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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Ladybrille Woman of the Month, Ausma Khan, Part II

We continue with part II of our indepth interview with our Ladybrille Woman of the Month, Ausma Khan, Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Girl Magazine. For Part I click here.--Article by Niama Sandy. What are some obstacles that you’ve seen, personally and professionally for Muslim women and Muslim girls?
Khan: For me personally, I’ve been really fortunate as I haven’t really faced any obstacles. I grew up in Canada, which thrives on multiculturalism and I had every possible opportunities and privilege in terms of education and my job pursuits. I think about where I come from and my history of my two grand mothers and I know my life is so different from theirs. I don’t view my own situation as having been difficult. In the context of my work for the magazine, we hear from young Muslim women all across the U.S. and Canada. Especially if they’re visibly identifiable as Muslim because of a head scarf, they face many challenges in terms of integrating into their classrooms, getting jobs or promotions. Particularly in the United States they might feel very singled out after September 11th.
It’s so much more of a negatively-charged climate for Muslims. They’re operating under fear and suspicion, and a lot of them feel the pressure to be ambassadors of their faith all the time which can be burdensome. Many young women are also using it as a tremendous opportunity for dialogue and engagement. So those are the kinds of misconceptions people have. People have stereotypical misconceptions about Muslim women: that we all wear head scarves, that we all dress a particular way, that we all think a particular way and really there’s a tremendous amount of diversity in American Muslim communities and that’s also not recognized in mainstream new coverage. That’s a challenge to try to get people to think of them outside of the box, to engage in the public sphere, to get our young women to represent themselves rather than being represented by others. How are you addressing that through your work and how do you think every day persons can address it in their lives? Khan:
The way we address it in the magazine is by being a forum to tell these stories from the inside in ways that we think are authentic, honest and positive. We showcase these kinds of stories that break stereotypes all the time: girls who travel the world, girls who work for charitable organizations in the community, girls who’re very active in athletics, girls who do not wear head scarves, girls who do wear head scarves and yet do all these things. We show very high-achieving Muslim women in a feature called “Woman to Watch.” We’ll showcase women who are very advanced in their careers and who’re doing important things in a variety of fields. We’ll talk openly and honestly about challenges of modern society and how young Muslim women try to make these accommodations. We show that there are struggles and problems in Muslim communities that need to be addressed. I think our editorial content is fairly substantial in that way. How did you initially become involved with Muslim Girl?
Khan: It was an interesting sort of divergence from my career path. I was in academia working as an adjunct professor teaching International Human Rights Law – that’s also my area of specialization. I met up with the publisher who was recommended by a mutual friend. I’ve always been a lifelong writer and engager, when I met with the publishing team up here in Toronto I realized what I could achieve with the magazine is the same thing that interested me in International Human Rights work. Also living in the US and seeing what young Muslims are up against and how important it is for us to represent ourselves. I saw this as a chance to do something meaningful for the community.

What has your experience been like thus far with running the magazine? Coming from academia, what has that transition been like? What were some of your challenges? What was easiest for you?
Khan: I really had to learn publishing from the ground floor up. I had very little publishing experience beyond getting my own work published, so it was a challenge. Everyday I would learn new things, but I was working with a great team the whole time. They were able to train me well and take a lot of information from me and feedback on what kinds of stories we should be telling, how we should tell them, and how we could achieve our joint objectives.

It’s been incredibly hectic and busy. In academia you have a lot of time for yourself and for your own research and your schedule is much more flexible; in publishing you’re always on deadline, it’s always crazy and hectic, stories are always falling through, you’re always looking for new material. That’s been quite different, but very exciting and challenging. The other thing that I really love is the opportunity to write and get my perspective out. Another thing is the incredible young women that I meet everyday through the magazine and the communities that we engage with and the kind of feedback we get from them. It makes it feel like you’re making a difference and like it’s worthwhile. There've been some amazing fashion spreads in Muslim Girl. Was it a conscious decision to make fashion a part of the magazine's content or did it just happen along the way? Khan:
It was a very conscious decision. As much as we want to tackle the heavy and important issues, our audience is young and they’re stylish and they’re very much a part of the society they live in and so this is part of their identity and how they present themselves to the world. If you want to get young women to pick up your magazine and read if of course you have to provide things that engage them and entertain them. Fashion is one way to do that. This is one of the aspects of the magazine that’s most widely responded and people are very interested in. Particularly because most of the stuff in other fashion magazines doesn't match with their beliefs. We look at current trends on the runway and adapt it for their lifestyles and values. We receive fashion story suggestions all the time. Islam is [said to be] the fastest growing religion on the planet, has there been any thought of expanding into new markets? Across the continent of Africa, for example, a sizable portion are Muslims. In some African countries, about half of the citizens practice Islam. Do you see Muslim Girl addressing those young girls at present or in the future?
We actually have done it to some extent in the past with a feature we have called “Muslim Girl International,” we’ll tell stories about girls from other parts of the world. We have told some African stories, and a lot of our content and images is about African-American girls because that is a constituency of our readership. In terms of expanding the distribution of the magazine, we’d love to go worldwide because there are Muslim populations all over the world but we’re just not there yet. Editorial would have to be localized, and that’s not really plausible. We don’t have any immediate plans for print distribution but we’re planning to expand our digital edition and make that available worldwide because we’ve had so much interest. What’s your favorite story been from “Muslim Girl International”?
That’s a good question. We had a very interesting girl from Malaysia who was bioenvironmental engineer and her work involved sustainable development in Africa & Panama. In Panama, she was helping to create a sustainable water source for a village in Panama. In Africa, she was working on an HIV drug device delivery system that was sustainable and that could be recyclable. That was very interesting for me.

Another story was of a young Somali girl who had come to the US and was living Chicago. She’d come as a refugee and her experience in a refugee camp in Africa was horrendous. It was such an eye opener! She was a young girl with so much grit and determination. She was so determined to make the most of the opportunity to be in the U.S. and get an education and really do something for her family and her community.

Those kinds of stories are very meaningful, very powerful and inspiring, and it just shows you that young women have some important contributions to make. Where is the magazine available?
Khan: It’s carried in libraries across the country. It’s also available nationwide in all but 20 of the Barnes & Noble stores in the U.S. In Canada, Indigo Chapters, and some independent newsstands carry it (like Hudson’s in New York), also some Borders carry it, but Barnes & Noble is the easiest place to find it. What is your hope for Muslim Girl in the next 5 years, for both the magazine itself and the community?
Khan: I hope: our circulation could doubles and triples and is widely read; that it’s on the desk of every Senator, Congressperson and public policy official; that it’s widely available in schools, libraries and universities; and that it continues to be a resource to people who want to talk about Muslim issues both in the United States and around the world - so that Muslims can have a chance add their own voices to the debate, we’re always being talked about but rarely contributing. For the community, I hope that the girls continue to empower themselves, get good educations, get out into the workforce and join careers in law, public policy and journalism so that their voices can be heard and they can tackle the problems that are significant to their communities. Thank you so much!
It has been my pleasure!

For previous Ladybrille Women of the Month, click here.


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