I’ve questioned many times if I made a mistake when I decided to stop “working” for a very well-known Muslim blog. In 2014, I was just starting to really practice Islam and truly falling in love with its teachings. Unfortunately, I didn’t have many friends who were Muslim, and I didn’t feel 100% connected with the Ummah because of this. I was also a college student in need of more experience on my resume. All I wanted was to somehow be able to be surrounded by practicing Muslims (girls) who were “woke,” and had a similar mindset as me. Thanks to a quick Google search, I was immediately connected to a blog run by young Muslim women who were “just like me,” or so I thought.
I couldn’t tell you how quick I applied to their open internship positions. I was so excited. They contacted a week later with great interest in me filling their social media role. Again, the excitement was too real. I had my phone interview with the editor-in-chief the following day. I was nervous and unprepared. I bs’d my way through that entire phone interview. “She must think I’m so dumb,” I kept thinking to myself. A week later I had an email in my inbox from them congratulating me that I’d made the team. I was over the moon and way happier than I should have been.
About a month in of ‘interning’ digitally and interacting with the editor-in-chief, I felt like something was off, and it wasn’t sitting well with me. My mom and sister immediately took notice that this whole ‘internship’ was not healthy and was not a good environment even though it was all happening online, and in “the name of Islam.” However, me being the stubborn girl that I am, I persisted. I wanted to prove to myself that I am hard working and can take on anything that comes my way. I was naïve.
I found myself wanting to throw away my phone so no one could contact me. By no one I mean the editor-in-chief. Day in and day out, I’d have text messages flooding my phone. Things like “Mehar. Post this on Facebook,” – in which I’d say “Okay, no problem. I love being at the forefront of the social media pages!” Then it became, “No. Not like that. You did it wrong. You forgot a comma. We’re supposed to be professional. NO ONE IS GOING TO ENGAGE WITH THAT,” – “Ahh, I can’t believe I did that, what was I thinking.” It continued to escalate to, “This article just came out about ME. Drop everything you’re doing and post it EVERYWHERE. NOW.” – “Wow, that’s super cool! Even though everyone on this team got you that recognition, we’re all so proud of you.” Oh, and let’s not forget the grueling weekly essays of text messages where she would verbally rip apart her entire managing editorial team (who literally did all the work). I kept on striving to do my best and tried not to take any of her daily million texts too personally. I cared more about the movement to empower the oppressed, than I cared about my own well-being.
I was on all social media accounts almost 24/7. I even gave it my all while I was in class or with my family. I’m still mad at myself for allowing this dictator of an editor-in-chief to literally run my life for a year and a half. Yes, I was to blame for not standing up for myself enough as well, but when you’re in that situation – it’s tough. There finally came a point where I realized just how miserably I was living my life because everything somehow revolved around that site and what the editor-in-chief wanted. I felt like I was really losing myself. So, I asked my best friend and sister for advice, and of course they 100% said that I should quit. I did just that. I wrote a very well-thought out text to the editor-in-chief and I felt great. I was free! Or so I thought. About an hour later she responded to my long message, with what was kind of a cryptic text. “When are you free to talk on the phone today? :)” Oh God. I did not want this, but I was emotionally weak at the time so I told her a time. She called me and my voice was shaking as if I was about to cry, but I didn’t. I told her everything, how this imbalanced workload was not fair, and how I was way too stressed out. How did she respond? “That’s why I gave you interns to train.” She basically persuaded me in her own weird way to stay. She tried to butter me up, “But we all consider you such a crucial part to all of this, you are a part of the management team! You got our pages verified!” Long story short – I ended up staying and feeling hopeful for the future. The next day, things didn’t get better, it was the same stressful, toxic cycle all over again. Yelling at me via text, messaging me while I was in class, while I was asleep. I never rested.
“I cared more about the movement to empower the oppressed, than I cared about my own well-being.”
Then came Ramadan 2015. She had this huge plan for a crowd funding campaign. The pitch was to elevate the site even more and to push this medium to be the first one for and by Muslim women. The goal was to reach $20,000 by the end of Ramadan (i.e. one month). Essentially, we were raising money for “the site” and using the month of Ramadan in particular because she knew that people would be more willing to donate during this time. She ordered everyone on the team to donate at least $10 to the cause. Mind you, most of these girls were either in high school or college. I still remember an instance where one brave writer stood up and said, “I literally cannot afford to donate $10 right now. Sorry.” The editor-in-chief went crazy and yelled at her and everyone for not “believing in the movement” enough to donate “just” $10. I was absolutely disgusted, but simultaneously absolutely scared. I ended up donating $60 because not only did she ask us to donate from our own pockets, but we also had to get 5 other people to donate as well. I forged down family member names and charged it all on the same credit card. Mind you, I did not have any income during this time, so technically it was my parents’ (bless them) money. The editor-in-chief still was not satisfied, but I literally could not donate any more money. Aside from that, I had to spend most of my days of Ramadan completely immersed and dedicated to promoting this crowd funding campaign on top of the regular daily posts from the site. My “interns” would never listen or answer me back, so I literally was the only one really pushing the campaign.
Ramadan came to an end and we ended up raising over $20k. Ramadan came to an end and none of us ever heard where all that money went after all. All of a sudden the editor-in-chief moved into a loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn aka a very bougie, very gentrified, expensive neighborhood. In the following weeks, she flew to Dubai for an “appearance.” When she returned back to the states, she ordered one of the editors to write a post about her trip to Dubai. I later found out (from a direct source) that she used that crowd funding money to go to Dubai and to pay for her loft.
I kept on working hard, taking the abuse, and just trying to keep my head above water. I was not okay. The site’s social media pages gained followers each day and people were really engaging with the content I was putting out. All of a sudden, major media outlets were recognizing the editor-in-chief more often. She was the face of the site; she was getting every bit of notoriety, except that she literally did not contribute anything to the site, maybe just some maintenance fixtures every few months. She didn’t even write posts any more. All of these young girls were holding up this blog on their own, with their blood, sweat, and tears, as the editor-in-chief was getting credit for the entire show. She would go do photo shoots, live television interviews, magazine spreads, all while we were running the site. She even was able to publish a book about “her website,” and continued to act like she was the epicenter of the entire blog. I want to make a note that none of us wanted that celebrity lifestyle, but having one person get all of the credit for about 30 peoples hard work is a grave injustice.
We are all struggling individually and as a community. We really do not need to be treating each other so violently. There is a way and a time to be “strict,” and get things done without completely tearing people down in the process. Being a good leader does not entail being as harsh as you possibly can be when giving others orders. Being a good leader means working cohesively and justly as a unified, respectful team. It’s almost funny (but actually not really at all) how everyone on the outside sees this entire website’s message as this uplifting, empowering avenue for all Muslims, when behind the scenes, there is a real troubling fame-hungry, abusive system in place. It’s also important for everyone to realize that although that site is somehow uplifting voices through writing, in reality it is not the first, revolutionary movement for Muslims. The face that you see of that site seems nice and ideal, but remember, never judge a book entirely by its cover. There’s a lot that goes on behind closed doors that the masses aren’t able to get a glimpse of and I just think the entire movement is contradictory. How can a movement pride itself on sisterhood and justice if the main foundation behind it reeks of abusive behavior and injustice?
After realizing that I was literally pouring my entire soul into this site without even getting a sincere thank you for my efforts and successes, I knew I had to find the courage within me to seriously quit for good. After a year and a half of working on that team, and not being compensated with even the slightest gratitude, I wrote an email to the editor-in-chief and a few other girls I worked closely with. My best friend and sister were in the room with me as I was writing up the message. A message that was four sentences long. It took me an hour to hit send, and when I did, I didn’t stop crying for another hour.
The editor-in-chief never gave me a simple thank you for my contributions and dedication for that year and a half.
“How can a movement pride itself on sisterhood and justice if the main foundation behind it reeks of abusive behavior and injustice?”
I wanted so badly to be immersed within the true sisterhood of Islam. I wanted so badly to be a part of something revolutionary. I wanted to be a voice against injustice and oppression. Even though deep down I knew that being involved with this site ironically did not bring me closer to Islam, it did not bring me true sisterhood, and I did not gain anything from the experience except trauma and anxiety. I felt like if I didn’t have it, then I wasn’t part of a community. Because I already lacked Muslim friends in my life, I felt like this was my only connection to Muslim girls my age. I see now what a horrid mentality that was and it didn’t help to be interrogated by the editor-in-chief every single day. I still get anxious and triggered anytime I get a text, even though I haven’t spoken to any of the girls a part of that project since I left in January of this year. I’d like to hope the system of how that site functions has changed into a more integrated and fair working environment. I mean, hey, maybe this whole negative experience was completely my fault for not being strong or vocal enough. Either way, it has definitely scarred me for life and I will never be able to forget the terrible feelings I felt while I was working there.
If I’ve learned anything from this experience it’s that no one should ever have that much power and control over you. Stand up for yourself, even if it might seem scary. Be aware of abusive structures and relationships and understand that you are strong and worthy enough to leave. You are worthy enough to leave and love yourself. Protect your imaan (faith) and peace at all costs.
“Forgive him who wrongs you; join him who cuts you off; do good to him who does evil to you; and speak the truth even if it be against yourself.” – Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him)