A question I get a lot when I tell people that I’m working on creating an online magazine for American Muslim women, is “Why? What made you think of that?”

The answer to this “why” carries me back to my younger years as a bushy-eyebrowed, unruly haired, dark upper-lipped Muslim girl living in a predominately white suburban town.

I was always one of the darkest girls in school photos. The student whose name was constantly mispronounced and misspelled even though it only consists of four letters. The friend who couldn’t go to sleepovers or have guy friends.

Yes, those things bothered me a little. But what bothered me the most and made me resent who I was and where I came from, was not being able to dress like my friends did. The fashion lover in me dreamt of wearing short denim Hollister shorts with an Abercrombie and Fitch tank top to school. It’s true what they say–you always want what you can’t have.

I loved all of the things I couldn’t wear–short dresses, skirts, tank tops, shorts, etc., and would stock up on as many cute pieces I could afford only to stare at them in my closet, or to wear them in the privacy of my own bedroom. That is, until I rebelliously started putting clothes in my backpack so that I could change into them in the school’s bathroom stalls (Sorry mom and dad! And of course, Allah).

It was all fun and games until it wasn’t. I was living a double life: the wannabe all-American girl at school, and the innocent Arabic-speaking, modest dressing Muslim at home. I was stressed, anxious, and confused. I didn’t know who I was or who I wanted to be.

I was constantly changing myself to fit in with the people around me. But I wished more than anything that I could live the life of an all-American teenage girl.

And it wasn’t just society that was feeding this envy. It was the media. Whether it was Full House in my kid years or The Hills and Gossip Girl in my teens, I was obsessed with lifestyles so different from my own.

And magazines were no different. I lived for them. I remember flipping through the glossy pages filled with envy and admiration, wishing to look like the girls on the front covers and within the pages. To be able to wear the “hottest back to school looks” or to know what the “perfect kiss” is like.

And even though I couldn’t relate to any of the dating advice or 90% of the fashion inspiration that most magazines were filled with from the front cover to the back page, I still soaked it all in.

My favorite parts were the quizzes to see what my results would be for circumstances I could only imagine like, “What’s your perfect date” or “Where will you meet your next boyfriend.” It was my escape. My way of living vicariously through the stars they featured, or the true stories of ordinary girls living the lives I thought I wanted.

This all changed when I got older and finally stopped sneaking copies of Cosmopolitan into my house.

It didn’t happen overnight. But rather, over the course of my high school years, I was slowly growing into my own skin, and embracing the parts of me I had closed off for so long.

I remember one day that I changed into plaid pink short shorts, and for some weird reason I felt so bare and uncomfortable. I’m sure it was all in my head, but it seemed like all eyes were on me. I was sick with guilt and told myself I would never do it again.

During the last class of the day, I sat the entire time with my hands stretched out over my legs, anxiously waiting for the bell to ring so that I could change. Call it bad luck or call it “naseeb,” but class ended up running late, and I was afraid of missing the bus, so I never got to change.

And that was the day my mom caught me. And the last day I ever wore shorts outside.

Not only did I disappoint myself, but her, too. And that made everything so much worse. You can imagine the bahdala I got.

The summer after I graduated from high school, I decided to travel overseas to Palestine with my grandparents. After not having visited in 10 years, I ended up staying a year and a half there.

I learned so much about who I was and where I came from. The culture with the beautiful embroidered abayas, traditional dabke dancing, and delicious food. The religion where the athan/call to prayer rings throughout the whole country, and groups of Muslims fill the streets as they walk to the nearest mosque. I couldn’t get enough. I was a stranger for years to this impoverished land that’s surrounded by walls and military towers, yet still filled with so much beauty, warmth, culture, and life. But as much as I wanted it to feel like home, it didn’t. 

To my surprise, I still didn’t feel like I belonged or fit in. And that hit hard. I was seen as “the American girl” who spoke broken Arabic, and wore clothes that were apparently not modest enough for my grandma’s approval. I was so disappointed and sad. And it didn’t really help the whole figuring-out-who-I-am situation. In fact, it confused me even more. 

On the other hand, I learned so much more about my Middle Eastern background, culture, and religion, which made me feel more connected to those parts of me that I had closed off for so long. I was proud rather than embarrassed. Understanding rather than resentful. And so, when I returned to America for college, I was ready for a fresh start where I could take on a new me. Where I could try and be the best of both identities. And most importantly, I vowed to stay true to myself no matter what came my way.

But, college ended up being one of the most challenging periods of my life. My faith and personal strength were constantly being put to the test by the new pressures that it threw my way: drinking and partying. It was a lifestyle and a new normal that I was not ready for.

In order to avoid these situations altogether, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time in college or attend any events. It was hard to make new friends, and I became distant from the friends that I did have. I traded socializing for social isolation thinking this was the best way to avoid compromising my faith.

There was no one and nothing I could turn to for advice. My struggles, my experiences, my needs weren’t addressed or discussed in any of the magazines that I collected. When I flipped through the glossy pages then for answers, I was filled with resentment and sadness, wishing that the girl on the front cover resembled me, wishing that I could find something between the pages that spoke to me and my experiences. But I found nothing.

I wished that when I asked Google for advice, that more than just one blog article popped up addressing my issue. That my answers could be found through the wisdom and experiences of another Muslim woman who actually understands. Who’s been there, done that. Not in a forum where a sheikh just copies and pastes quotes from the Quran and hadith, or where you get judged by other Muslims for even asking the question to begin with.

I wanted a safe space where I felt I belonged. Where I felt like I mattered. Where I didn’t feel alone. I wanted to connect with someone on a deeper level–someone who just got me, someone I didn’t have to explain everything to.

Me, that girl that felt alone, afraid, confused, inadequate. She’s my why. I don’t want any other Muslim woman to ever feel that way.

And for all those that do, you are also my why.

I have always dreamt of creating a magazine, and it has been in the making for a few years now. 

There was always one thing standing in the way and holding it back from becoming a reality: Me.

I was afraid I wasn’t good enough. That the magazine wouldn’t be good enough. I was afraid of failing before I even got started. It was all of those years of self-doubt and anxiety creeping back up to make me second guess myself and my goals.

AM Women’s mission is to help women overcome their own doubts and fears, and to gain the confidence to embrace their true selves so that they can take on the world feeling more empowered. How could I fulfill that mission for others when I hadn’t yet fulfilled it for myself?

We’ve seen a rise in the number of platforms created by amazing Muslim women that provide resources and safe spaces for other Muslim women. So, this is me joining the forefront of this change instead of standing in the sidelines like I used to as a sheltered, insecure little girl.

This is me putting myself out there and overcoming my doubts and fears. This is me being confident. This is me, empowered, strong, and finally embracing who I am and what I am meant to do. This is me presenting myself to you and the world with pride, fearlessness and a rejuvenated sense of identity.

I am Muslim. I am American. I am a woman. And I am ready to carve out a place for us in this world. And that place is AM Women magazine.

Join me on this journey, and let’s take on our struggles and our successes, together.

Ayah Shaheen
Editor-in-Chief