Yalla! Let’s Talk. had the pleasure of sitting down virtually with the woman behind the online magazine called MissMuslim.nyc; Jenan Matari. We talked about everything from her brand and magazine, to what made her want to start her journey with MissMuslim.nyc. But is it really a Yalla! Let’s Talk. conversation if we don’t talk about things like childhood, identity crisis and everything in between? You can bet we did. We are delighted to present to you Jenan Matari, co-founder and editor-in chief of MissMuslim.nyc.
1. Tell us a little about yourself Jenan, and some of the inspiration behind starting MissMuslim.nyc.
For starters, my name is Jenan and I am a Palestinian-Brazilian first-generation-born American. I grew up thinking I was the average white American girl (thanks to my white-passing appearance), recognizing that there was definitely something different about me and my family. This included things like the holidays we celebrated, the lunches I’d bring to school and as simple things as what I called my parents and the names we had. But I never truly understood what the difference was. We blended in fairly well but as I got older, I started to notice the difference between my upbringing and the rules and expectations I had versus what my friends had been raised with.
The older I got the harder it was to keep “blending in” with everyone else. When I got to college, I took full advantage of the opportunities that came along with dorming on campus, and I also lived abroad for a few months. I used it as an opportunity to reinvent myself. I thought that my Arabness and my faith were what were holding me back from reaching my full potential, so naturally I became resentful of both of those things and I distanced myself from Islam and any part of my Palestinian heritage. I fit in fairly well on campus but I was still very unhappy and soon realized it was because deep inside there was no substance to those friendships and experiences I was having. That was the foundation for why I built MissMuslim.nyc. I got a taste of what it was like to share my experiences via the internet with social media and other blogs, and I realized how many other people – specifically women of color – have experienced the exact same things I had felt alone in.
2. The name of the magazine is so creative and catchy, where did it come from?
My mother actually came up with it, she threw out the name “Miss Muslim” and I thought it was perfect. Kind of like an ode to my entire existence. It sounds sweet, subtle and innocent at first glance, but once you get to scope around and read some of the incredible pieces from amazing writers at our site, you realize it’s the complete opposite of what you expected.
3. Are there any specific moments that come into your mind where your brand experienced a lot of applause and criticism?
Phew. Everyday? Ha! For some reason, people – particularly our own community see MissMuslim.nyc as very controversial. When in actuality we are just honest and fearless. We stand up for human rights and equality – and that most definitely includes everyone. We are also VERY adamant about educating women about their own mental and sexual health. Two topics that are rarely, if ever, discussed.
MissMuslim.nyc initially took off when I published a piece in response to an article published on SEVENTEEN Magazine about a young Palestinian girl who was “saved” by a white family in Illinois from becoming a child bride. SEVENTEEN has a very young audience, and that was many young girls’ first exposure to Palestine and Islam and she essentially shat all over us the same way mainstream media has been doing. This type of stereotyping is dangerous with an audience that young because it just perpetuates falsehoods about an entire group of people already being portrayed in a bad light.
In my piece, I talked about my own upbringing and the emphasis on education and career stability before marriage that my own parents raised me with, and I highlighted the other Palestinian and Muslim women in my life who also happen to be some of the most educated, brilliant, well-traveled, and successful women I know who also have the full support of their families on their side.
4. I know that you are biracial, being both Middle Eastern and Latina. How was it like growing up as a multicultural child and navigating your identity alongside being Muslim?
Yes! There was definitely more emphasis on my Arab identity. Everything from the food to the language and cultural norms that were a part of my upbringing leaned towards the Arab side. My connection to Islam also definitely feels more in line with my Arab identity than my Latina one. I will say that I am very proud to be Latina, but I have yet to feel as connected with that part of my identity as I do with my Arab identity. Whereas I have cousins who feel the opposite in terms of their identity connections.
I think the hardest part for me of finding my identity as a Muslim Arab Latina woman is the language barrier. My mom is fluent in both Arabic and English, my dad speaks 6 languages (English, Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian & American Sign Language). And I am still working on mastering English, ha! So much about cultural identity is connected to being able to speak the language. And because the Quran is in Arabic, it makes our faith is so closely tied to language as well, and part of me will always feel just slightly be disconnected from all of it. It’s also something that I’ve been repeatedly shamed for by community members, specifically the “aunties” who never felt I was Arab enough or Muslim enough to simply be “enough” for their sons.
5. What are some of the ways you can embrace being a Muslim woman living in the U.S?
You must be unapologetically yourself. Everyone will have an opinion on who you are, what you are doing, where you come from, who they believe you should be, etc. Drown out the noise, so that you are able to hear yourself and your thoughts of self-love and self-worth. My family immigrated to the U.S. just like everyone else’s family did. I have every right to be an American and despite what many may think. Being Muslim in America isn’t a contradiction. Remember why your family came here, and use that as fuel for navigating your identity. It is very possible – and quite beautiful and empowering – to be wholly yourself.
In the future, Jenan hopes to continue growing her brand and gaining a larger audience. She knows that there are several women who look up to her and her magazine, appreciating the outlet to escape she’s created, providing a safe place to share their stories. She hopes she can continue to be that, and get as many young Muslim women to share their stories on her platform. She said her audience knows that when they need help navigating their bodies, learn about their mental and sexual health, or even how to get a raise at work. They also have perspective on how to navigate a relationship or identity that they know where to come to.
We are eager to see MissMuslim.nyc continue to represent such taboo topics that sometimes cannot be discussed and grow as a brand.
by Mariam Asif – YLT Staff