At the 2005 Islamic Society of North America Conference in Chicago, US, a teenage girl stood up confidently to speak in front of a huge audience waiting to hear her with silent interest. She began by recounting her experience as an American Muslim, striving to be recognized as an individual capable of making a positive contribution to society. She went on to reveal that there were times when she found herself feeling isolated and under-represented in the mainstream media, with no other means of connecting with other young Muslim girls who shared her values and concerns.
Hers was not a lone predicament. In fact, it was one of several, presented by American Muslim teenagers eager to be understood and appreciated without being pressurized to conform. While almost everyone in the audience heard their stories and experiences with rapt attention, there was one group on which it had the most impact. This was a publishing team from execuGo Media, which decided to seriously develop the idea of creating a medium that would help Muslim girls in the US to connect with each other and represent them positively in the American society. And this is how Muslim Girl magazine, a new bi-monthly glossy came into being.
A pre-launch survey conducted by the publishers revealed that the approximately 400,000 Muslim teen girls in the US were looking for a lifestyle magazine that would give them a means of enjoying contemporary life, keeping within their value system. And, so responding to popular demand, the magazine was launched earlier this year.
The name of the magazine, 'Muslim Girl', exemplifies the brand, vision and the audience. As Editor-in-Chief Ausam Khan puts it, "We are a magazine for and about Muslim girls, and our name makes an immediate connection with our audience." Khan, who is also a writer, human rights lawyer and activist, was delighted to come on board because she saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a real difference to her society. In fact, she liked the concept so much that she gave up her teaching position at Northwestern University, Chicago. "This magazine is my chance to develop an alternate vision for the future of Muslim girls in America. It is also an opportunity to increase understanding and improve communication between Muslims and non-Muslims in the country. And that is something we need in these difficult times - to find common ground and develop mutual respect for each other's differences," she says.
But, of course, along with every incredible opportunity comes great responsibility. And in this case, it is being able to accomplish these important goals keeping in mind the sensitive nature and reactions of Muslims in North America. Yet, she has embraced this challenge with her characteristic optimism. Says Khan, "You want to get it right but it is a process of growth and evolution and so there are bound to be missteps along the way. All you can do is develop your vision in good faith..."
Like any other high-quality publication working on a tight production schedule, 'Muslim Girl', too, met with the usual obstacle - that of bringing together a team that had a common vision while respecting individual creative differences. But Khan feels that she has been fortunate enough to be working with a group of dedicated and talented professionals. She gives the example of their Creative Director, Elena Kovyrzina, and refers to her as "this amazingly creative woman, who has an instinctive feel for how to take a story and give it an unforgettable visual impact".
However, the influence of the magazine is not just limited to girls in the US. It is bound to pervade through the Muslim community, beyond its borders. And even though the stories are told within the North American context, 'Muslim Girl' does see itself questioning the misconceptions people hold about Muslim women in general, by portraying them as articulate, accomplished and ambitious individuals, creating a difference in the world. The magazine regularly profiles women from various fields who have overcome barriers, undeterred by the shackles of other people's judgments and the despair of their circumstances, to inspire other Muslim girls as role models. Khan feels, "It is the first mainstream media outlet of its kind to tell stories about Muslims in a positive and enlightening manner."
The magazine has also positioned itself as a means to draw society's attention to bright and talented Muslim girls, making a difference in their families, schools and communities, even while keeping within a set value system, as followed by other Muslim girls across the globe. And this is what makes the magazine fascinating for its readers. According to Khan, "One is able to relate to stories that talk about the things that Muslim teens are interested in and provide useful advice and guidance, in terms of making life choices and planning for the future. And we do all this while staying true to Islamic values, values that we respect and that are highly significant in the lives of ourreaders."
So, what has been the feedback of readers? Till now, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. "One has to take a moment and be grateful for it...," reacts Khan, who has heard from teenagers, parents and, even grandparents. Says, Yasmine Hafiz, "I think this magazine is a great way for Muslims to share their stories. I love the way it covers issues that girls (like me) are interested in, such as fashion and music, while still keeping it 'halal' (permissible under Islam)." In fact, they have received requests from brothers and uncles who want to buy the magazine for their siblings and nieces. According to Khan, the one sentiment that is often expressed by her readers is that "the Muslim community really needed this" and how glad they are to see a publication that tells the real story. Mothers have been regular contributors to the 'Letters to Editor' section expressing "how they wish there had been a magazine like this when they were teenagers". Khan has even received comments of some non-Muslims who think it is a great way for improving communication between different communities. Says Renee Gilbert, " Where was this magazine when I was 15 years old? I absolutely love it and would recommend it to every girl from every faith."
So far the going has been good. But the real challenge has only just begun, as the magazine strives to deliver on the enthusiasm and hope that it has initiated for a community struggling to be understood post 9/11. But the future seems promising, as Khan optimistically says, "I would like the girls who read our magazine to find it an authentic reflection of their own feelings, stories and aspirations... I hope it will help girls stay on the straight path and face up to the important moral challenges they will encounter as they develop into young women. And, of course, we hope our readers find our magazine entertaining."