’ve had a wonderful response from Muslims in America—from teens to parents to grandparents, and they have all said how welcome such an enterprise is. American Muslims have a responsibility to speak up for themselves—if we want to see positive representations of Muslims and if we want our youth to have something to be proud of, it’s up to us to create those representations and make them accessible.