As part of the I DEFINE ME campaign, Warehouse has teamed up with inspiring women to ask them how they are reclaiming their narratives and why it’s so important to do so. Here Nafisa Bakkar discusses how and why she set up the online platform Amaliah to give Muslim women a space where they can exist on their own terms…
With International Women’s Day (Friday 8 March) fast approaching, it’s important to focus on how society sees women and consider what stories are being created about us.
Are the words kind, supportive and empowering? Or do we suffer from having lots of definitions imposed on us, with language that limits us?
For Muslim women, it’s often the latter. Which is why Bakkar set up Amaliah - to share the everyday voices, stories and conversations of Muslim women.
Here, she explains how she did it.
It started as something else
“My older sister Selina and I initially set up Amaliah as a platform that curated modest fashion.
A year and a half later, we wanted to expand our work, so we relaunched as a media platform amplifying the voices of Muslim women through articles, videos, podcasts and events.
Now we see it as, ‘Muslim women have always had a voice, we just have a platform that amplifies them.’
We currently have a community of 300 Muslim women who contribute and share their voices.”
“For us, it’s about creating a space for Muslim women to exist on their own terms.
So often in the mainstream media, we are boxed in. We’re only asked to speak about specific topics that reinforce stereotypes or shape us into performers for the white gaze.
Often we’re only profiled when we are ‘breaking stereotypes’ or doing something extraordinary. And we’re often only flavour of the month.
At Amaliah, it’s about sharing everyday voices, stories and conversations.”
It’s not about defending ourselves
“For so long, Muslim communities in Britain have had to react to what others say about us, which meant we were always reacting to the latest headline or reacting to Boris Johnson’s latest opinion on Muslim women.
Amaliah is about creating a space to shape thought – to have honest conversations that we as Muslims are wary of having because we fear our voices will be hijacked or our stories used against us.
But as a community, we need to be able to talk openly in order to progress.
We are passed the mic selectively when there’s news about hijabs or the latest niqab ban. My inbox is flooded with media requests wanting a comment.
Muslim women aren’t just spokeswomen for the hijab – we can actually speak about a plethora of topics. It’s ridiculous I even have to say that.”
We want to make change happen with our skill set
“We also launched our agency last year, insights.amaliah.com, because we know that Amaliah won’t touch every single Muslim woman. But by working with brands and agencies that influence culture, we can create wider change.
We started Amaliah as an Instagram page while Selina was seven months pregnant.
Working with my sister is great. People are always fascinated by our dynamic, but it works because we have very different but complementary skills.
Selina manages the community, our writers and the editorial voice on Amaliah.
Community building is her biggest strength – she could make friends with a rock and always wants the best for people, whether she knows them or not.”
“For a long time, I stalled starting Amaliah. I remember that I would look at founders in awe. I would put them all on a pedestal and think I couldn’t do it.
But I eventually realised you don’t have to be extraordinary to start a business or project. You just have to keep taking small steps forward, have a passion for what you’re doing and ask for help everywhere you can.
Amaliah exists today because of the help from those around us. People like Alex Depledge, who gave us office space when we first started out (and Stylist, where we currently share an office), plus all the mentors we’ve had along the way – even the ones who told us it wouldn’t work.
Starting out can be daunting, but if you break it down into, ‘What can I do tomorrow?’ it starts to make more sense. I learned to code in order to build the first version of the site.
I always say, ‘Don’t believe the hype’. There came a point where I realised no-one knows what they’re doing. Everyone’s making it up as they go along and it’s OK if you do, too.”
It’s not easy, but we’re growing – and the results are encouraging
“We recently acquired halalgems.com. It’s a huge step for us and the Muslim start-up community at large.
The Muslim start-up scene is still nascent, so acquisitions are few and far between. It’s an honour to bring in a new company under the Amaliah brand.
Whenever someone says, ‘I love Amaliah, but I don’t agree with everything’, it means that we’re amplifying a range of voices, which is important to me.
We tell people Muslim women are not a monolith, but the true test is being able to share our stories side-by-side, even with a difference of opinion.
At the beginning of this year, we entered our fourth year as a business. For me, still existing counts as success.
Running a business is so hard. So is sticking to our values while being commercially viable.”
“People don’t realise how much it takes to just keep going.
The best moments are when Muslim women message us and tell us how Amaliah has helped them – whether it’s being more confident as a Muslim woman, asking for a place to pray at work, or the power of sharing their own stories.
Many of our contributors haven’t felt comfortable writing for mainstream platforms, so I’m proud Amaliah is nurturing a new generation of writers.
Our goal for the future is to continue amplifying the voices of Muslim women in a variety of ways and globally, too.
There’s a beautiful community engaged online that come together around Amaliah. We also aim to use our online platform to mobilise our communities offline to create change.
Our mission brief is, ‘How do we make it easier for Muslim women to exist? How do we enable that change over time?’
Perhaps in a few years it will look like a fund that supports Muslim women? Or maybe it’s even Amaliah starting a film house… Watch this space.”
Head over to Warehouse’s I DEFINE ME. The hub has more from Nafisa and defining stories from four more inspiring women: Bryony Gordon (journalist & author), Natalie Lee (Style Me Sunday blogger), Esme Young (The Great British Sewing Bee) and Lauren Mahon (founder of GIRLvsCANCER and You, Me And The Big C podcast).
You can also buy the I DEFINE ME T-shirt, with the entire selling price going to Rosa, a charity whose mission is supporting women to create a society where women and girls have an equal voice, are safe from fear and violence and achieve economic justice.