Why Nayantara Dutta started the ‘Unapologetically Muslim’ project

Photograph by Rachel Leiner  

In November 2016, when Donald Trump was elected U.S. President, he issued an immigration ban, commonly referred to as the Muslim ban, against people from predominantly Muslim countries. This sparked a public debate around what it meant to be Muslim. At that time, Nayantara Dutta was at Tufts University, in the final year of her psychology degree. As a third culture kid and a person of colour, Dutta had always been keenly interested in cultural identity. The events unfolding around her, including the immigration ban, goaded her to dive deep into the subject of Muslim identity.

As a religion, Islam is often misconstrued, and millions of Muslims around the world face the brunt of prejudice. Women who follow the faith, in particular, are considered voiceless and oppressed. In an effort to understand how Muslim identity was changing and evolving, Dutta chose to explore the topic in her thesis. Her research culminated in an 82-page trend report titled ‘Unapologetically Muslim’.

Sharing the full self

For her report, Dutta spoke to 50 women across the U.S., U.K. and Indonesia, documenting what being Muslim meant to them. “More than anything, the word they used to describe their generation was ‘unapologetic’ — proud of what they believe in and ready to share their full selves with the world,” she says. One key finding was that there’s no one way to be Muslim. “As a religious identity it has nuances. Many people around the world identify as being South Asian or Brown, but being Muslim is a different dimension to identity, and one that needs to be explored in its own right,” says Dutta. “There were a lot of stereotypes that I wanted to examine.”

Photography by Anisa Stoffel

Photography by Anisa Stoffel  

Rather than look at the religion through the lens of the Koran, Dutta chose to focus on how millennials were interpreting their faith and redefining their relationship with it. A new young generation of Muslim women, Dutta discovered, were more vocal and unafraid to hold on to their faith while living life on their own terms. They were eager to tell their own stories and not have them told on their behalf. Dutta says, “These influential and self-empowered trailblazers are poised to become the most influential market demographic. They are tired of being typified, interested in defining themselves beyond their religion, and are reclaiming their narratives from the world’s stereotypical view of Islam.”

Layla Shaikley, one of Dutta’s interviewees and the art director of a hugely popular video released by the creative collective Mipsterz (alluding to Muslim hipsters), says “My generation has had to make a very purposeful decision as to whether or not we want to be Muslim. It is challenging to just be Muslim on the side — you either identify or you don’t, because it is a really loaded identity right now.” Shaikley’s video features women (including herself), many in hijabs, roller-skating and just being themselves. The video has, over the years, encouraged young Muslims in America to come forward, claim their space, and establish a community of like-minded people.

Featuring hijabis

In her report, Dutta turns the spotlight on the hijab, one of the most common visual identifiers of Muslim women across the world. “Following the Muslim ban, when marketers tried to represent Muslim women or modest fashion, they would usually feature hijabis in their campaigns. However, mainstreaming the hijab only highlighted one type of Muslim identity, which excluded Muslim women who choose not to wear the hijab. Although the hijab is a clear religious marker, there are other ways of demonstrating identity without tokenising a religious garment and excluding a section of Muslim women,” she says.

According to a 2017 article by the Pew Research Centre, Muslims are also the youngest (median age of 24 years old in 2015) of all major religious groups, seven years younger than the median age of non-Muslims. This demographic is set to grow.

Drawing on her strategy and marketing background, Dutta, through her report, tells brands how to cater to the growing Muslim millennial segment. A shared sentiment was that they don’t want people to tell their stories based on assumptions. One of her American respondents said, “Engage with Muslim culture beyond a surface level. Many brands put a religious label on their products but don’t necessarily adhere to our values.” Another from Indonesia said, “Involve us and understand that being a Muslim woman does not limit our careers, creativity and dreams.”

Complex challenge

Catering to the diversity that exists within the community isn’t easy but extremely important. “As a religious group, they don’t look alike or necessarily share common traditions, which makes appealing to them a complex challenge,” says Dutta. Some of her respondents were vocal about fair business practices and demanded that businesses do their bit by putting more thought into creating products appropriate for the community.

Photograph by Iman Khan

Photograph by Iman Khan  

What started as a college project has over the years become bigger, bringing women together from all over, who now find comfort and strength from a growing online community.

Although still in a nascent stage, the ‘Unapologetically Muslim’ Instagram page is a space where Muslim women from around the world can share their stories. Dutta is a firm believer that though she doesn’t speak from lived experience, she, and all of us, have a role to play in this movement as allies. “Why should it be the burden of the people encountering oppression alone to speak up about their oppressors? It should be all of us,” she says.

The freelance writer, based in Dubai, writes about travel, culture and food.

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 4:51:11 PM |

Next Story