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Building a Muslim Media Company: How the CEO Of Amaliah Grew Her Brand

By Hanaa Yousof




Over the last few years, we’ve seen a rise in traditional media being challenged for its exclusionary nature. In real time, there has been a depreciation in public trust towards these spaces; whether it is disparities in reporting styles, or the detachment people feel with the media landscape in the face of multiple closures of indie publications, there has been an active grassroots-movement to shift away from traditional media and build a voice from the bottom-up. 


For media companies continuing to foster change and trying to gain traction, it is a difficult playing field to be a part of — hard to break into, even harder to remain and speak on your own terms in. But for all of the seeming hopelessness pervading media landscapes, there are equal amounts of communities and individuals leading the charge and revolutionising what media means to us today.


Here at Blocks2Bags, we’re always looking for entrepreneurs who have had change at the forefront of their work. This week, our host Aaliyah Ahmed sat down with Nafisa Bakkar, co-founder and CEO of ‘Amaliah’ and ‘Halal Gems’ to discuss her entrepreneurial ventures which have put amplifying Muslim women’s voices front and centre. With Amaliah described as “a media company that centres the voices of Muslim women [as] a powerful tool for cultural change”, the platform unapologetically dedicates itself to subverting ideas of the monolithic Muslim woman, considering Islam outside of just identity politics. Graduating with a Natural Sciences degree from UCL, Nafisa was exposed to the world of business, pivoting to learning how to code, and launching Amaliah alongside her sister in 2016. The brand’s fervour to capture the authentic voice of Muslim women sparked huge amounts of growth, with partnerships such as Lloyd’s Bank, Pinterest, and Lush (to name a few) under its belt. With her book, ‘How to Make Money’ launching in 2023, she’s been committing to demystifying entrepreneurship and making the journey accessible for others on similar paths.


Sit down with us for this week’s episode of Blocks2Bags as we explore what it means to foster authentic pathways to change. 



BLOCK GEMS WITH AMALIAH AND NAFISA BAKKAR 


  1. Building from your community outwards — With Amaliah serving as a home for Muslim women to feel as though their voices can be amplified on a mainstream level, it is evident that such authentic portraits of your personal community can touch base on a wider level. Understanding the needs of the people surrounding you can foster sincerity in your entrepreneurial ventures.

  2. The morals-first approach and ‘good’ money — Money is money – or so you would think. The morals-first approach to business, as discussed by our host Aaliyah and guest Nafisa is that of not letting earnings supersede moral qualms or societal realities. The value of making ‘good money’ – that is, money that doesn’t shirk morals important to you – is incredibly important. 

  3. The CEO vs The Brand — The CEO & The Brand; where do you draw the line? For Nafisa, she emphasised the necessity of distancing herself from being ‘the face’ of the brand; particularly due to Amaliah’s mission of amplification and empowerment of Muslim women, it was drawing boundaries between herself as the CEO and the brand in its externalities that truly allowed it to thrive of its own regard.  

  4. Identity and Representation: Checking Ourselves — With our discussions with Nafisa on the important work of Amaliah to challenge mainstream perceptions of Muslims in the media, it is understanding that this doesn’t exist in its own isolated vacuum that is the most important facet of all. Recognising that the responsibility of representation and fostering spaces that amplify intersectional voices lies with all of us can act as a force for change, and ensure that our journey of entrepreneurship doesn’t become one simply favouring ourselves and inward motivations.


HOW AMALIAH BUILDS INFRASTRUCTURE FOR MUSLIM WOMEN


British Media has found itself on numerous occasions synonymous with the term ‘skewed’. Whether it is skewed to favour, or skewed to sordidly misrepresent and misconstrue, headlines are often calculatedly constructed to leave things hanging in a balance which invites spun narratives. Societally, perception is everything – if you are outside of the majority, where do you turn to? 


Amaliah was built directly in line with these considerations. Nafisa recalled the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and their reflections on representations of Muslims in the media, with terrorism as a common theme, 59% of all articles associating Muslims with negative behaviour, and over a third of these articles misrepresenting or generalising Muslims. This searing portrait of the lack of space for Muslims in the media sparked a desire to build infrastructure for Muslim women. 


“I think often we’re occupying so many different spaces in our lives, whether it’s predominantly at work, or in the public, that aren’t for us”, she said, “I think to ground us in our identity, and ground us in our confidence, having places that are for us are vital”.

And media companies like Amaliah are of a particular necessity within current frameworks; the reporting of the 5-month and counting Palestinian genocide has seen criticism levied at the passivity of language ascribed to the brutal murders, with Nafisa also pointing out the regular dehumanisation in the media’s treatment of Palestinians. Now, more than ever, it is the care taken in our use of language that is vital. 


Nafisa also considered the shift in the businesses being built today by other POC in terms of what they were based on; using the allegory of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, she reflected on how tangible change was occurring, with the need for community and identity being met so businesses could stretch far beyond this. She attested to the value of this newfound ability to explore other niches, with multiple exciting pathways available to entrepreneurs.


HOW TO STAY TRUE TO YOUR VALUES WHILE RUNNING A BUSINESS 


For anyone familiar with Amaliah, you’ll have seen the plethora of articles they’ve published from a variety of Muslim women, tackling various relevant topics for their audiences. And beyond journalism, Amaliah is a broad venture; with the brand hosting live events, having their own podcast, and more, it’s stretched far further than just being a news outlet. However, Nafisa reflected on the way that, alongside the value it serves to communities, this was a necessary business decision in light of the journalism landscape today.


There’s been an absolute exodus of media companies over the last few years, and media companies are really struggling”, she said, “I would love to do more journalism, but it’s very difficult to make that commercially viable.”

With the commercial side in consideration, she also mentioned the difficulty of navigating the middle-ground between staying firm in your morals and values while building a successful business. Here, she recounted a question she considered in her book of what ‘good’ money becomes in the face of capitalism and the struggles of the world. While she recognised the lack of one simple solution to this, she said:


"We have to be more radical in how we show up as communities. We have to be willing to back each other in a way that we have never backed each other before, because if the genocide [of Palestinians] has not changed [...] us as communities, we've learned nothing."

Beyond the internal workings of Amaliah, Nafisa also commented on the systemic issues affecting Muslims. Especially in an age of ‘political homelessness’ and being unable to identify with current leaders, she discussed about the difficulties in breaking into a system which rejected you in the first place, and considered the demoralisation of individuals faced with this. While she mentioned her personal desire to separate herself from the system, she talked about how this functions differently for different people.


“I’m a big believer that everyone has their own modes of change”, she said. In regards to selling-out or losing yourself within the system, she said: “The core thing is to be really honest with yourself; it’s really easy to lose yourself in some of these spaces […] It’s also important to surround yourself with people who will give you the honest answer and will make [you] reflect.”

With Amaliah being one of the first brands to step outside of mainstream representations of Muslim women, she also discussed the tie-in impact this had on partnerships. Ultimately, she found there was an issue of representation as only a surface-level promise; putting Muslim women at the front of ads with teams that had little to no diversity. Here, education served as a key mechanism for change, but Nafisa also mentioned the value of data, where Amaliah’s census functions as a way to bolster understandings of Islamic identity. 


THE CEO VS THE BRAND - WHERE DO YOU DRAW THE LINE?


What does it mean to be the CEO of a company, beyond its literality? Nafisa and our host Aaliyah reflected on a change from past practices of entrepreneurship, where there is a new expectation when running a company of being a ‘Content CEO’, with your experiences platformed regularly to the public. In terms of this new 'role within the role', Nafisa affirmed a need to have balance. Specifically for Amaliah, she discussed the necessity of distancing herself from her business, and staying committed to actually doing the work. In light of its mission to amplify the voices of diverse Muslim women, the company couldn’t just be an extension of herself. 


“My identity informed the fact that I wanted to start something for Muslim women out of love for Muslim women, but I needed to make sure that we platformed and had other Muslim women that were being amplified”, she said.

For other Muslim women looking to start something like Amaliah, Nafisa also had valuable insights into the way this interacts with your personal life. Particularly in a digital landscape wherein your private life and business life can become directly intertwined with each other, she advised distinguishing between these two aspects and retaining privacy where needed. 


“I think one of the things is like really making distinction of ‘you are not the business’, and I think part of this is like trying not to appear on the business socials too much – trying to diversify that as quick as you can, so that you your identity doesn't become synonymous with the business”, she said. “Being the spokeswoman and talking about Amaliah all the time and being the go-to was about bringing credibility to Amaliah”.

Despite these fine lines of being on social media as a CEO, Nafisa discussed the value she’s found in sharing small portions of her life that don't conflict with her personal boundaries. Here, she emphasised her love of being able to help others through sharing things she enjoys, such as her pottery and taekwondo hobbies. While it took time to understand these specific boundaries, it was the intention behind sharing that allowed her to bridge the gap.


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