The cartoons narrate Ramzan experiences that are recognisable the world over: like, when fasters are ignorantly asked if they forgo food to lose weight, or when they get halitosis from not drinking water, or the guilty pleasure they feel at eating twice after dark. There’s a universality to the illustrations but also a sharpness.
Created by the British-Bangladeshi illustrator Nasima Ahmed, the series was commissioned by MuslimGirl.com, the top web publication for Muslim women in the US. The women in the illustrations speak the same language as MuslimGirl and its young readers: on the site, for instance, the sections are called #Blessed, #Problem, #Lit (for literature), and #Fierce.
While #Blessed is a repository of information on what Islam means to a modern Muslim, #Problem is a registry of hate crimes against Muslims in the US and reportage on campaigns underway to combat this problem. Over the years, it has published stories on gay imams, and anti-black racism in the Muslim community.
The website was started in 2009 as a project in the bedroom of Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, then a teenager, with blog posts by her friends at the mosque and her own thoughts on what being a Muslim girl in an American high school meant.
“Growing up, I felt so alienated by society for my religion that I would lie about being a Muslim,” said Al-Khatahtbeh, in an interview to Teen Vogue. “Starting MuslimGirl was not only my response to the lack of accurate representation of Muslims in the media – it also became my way of asserting my narrative as an American Muslim to the public and reclaiming my identity.”
With more than 55,000 followers on Instagram and over one lakh followers on Facebook, Al-Khatahtbeh has come some way in achieving her goal. The articles on her MuslimGirl.com simplify the concepts of “fatwa” (religious rulings in accordance to Islam), halal and explore the area of halal fashion. It recently collaborated with an American beauty brand to create halal-certified nail polish for Muslim women.
Al-Khatahtbeh was aware that in post-9/11 America, the words Muslim and terrorist had become coupled in the minds of some Americans. Just nine at the time the Twin Towers crashed, she was ostracised by friends – but instead of getting embittered, she resolved to redefine the narrative of what it meant to be Muslim, and years later, started Muslimgirl.com way to explore the experiences of Muslims in US.
“We feel a threat to our lives every time we step out of the house,” said Al-Khatahtbeh in an interview to Stylelikeu.com. “Airports are a ‘humiliation’ and subways are filled with potential harassers.”
Over the years, the MuslimGirl team has combated Islamophobia innovatively. Shortly after the 2015 attack on the office of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, Pamela Geller, an American anti-Islam campaigner, organised an exhibition of offensive drawings of what people associate with the name Muhammad. So, MuslimGirl decided to help Geller.
“We thought, why not push back against the hate – with love?” says the MuslimGirl team. “Muhammad is the most common name in the world. Chances are that all know a Muhammad. So, let’s draw Muhammad. Let’s honour his diversity. Let’s celebrate his many different faces. Let’s elevate his humanity. In a bleak world where the Pamela Gellers are the ones with the mic, let’s shine some light on the good. The result was people drawing funny little portraits of their friends and colleagues.”
In October 2016, Al-Khatahtbeh released her memoir, titled Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age. The writer Forbes in an interview that the book’s goal was to have “Muslim girls’ eyes ‘brighten up’ when they saw they were represented on a bookshelf, a sight rarely seen. But also make accessible to non-Muslims, the humanity of Muslims living in the US.”