A Walking Political Identity: Interview with Nihal Al Qawasmi
by Abby Smith
I recently sat down to discuss being a Muslim millennial with Nihal Al Qawasmi, a Pace University student, former managing editor of muslimgirl.net, a popular and unprecedented site for adolescent Muslim girls in the U.S. and co-founder of MissMuslim.nyc. MissMuslim is characterized as a Muslim version of Cosmo, covering taboo and mature content. Through her work with MissMuslim.nyc, she has helped shape a new dialogue for the next generation of female Muslim journalists.
Along with being a Muslim-American, Nihal carries many other identities such as being a Palestinian and a feminist - making her a walking political identity. She understands her role and importance in shattering the stereotypes Muslims face but especially Muslim women.
Abby Smith: Give me some background in regards to your Muslim identity. Did you ever feel alienated or regarded as different by society?
Nihal Al Qawasmi: “I have always been proud of being Muslim. Growing up, I sort of noticed if people stared or looked at my mom when she picked me up from school because she wears the hijab, or headscarf, but I never understood why. She never seemed different to me. However, I really came into my Muslim identity in middle school when I began wearing the hijab. I was also enrolled in an Islamic school during this time, so I was in a space space for most of my schooling."
AS: Have you ever felt scared or unsafe just simply walking around campus or down the street?
NA: “I always felt different but it never bothered me. If anything, it made me a stronger person. But honestly it wasn’t until the Chapel Hill shooting last year where I truly felt fear for the first time. I remember walking around campus the day after the shooting, and it was the first time I was super conscious of the stares people gave me on campus. I never really paid attention to them before. Even things like walking to my car after a night class never bothered me until then. It was a really shocking time because those individuals who were murdered were young Muslim-Americans just like me, so it obviously made me think that the same thing could have happened to me. And with the way the media downplayed the entire shooting making it sound like a parking dispute also didn't help make me feel safe in this society.”
AS: Describe more of how the media’s reaction after the shooting made you feel.
NA: “The media downplays a lot of the violence towards Muslims in the United States which stops people from legitimizing it as an actual problem to be addressed. Many people didn’t acknowledge that Our Three Winners were murdered in an unprovoked manner. They were upstanding citizens who often did volunteer work and while the media did showcase this, the entire story didn’t make national news until it erupted on social media.”
AS: Did this underrepresentation of narratives from all aspects of your identity lead to your decision to go into journalism?
NA: "That was part of it. I've always wanted to be a journalist and storyteller, especially [on] the stories and issues that are not reported. This was mostly because growing up the media not only failed to tell my narrative as a Muslim, but they distorted it, too. I always felt like it was my duty to change that with my passion for writing and justice."
AS: When asked about being a Muslim living in the U.S. you often reply with “it’s all I’ve ever known.” Can you expand upon that?
NA: “ My entire life I’ve grown up with a politicized identity. Whether that was because I was Muslim or Palestinian, it’s two identities that are constantly being attacked ever since I could remember. However, I am becoming more comfortable with that and using it to my advantage, to prove society wrong, to use my character that’s made up of Islamic values to set an example, and crush the stigma. However, sometimes I feel like everyone’s token Muslim friend from everyday conversations to the classroom.”
AS: Your past work with Muslim Girl has really opened doors for adolescent Muslim girls and given them a safe space. How do you feel about the work you’ve done?
NA: “I am definitely proud of the work I’ve done with MG, but I am far from finished. Being a part of MuslimGirl has been important because it has given myself and others a platform to insert our voices in the media and it’s one of the many outlets that’s paving the road for younger Muslim girls thinking about working in the media and becoming storytellers.”
AS: You are now transitioning to a new site, MissMuslim, which you are dubbing as the “halal Cosmo.” Can you give more background on MissMuslim?
NA: “I’m one of the co-founders of MissMuslim, a new online magazine that we’re dubbing “a halal cosmo – kinda” because we are focusing on everything from pop culture to faith, sports, health, fashion, and even showcasing unique columns ranging from advice, humanitarian work, and style. I am very excited and honored to be able to add to the list of safe spaces for Muslim women with three other lovely co-founders. Along with our writers, we’ve created a sisterhood of game-changing storytellers. All Muslim women from different walks of life.”