“How do we make it easier to exist as a Muslim woman in today’s world?”
There are almost two billion Muslims globally, according to a Pew Research Center demographic projection, with majorities present across northern Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, making up a huge audience for brands around the world.
However, this diverse audience is frequently ignored, stereotyped or even disparaged in much of the communication directed at them today. This is where UK-based Nafisa Bakkar comes in. She is the CEO and cofounder of media platform Amaliah, which amplifies the voices of Muslim women through articles, videos, podcasts, social channels and events. Through the Amaliah consultancy offering, she also works with brands and agencies, helping them to better engage with Muslim audiences.
Below, Nafisa Bakkar catches up with us about how and why brands need to rethink the way they address this unique audience.
What prompted you to start Amaliah?
I realized there was a problem to be solved. We actually started in the fashion space, recognizing there was a space to be filled in modest fashion, and over time we have developed the overarching mission: how do we make it easier to exist as a Muslim woman in today’s world?
Today that looks like creating space that centers around the experiences of Muslims, both offline and online, through our editorial and event experiences, as well as influencing how brands and organizations see our audience.
What are the key characteristics that make Muslim women a unique audience?
There are 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, and we cannot expect all 1.8 billion to interact with the faith in the same way. Muslim audiences have such varied practices, values and cultures. There are many characteristics in common with default audiences. It’s more about: how do you have a thread of inclusion that allows Muslim women to feel seen and included?
Often brands are scared to address this market but in fact there are a number of parallels. Take halal beauty, for example—there are a lot of similarities with cruelty-free and vegan beauty, which means the messaging can be wider but still inclusive.
Are you seeing a change in perceptions of Muslim women when it comes to mainstream media in the UK?
This is difficult. As Muslims, we often have a difficult relationship with the media. We are often misrepresented. According to “State of Media Reporting on Islam and Muslims” by the Muslim Council of Great Britain, 59% of all articles associated Muslims with negative behavior, over a third of all articles misrepresented or generalized about Muslims, and terrorism was the most common theme.
The representation of Muslim women in particular flip-flops between politicized beings and uber-glamorous. Or, when we are represented, it has to be in exceptions and stereotype-breaking—think the Muslim woman in Bodyguard by the BBC [a 2018 television series that portrayed a female Muslim terrorist].
I think we are making small changes. We are also seeing more Muslims in newsrooms, behind the camera and, of course, platforms like us creating more space on our own terms.
How do you see the conversation shifting between brands and your audience?
Brands and agencies will see their growth coming from audiences they don’t understand. The Amaliah audience represents one of the ways that the face of who holds influence is rapidly changing. Increasingly, we are being brought into briefs which may be trying to speak to women aged 16 to 32, whereas before it was specifically a “Muslim brief” or a “diversity brief.”
We see the conversation shifting from having a token image of a Muslim to working with brands like ours to create meaningful moments and value for these audiences.
Our food festival is about creating an elevated food experience which just happens to be halal [with Halal Gems, Amaliah hosted London’s 2019 Street Eats food festival]. The halal food market is worth over $1 trillion and there are still so many opportunities there, in particular around creating great, meaningful experiences. In the future, I see our work just being seen as great work that is inclusive, rather than Muslim work and Muslim ideas.
Brands will simply become irrelevant to huge audiences if they don’t keep up with diversity. There is so much choice that it is increasingly easy to make the switch—and to unapologetically reject a brand that does not speak to you.
Are there any industries which you believe need to rethink how they are approaching and marketing to this audience?
Where do I start?
Minorities—otherwise known as the global majority—are unapologetically refusing to acknowledge and engage with brands and institutions who do not authentically represent the diversity of society today. The future of businesses, brands and institutions lies in being able to speak authentically to audiences like ours.
Food, fashion, wellbeing, fitness, travel, finance, entertainment, going out—all these verticals need to rethink the audiences they are speaking to. The stats are also out there in terms of what opportunity is being missed. For example, by 2020 Muslims are expected to spend over $150 billion annually in the travel industry. Yet, overwhelmingly, travel in particular has struggled to be relevant to young minority audiences.
Often when brands are trying to be inclusive of Muslim women in particular, the cookie-cutter Muslim woman they have curated can exclude Muslim women who don’t resonate with that ideal.
We need to see inclusion as a feeling rather than a checklist, and recognize audiences as multilayered, rather than ticking one box at a time.