Get ready to fight for what you believe in. Even the ones you know love you unconditionally will disagree with some of the things you are fighting for. That’s OK. As I said before, do it anyway. When they see the positive impact you are creating, they will come around. 🙂
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jenan Matari.
Jenan is a 29-year-old, first generation-born, and raised American with Palestinian and Brasilian roots, and founder and Editor in Chief of MISSMUSLIM. A graduate of Rutgers University, earning a B.A. in Journalism & Media Studies, she is now a New York City area-based public relations Director with experience in the music, fashion, food and beverage, and health and wellness industries; and has an everlasting passion for traveling and writing.
Since launching MISSMUSLIM the platform has been featured in and collaborated with mainstream media outlets like The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Allure, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post & more.
In April of 2017, Jenan — received the Shirley Chisholm Award in the category of Journalism for outstanding representation of Muslim and minority women in the media, and for being a “catalyst for change.” Jenan gave a TEDxTalk in Asbury Park, New Jersey in May of 2017 in a conference about “identity” to a sold-out show at the Paramount Theater.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
Thank you for having me! It’s really great to be chatting with you.
This question always backs me into a corner, ha! I’d like to think that I grew up as your typical American girl, but there were obvious cultural differences between me and my friends growing up. My parents did an excellent job at raising me and my brothers to be both the all-American athletes/students/kids that we were, and also the token Arab family that American kids grew up around and could experience our beautiful traditions through (my family is of Palestinian and Brazilian decent). I grew up in an essentially all-white town, so there was some pressure on me — albeit unknown to me at the time — to be the model Arab American Muslim because I was people’s first and still to this day for some of them, their ONLY exposure to Arabs and Muslims. What they thought of my family and me would make a lasting impression on what they’d think about our entire race and religion — which is a very common thing for people of minority backgrounds.
For the most part, my childhood was normal, I just celebrated different holidays than the rest of my friends and brought different foods to school for lunch (that I’d be made fun of for), but straddling that line of American and Arab at all times started getting a bit difficult in my teenage and young adult years. I didn’t know how to do it anymore because in order to fit in I felt like I needed to give up part of what made me, me. I was too Arab for my American friends and too American for my Arab ones. I felt really alone and confused as to who I should be and who others were expecting me to be.
It wasn’t until I learned about a term called “third-culture-kids” that I realized I wasn’t alone in this identity struggle. It’s this concept that children (mainly from immigrant families) who are born and raised in lands that are foreign to their family’s origins are forced into creating a “third culture” that is a representation of both their own homeland and their families homeland, but they get to put their own spin on it (hence the third part). From then on I made it a mission of mine to connect with other third-culture-kids to make sure they knew they weren’t alone in whatever identity conflict they were experiencing. When trying to connect with others with similar experiences I realized there was no real outlet that did that. There was no place for us to share our stories and talk about the things that were deemed too controversial or uncomfortable for us to discuss — so I created one.
You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Absolutely! MISSMUSLIM launched in 2016 with the mission I mentioned above. Connecting third-culture-kids and hyphenated people with each other to share their stories and develop a sense of community that never existed before for those of us who never fit into just one box.
It quickly became the virtual destination, mainly for Muslim and minority women, to learn about the commonalities of familial struggles, to career goals, and motherhood taboos, and mental health, to become educated on their bodies and their options that come along with it. We have started so many necessary conversations that women have been told over and over and over again are inappropriate to discuss not just publicly but among each other — and I am so proud of that.
Our team at MISSMUSLIM is so dedicated to keeping that connection strong and growing. Our pieces have resulted in friendships across oceans. We get emails daily about how a story that we’ve published helped change another woman’s life because she didn’t know what she was experiencing was normal, and there is truly nothing better than helping someone realize they are not alone. That realization and feeling of community brings a lot of change. A happy and supported individual who feels accepted and heard leads to not only a positive individual change but a communal and ultimately a global one.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
It was my own personal experience! Everything I struggled with, everything I hated about myself growing up but so badly wanted to love and appreciate, it all led me to this place in life where this ability to connect with people — that I always knew I had but just didn’t know how to use — came through in something I love doing and went to school for, writing.
It’s not always easy to be so raw and honest publicly. It comes with a lot of judgment, a lot of backlash, and a lot of consequences. But when people read about a personal story of mine or watch a speech of mine, and can connect with it, and they reach out to tell me that they instantly felt seen and feel better about themselves and whatever they’re going through, it makes it all worth it.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
This is an AWESOME question. I’m a very impulsive person, ha. The Pisces in me tends to act on emotion and desires and that’s exactly how MISSMUSLIM was born. It was something I wanted — needed, really — for myself and my own well-being, and because of that I ran with it. And I think because it was born out of this genuine desire to not only help myself but help other people (again, with a focus on women from minority and conservative communities), that’s why the public took to it so quickly and so strongly.
There were a million and one excuses I could have used to stop myself from creating this platform. It’s expensive. It’s time-consuming. In some cases, it can be seen as dangerous. I’ve lost friends and even family members who don’t agree with the things I publish. It exposes you. There were so many things I probably should have considered before launching our site, but all that would have done was either slow me down or deterred me altogether from launching. And that platform not existing wasn’t helping anyone. So I just went for it and to this day, 4 years later, we are still learning and growing and evolving and that’s what keeps our stories interesting and that’s what keeps our readers coming back for more.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
I have only two words of advice for starting your own organization:
1. Be genuine. Don’t underestimate your audience. They are smart. They are loyal. And they will humble you when given the opportunity to do so. If you are not genuine in whatever it is you are choosing to do, if you don’t have a mission to stick to that you really believe in — it will come out in whatever form you are choosing to express yourself. Be it public speaking, writing, fundraising, etc. And your organization will ultimately fail because people can sense the truth. If you’re in it for the wrong reasons, you won’t get very far.
2. Just do it. I know. It’s so cliche, and you immediately think of sneakers and sportswear. But it’s the truth. You will find one hundred reasons why you shouldn’t do something. Do it anyway. If you believe you have something great, and you will make a positive impact on the world, do it anyway.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I kind of hate answering questions this way but I don’t think I can really pinpoint one experience! The entire journey has kind of been interesting. I guess the most interesting part of it all to me has been how quickly it took off. We are a group of writers who are literally talking about ourselves and our own experiences and it has resulted in viral content, cross-continent collaborations with some of the world’s top media outlets, and being published in globally recognized newspapers. It just goes to show you that what you have to say IS important and people WILL listen!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
I’m going to kind of answer this question the same way I answered the last, ha. I don’t think there’s been one funny mistake or story for me to share but I tend to do something that definitely makes me chuckle every so often when I realize how silly of a mistake it is to keep making. And that is assuming that everyone has the same amount of passion as you do to see your own mission through.
As much as it is necessary to have a team to rely on and that will help spread your message — you have to be willing to be the main point of contact to keep things running and operating and sometimes that literally results in your own blood, sweat and tears (OK, maybe not actual blood) being shed. No one will believe in your mission more than you do, and it is silly and funny to convince yourself otherwise.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
My family is my biggest cheerleader. My husband, my parents, my brothers, my handful of best friends, and now my 1.5-year-old son are my biggest supporters, and my reason to keep going with this mission. My parents raised me to believe that I was capable of changing the world, though I don’t think they ever thought I’d grow up to be crazy enough to try to do it! But it was because of that confidence they instilled in me that I believed in myself enough to try. Without them I’d be nothing — and I truly mean that.
And of course, without our core team at MISSMUSLIM, our platform would be nothing. From our two dedicated editors, Mai Abdeljaber and Jehan Mansy, to our tech wizard Junaid Rana, to our social media expert Diala Ghneim, to my co-founder Shannon Melero. The six of us have kept this site alive whether we have 40+ writers on staff at one time or it’s literally just the 6 of us (and in the media content world, this fluctuates almost daily). We have weathered every storm together. And for them I am grateful.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I am about to make some people very uncomfortable with this story — but that’s what we are famous for at MISSMUSLIM! Brace yourselves.
We had a writer share a very intimate personal story at the beginning of our launch. It was about an issue she was experiencing with her body and her inability to consummate her marriage for the first year. She was suffering from something that is both a psychological and physical condition known as “Vaginismus”. It’s something that is common among women who had conservative upbringings where they are taught to view sex as something that is dirty and wrong. As they get older and as some get married, they are expected to forget all of those associations of sex being a “bad thing” and go on to have a normal sex life with their partners when society deems it as finally “appropriate” for them to engage in anything sexual. For a majority of women they make that transition with no issues, but for a small some, it results in painful experiences and them not being physically capable of having sex.
The writer so bravely talked about her journey to ending her struggle with the condition through the help of experts at a clinic called the Women’s Therapy Center. I thought it was incredible of her to share and to hear that it had a happy ending. The story got some great pick up and was shared a couple of thousand times.
What really solidified that we had created something special was when I got an email in response to this story from a woman in a totally different state in the U.S. a few weeks later. I will never forget that email and how it made me feel. She started it off with, “I saw this post on a friend’s Facebook and opened up the article at the gym,” and continued with, “and I’m hysterically crying on the treadmill writing you this email because I had no idea there was a name for what I’m suffering through right now, that other women have gone through it, or that I could get help to end my suffering.”
She was a friend who had gotten married recently and had the same exact story. She was in so much physical and emotional pain but felt so relieved to know that there was help out there and her gratitude just oozed out of that email. We quickly connected her with the writer AND with the clinic that helped her and she got help for the condition.
This then resulted in us creating a very important partnership at MISSMUSLIM with Dr. Ditza Katz and Dr. Ross Lynn Tabisel of Women’s Therapy Center where women would submit their embarrassing or uncomfortable questions about their bodies to be answered on our site (the column is called Dear Doctors!). The doctors have told me that they’ve even seen a fairly large number in new patients seeking their help BECAUSE OF our MISSMUSLIM pieces with their expert input. Women feel like they have support and resources now. I feel both grateful and overcome with pride to be a part of that.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
1. For starters, smash those stereotypes. All three of those categories need to stop stereotyping anyone from a minority community. Let us tell our own stories, and please stop inserting your own voices in front of ours. You’ll find that we are not only one in the same, but desire the same things as well. And we can wonderfully contribute to so many areas of expertise. Interview us on mainstream talk shows, publish our op-eds, put us in your leadership roles in your companies, and in political cabinet positions of power.
2. Invest in minority women. Feminism has done incredible things for women over the past few decades but we need to be honest about its shortcomings, too. It hasn’t done nearly the same amount of incredible-ness for minority women/women of color. We have a lot to offer. We are diverse, we are unique, we are brilliant, we are hardworking, we are the change the world needs right now (and has needed since the beginning of time). And we are no longer allowing anything to stand in the way of our goals. It will be a much smoother ride to all of our communal success to hop on board and support us the way we need and deserve to be. It’s something you will never regret being a part of.
3. Be open-minded and be curious. A lot of the stories you’ll read and hear from us will be different from the stories you’re used to seeing. You absolutely must read and listen to them with an open mind. You have to be curious to learn about something that you most likely already have preconceived notions about, and you must be willing to erase all of that from your brain in order to learn our truth. It’s the only way we’ll progress as a society.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. You’re going to lose some people you love and who you thought loved you back. I knew I’d get some slack for the stories our writers and I share on our platform, but I never imagined it’d be from people who I thought loved and supported me from my childhood days. You realize that very few people have unconditional love for you and will support your efforts. Cling to the ones who have shown you that type of love, and rid yourself of the ones who don’t have it (if they haven’t already exiled you first, ha).
2. Get ready to fight for what you believe in. Even the ones you know love you unconditionally will disagree with some of the things you are fighting for. That’s OK. As I said before, do it anyway. When they see the positive impact you are creating, they will come around. 🙂
3. Have a side hustle to fund your side hustle. I know this sounds ridiculous. And a friend actually told me about this technique when I was already 3 years into MISSMUSLIM, but it makes so much sense and I wish I had been told this before our launch. I haven’t made a penny on MISSMUSLIM and that’s OK with me because I’m not in it for the money and I never will be. My reward is those emails I get from readers about how a story we published completely changed their life for the better. But it’s an expensive reward. I’m grateful to have a husband who completely supports using our own finances to keep MISSMUSLIM alive, but I’ve found myself picking up new skills and hobbies so I don’t have to dip into our joint finances anymore.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
A favorite quote of mine that my dad used to repeat to me almost daily is, “Argue for your limitations and they are sure to be yours.” You are the only person who is capable of standing in your way. Remove the self-doubt and figure out who you want to be and the impact you want to have on the world.
You are the legacy that you leave behind. Build it up. Make your mark. Do good for people. Do good for this world. And those who you leave behind when it’s your time will keep your spirit alive through more good work and good deeds. Be the reason someone else wants to do good, by setting the example of how it’s done.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all the way. When it comes to fighting for what’s right, and doing good for this world, and breaking down stereotypes, and making real positive and necessary change, she is QUEEN. I’d love to just pick her brain and find out what I can do behind the scenes in my own community that can make her job just a bit easier or make her feel even more supported by us little people, ha. I truly believe she’ll be president of the United States one day and really I just think we’d be great friends (now I’m dreaming)!
How can our readers follow you online?
You can follow me personally on Instagram — so long as you don’t mind baby and puppy photos at least once a week! My handle is @jenanmatari
You can also keep up with my articles and other amazing pieces by other writers via the MISSMUSLIM site and Instagram and Facebook!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you so much for having me, Penny!