By Rebecca G. Dorr
Thursday, April 3, 2003
A new women's magazine talks to and about Muslim American women, in all their diversity of thought, appearance and opinions.
(WOMENSENEWS)--As a Muslim woman of color, Tayyibah Taylor did not see herself reflected accurately in the magazines, newspapers, TV shows and films that surround her in North America. So, she started Azizah, a magazine for the modern Muslim American woman.
Azizah, now entering its third year of quarterly publication, presents the diversity of contemporary Muslim women; Taylor, the founder and visionary behind the title, hopes it will counter stereotypes. Azizah loosely translatesfrom Arabic to English as "daringness, strength and nobility."
Though born in Trinidad, Taylor spent her childhood in Toronto, where she found it difficult to reconcile what she knew of her parents--hard-working, black professionals--with the images of black people in the mainstream media.
"The only time I saw people of color was on TV, news clips covering civil rights demonstrations, and it was always negative," she said recently over the phone. She breathed a sigh of relief, she said, when she first glimpsed Ebony magazine, which portrayed black people in positions of importance.
Taylor grew up Christian and converted to Islam at age 19. Too often, she said, Muslim women are presented as the "suppressed, oppressed non-entity."
On the cover of each of the first seven issues are vibrant portraits of successful Muslim women, wearing the traditional hijab headscarf. Stories have covered everything from feminism and Islam to how inclusive Muslim communities are of the disabled.
With nearly 3,000 subscribers, the magazine is the first written by and for Muslim women in North America. It is also one of the first Muslim magazines with no affiliation to an Islamic ethnic group or school of thought, for example Sunni or Shiite, said Taylor.
A 50-year-old mother of five, Taylor studied biology and philosophy at the University of Toronto. She went on to study Arabic and Islamic studies at King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, before working as an administrator at the Islamic School of Seattle. Her dedication to Islam and an instinctual desire to share ideas and facilitate communication led her forge the idea for Azizah more than 10 years ago.
"Azizah is a forum for our voice," she said of Muslim American women. "By presenting positive images and portrayals it gives us permission to aspire to things, to break out of self-imposed limitations."
Taylor incorporated WOW Publishing, Inc., a privately-owned company that publishes Azizah Magazine, in 1999. Ownership lies entirely with three Muslim American women: Taylor, editor in chief; Saleemah Abdulghafur, chief operating officer; and Marlina Soerakoesoemah, head designer, who works from Seattle. Taylor put up seed money for the venture, but all three women have made substantial financial investments.
"We pay ourselves a pittance," Abdulghafur laughed, but stressed that money doesn't motivate them.
Now 28, Abdulghafur received her undergraduate degree from Columbia University in 1996. She originally worked as a consultant to Azizah, but began full-time work as chief operating officer in January. "It's critically important that Muslim women in this country forge their own identity, and have a voice in the mainstream media" she said from Azizah's Atlanta headquarters. "I'm tired of seeing the Afghan woman in a burqa, who is repressed. She is not the only image."
With the U.S. State Department estimating an American Muslim population of just less than 2 million, and Islamic groups like IslamAmerica asserting a higher number of up to 8 million, Muslims are an important and growing part of America's diverse religious fabric.
"Often Muslim women are portrayed as immigrants, but I was born and raised here in the states," Abdulghafur said. "Other people think if you're African American you must be a convert, or if you're Muslim you must have just immigrated. In some cases it's true, and in many cases it's not."
Taylor and Abdulghafur introduced Azizah at a kick-off event for Harvard University's annual "Islam in America" conference in March. Soft-spoken and articulate, Taylor told a room full of curious attendees--many of them women wearing the traditional Muslim headscarf--that she was proud to be a Muslim woman. She received shouts of praise from the audience and later talked about the incredible response from new readers.
Muslim women "like to see themselves reflected so professionally and beautifully," she said. "And people not of the faith tradition of Islam like to see a women's magazine of substance."
The fall 2002 issue of Azizah takes a different tone than most women's magazines with such articles as: "Women and Leadership. What Happens When We're in Charge?," "Analyzing Stereotypes: Understanding them in order to deconstruct them" and "Lights, Camera, Action!," a profile of seven Muslim women filmmakers.
Merve Kavakci, a former member of the Turkish Parliament who currently lives in the United States, has appeared in Azizah and is a passionate supporter of the magazine. Speaking at Harvard, she said the magazine provides a "bigger picture" of Muslim women's experiences.
Taylor admits that some Muslim groups believe a woman's voice should be "covered," and are uncomfortable with the magazine's concept. But she does not shy away from the Azizah portrait of an empowered Muslim woman.
"I think there are two ways to objectify a woman," Taylor said. "You can strip her naked and sell excitement . . . or you can cover her up and demand her silence and bar her from public space."
Both, she said, have the same result: They render women voiceless.
Taylor has made a point to print letters to the editor that criticize Azizah's outspokenness. That, she said, is just another voice. "I'm not trying to undo people's minds, or their forms of worship," she said. "I want to say, 'This is who we are and this is what we've done and look what we want to do.'"
Azizah subsists on advertisements, subscription fees and owner funds. Taylor hopes to build the magazine into a household name, with a million subscriptions and big-name advertisement accounts.
"I want people to equate Azizah women with Muslim women," she said.
Rebecca G. Dorr is completing her graduate degree in journalism at Boston University. She has written for Inc. Magazine, Technology Review, Design Times, and Porthole.
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