Teen magazine addresses challenges of being Muslim girl in United States

It’s awkward for 17-year-old Yousur Alhlou when her girlfriends invite her to go to the movies. First, she has to ask them if any boys are going. If so, the devout Muslim politely declines the invitation; Islam doesn’t allow dating or any kind of romantic interaction between men and women outside of marriage.

“I don’t want to give one of them the wrong impression and you know, get things started,” said the San Jose High School junior. “But at the same time, I don’t want my friends to feel like they have to totally change their plans because of me.” She looked down at her hands. “So there’s a lot of times when I just stay home.”

A few weeks ago, Alhlou picked up a copy of the 6-month-old Muslim Girl magazine, a bimonthly aimed at helping her with the challenges of being an adolescent Muslim girl in the United States. Like how to remain true to Islamic values in a media-driven culture saturated with sexual imagery and celebrity pap — and few people dressed like you.

Inside the glossy magazine are stories and advice columns that address the issues and questions that Seventeen magazine won’t tackle, at least from the perspective of religiously focused Muslim teenagers like Alhlou.

The magazine is an attempt to reach out to a racially and ethnically diverse audience that feels culturally isolated. Editors estimate that roughly 400,000 Muslim teenage girls live in the United States, part of the estimated 6 million to 8 million Muslims living in the country. The magazine’s Toronto-based publisher, execuGo Media (some of the small editorial staff is in Chicago), believes much of its target market comes from affluent, well-educated families possessing untapped consumer spending power.

An April study commissioned by JWT, the nation’s largest advertising agency, described Muslim Americans as one of “America’s biggest hidden niche markets” with an aggregate disposable income of $170 billion. “It is more true to say that Muslim Americans represent a number of niche markets distinguished by many factors, including ethnicity, culture and whether they are immigrants,” said the study.

One of those niches is teenage girls, albeit young women who are less interested in how to charm boys or gush over the latest Justin Timberlake beefcake shots. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, “girls felt over-represented in the media and marginalized in other ways,” said Ausma Khan, editor in chief of Muslim Girl.

The Chronicle invited six Muslim teenagers to the Muslim Community Association center in Santa Clara recently to discuss the magazine. They nodded at Khan’s assessment about media representation. Manal Bejaoui, a 17-year-old junior at Milpitas High School, said women are more conspicuous targets for anti-Muslim bigotry because they wear a hijab. “If you’re a Muslim man, nobody knows just by looking at you,” she said.

Sixteen-year-old Saba Anees said being the only Muslim in a school or social setting not only means explaining her religious and cultural customs, but bearing a responsibility to represent all things Muslim. “People get their first impression of a Muslim from you. It’s like you have to give a good impression for all Muslims,” said Anees, who lives in Sunnyvale.

Because Muslim Girl speaks to these concerns, its editorial content has a more serious tone than the usual teenage mag fare. And there hasn’t been much out there for Muslim youth.

“Sometimes, in the magazines our parents would read, there’d be maybe a page in there for kids that would be like, ‘Hey, color in the mosque.’ It’s mostly been lame,” Alhlou said.

Muslim Girl is heavy on stories about strong female role models, like a feature on the first female presidential candidate in Afghanistan, and stories about how teenage Muslims, while maintaining their faith, are participating in typical American activities — a Muslim Girl Scout troop in Mormon-heavy Utah; Muslim girls who are cheerleaders.

“I liked the cheerleading story,” said Anees. “Because that’s something where you usually see the typical blond girl. When I saw that, I said, ‘Wow, now we’re getting somewhere.’ ”

“But I hope none of you wants to be cheerleaders,” said Sarah Azad, the youth group leader and an obstetrics and gynecology resident at a nearby hospital. They all laugh.

The editorial challenge, said Muslim Girl’s Khan, is to be inclusive to the many different interpretations of Islam, in addition to showcasing the different racial and ethnic Muslims.

The advice column is a teen mag staple, but Muslim Girl editors tend to delve into weighty issues, asking their readers to respond to such questions as: “Do you have a moral crisis or ethical dilemma? Are you having trouble deciding on the right thing to do?”

One recent inquiry reads, “My parents seem to think that my reputation will be ruined if I sleep over at my best friend’s house after her 16th birthday party. The other girls who are sleeping over aren’t Muslim, and their parents are fine with it. Why can’t my parents trust me, and why do they have such unfair rules for me? They never object if my brother spends a weekend at his friend’s house.”

The reply: “If your friends are not Muslim, then they may or may not be aware of the sensitivities important to a Muslim. For example, many non-Muslim girls may enjoy spending the time at a sleepover talking about boys and dating, on the assumption that it is normal and even expected to have a boyfriend. Since dating is not allowed in Islam, at a sleepover where there are Muslims and non-Muslims, this type of conversation might make Muslim girls feel uncomfortable, or worse, influence Muslim girls to find dating more acceptable or desirable than they should.”

As for the difference between how the letter writer’s parents treat her brother and her, the advice column said, “Your parents are probably more protective towards you than your brother because, although the same moral concerns apply equally to you both, the unpleasant reality is that a girl’s reputation is more vulnerable and subject to scrutiny than a boy’s.”

But the tone of the magazine isn’t all serious and somber. The photo next to the advice column shows two girls lying side-by-side on a bed, laughing and listening to music on an MP3 player. In that same issue is a question-and-answer piece on the Copenhagen-based hip-hop band Outlandish, two members of which are Muslims.

There are fashion and makeup tips, but they are tailored to an audience that dresses conservatively. Models flash no skin from neck to ankle. While wearing makeup is generally frowned upon — outside of a family wedding or an all-girls party — the magazine featured one photo headlined “Natural looks for your skin tone.” It’s not that Muslims must be divorced from popular culture — the Santa Clara girls said they surf YouTube a lot — but they have to carefully pick their spots.

“People think Muslims can’t listen to music, but we do all the time,” said 14-year-old Noor Bondogji. The girls sitting near her at the Muslim Community Association chatter about bands they like. Chris Daughtry. Fall Out Boy. Somebody whispered Eminem — his cleaner songs, that is. “But you can’t listen to stuff that uses bad language” or has sexual themes, Bondogji said.

Still, the magazine’s efforts to showcase the diversity of the Muslim community don’t sit well with more conservative readers.

One letter to the editor complained about the magazine featuring photos of young women praying and studying without wearing the proper hijab or clothing that covered their arms. “Are you trying to promote here that it is OK to want to be like non-Muslim and to try to imitate them in the hope that you will gain acceptance?” wrote the letter writer, a 20-year-old from London.

The magazine’s editors responded that their publication tries to be “as representative of the North American Muslim community as possible. Muslim girls and their parents have many different interpretations on how to dress modestly and still consider themselves proud Muslims.” Khan said the magazine has received only a handful of similar complaints.

The more pressing issue is how to support the magazine.

So far, Muslim Girl has 25,000 subscribers, with dreams of quadrupling that by year’s end. That will be a challenge; there was practically no advertising in the May/June issue, and some of the sponsors with full-page ads — like the Girl Scouts of America and the Peace Corps — aren’t the kind of deep-pocket entities that can sustain a publication.

Muslim Girl’s greatest commercial challenge is that it can’t accept “90 percent of the advertising that you see in most magazines,” said Khan. It is too racy. Too many women in bikinis selling beer. Other major advertisers shy away, Ausma said, because they feel that Muslim Girl only reaches a niche audience. Still, she said, the magazine hopes to be “self-sustaining” by the end of the year.

It has at least one important fan who is not a teenage Muslim girl.

“My dad loves it,” said 14-year-old Bondogji. The eighth-grader’s father hasn’t been a big fan of her explorations of popular culture, “but he likes this, because it’s about Islam.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday June 18, 2007.
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