A woman is excluded from her father’s funeral. A feminist removes her headscarf for a day. A Uganda-born singer and social worker from Norway questions her identity. An internationally renowned Egyptian author makes a strong case for harnessing creativity in the face of patriarchy.
These are just some of the articles that launched a new digital magazine, sister-hood (sister-hood.com), which is aimed at spotlighting the diverse voices of Muslim women.
Founded by Deeyah Khan, an Emmy-award winning filmmaker and activist, the magazine went live on Monday after several months of work.
Al Jazeera spoke with Khan about the perception of Muslim women in the media and the aspirations of sister-hood.
Al Jazeera: Why did you launch sister-hood?
We are endlessly spoken for, and spoken about. It's time we got to speak for ourselves.
Deeyah Khan: I wanted to challenge the public impression of women from Muslim heritage as victims, or as potential radicals, or mothers of extremists. I also wanted to make a broader categorisation of what it means to be of Muslim heritage, to reflect the true diversity.
sister-hood is for all women and girls of Muslim heritage, regardless of age, ethnicity or sexuality. Devout Muslims, cultural Muslims, former Muslims and agnostics are all welcome to contribute and participate; all sects and denominations are welcome. Whatever their differences, they can speak to their common experiences of growing up in Muslim families and communities, of experiencing what it is to be considered Muslim in the world today.
Women of Muslim heritage are always in the news – as victims, as “jihadi brides”, in innumerable pieces on the hijab. We are endlessly spoken for, and spoken about. It’s time we got to speak for ourselves. If we can’t get heard through mainstream media outlets, then it’s time to build our own.
We cover hard-hitting geo-political realities, the impact of western military policies as well the more intimate experiences of love, loss and honour in the lives of women. We are interested in receiving multimedia content. We love the written word and we are also interested in poetry, videos, art and music – and all other forms of creative expression.
Al Jazeera: How is the magazine produced and funded? Is there any commercial gain?
Khan: sister-hood is produced by Fuuse, my independent media and arts production company.
I am funding this myself with proceeds from my film work and a small grant from the Norwegian Freedom of Expression foundation Fritt Ord. Beyond this, all of the work is currently done by volunteers. We aim to continue as a non-profit project and do not wish to gain commercially.
Our integrity and independence of voice is dear to us and we will not accept any restrictions upon our freedom of speech.
We need to be able to expose the hypocrisy and double standards of the international community that may speak of human rights, while supporting oppressive governments and bombings and strengthening oppressive leaders despite the negative effects on the lives of women. We want to be able to criticise religious extremism as well as extreme capitalism and the perpetuation of violence in the name of both.
As the icon Nawal el-Sadaawi says in her article: “We live in a world dominated by [a] capitalist, imperialist, colonial, patriarchal, religious, military spying system, where one percent of the population of this world own everything, and 99 percent own nothing. Millions are killed by violence under the name of religion, family, honour, nation, democracy, and obedience.”
Al Jazeera: The films you made include Banaz: A Love Story, which is about the victim of an honour killing, and Jihad: A Story of the Others. Both reveal violence in the Muslim community, and its victims. Does this go against what you are trying to do with sister-hood?
Khan: Although my films and activism often uncover violence, darkness and the horrors of our world, I have always been just as obsessed with the women who fight against this. Exposing oppression is only half the story.
The other half is bringing attention to those who combat oppression. There are people – many people – who rise up and resist hatred, violence and fear, despite facing impossible odds and being largely unrecognised and unsupported in the public sphere.
For me, the heroes are not just the loud and fearless activists, but also the young woman who resists a forced marriage, or insists on continuing her education or who refuses to be reduced to her gender. It can be an act of heroism for a woman to insist on being herself and directing her own life.
Al Jazeera: What are your aspirations for the digital magazine?
Khan: I hope the magazine highlights the brilliant voices of women of Muslim heritage.
We are also building a thoroughly researched library of profiles of courageous women from history to show young women today the stories and work of women of Muslim heritage who have come before us, who have fought for a better world and created progress in their time as activists, artists, writers, scholars. These are the women whose shoulders we stand on today, and we should acknowledge their accomplishments, talent, brilliance and courage.
People constantly ask me, ‘Where can we find women’s resistance against social, political, economic and religious injustice and oppression? Where is the opposition to religious extremism?’ The fact is we have always been here, but often our stories and perspectives are not represented on the global stage.
There is a huge, under-recognised movement of women who have been on the frontlines of progressive change for decades in Muslim communities. These voices are the trouble-makers and peace-makers, activists and artists, rebels and revolutionaries who have been defending peace, justice, freedom of expression, gender equality and human rights for decades.
Al Jazeera: Do you think there are enough Muslim women writers out there? How will sister-hood help to fill a gap?
Khan: I have absolutely no doubt that there are more than enough talented and creative women out there. We are very interested in developing and nurturing new voices, because we want to create inter-generational conversations between women.
I feel that in the media there is a tokenism about Muslim women and a tendency to show the most victimised and the most devout as the most “authentic” representation of women. I want to challenge that view.
Al Jazeera: Do Muslim men need a similar magazine? They are also often grouped together as one homogenous bloc.
Khan: Possibly. But I don’t think Muslim men suffer from the same exclusion from the public sphere that our women do…Women of Muslim heritage are constantly defined by everyone but themselves.
This has to end. Change ultimately will come with men and women standing together for peace, equality and justice, but first we need to bring women closer to an equal footing.
Al Jazeera: Some of the buzz on social media about sister-hood comes from people whom you would expect to be excited about it – women, Muslims and activists. How will you attract a new audience?
Khan: We’re hoping that buzz we have now will build and build over time, and that will lead to a higher profile not just for the magazine itself but for our contributors. I have also made it my personal mission to promote these women’s voices and their work to as many media outlets as possible.
Women are part of the solution to the challenges that our world is facing today. I will not rest until their voices are heard and taken into consideration in the current global discourse around topics that affect us most.
Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @anealla