How social media influencers are challenging stereotypes both within and outside of Muslim communities—just by being themselves.
In this very digital age, I wouldn’t describe myself as much of a social media person. Despite my active Twitter presence, which I attribute to work, and the occasional procrastination scroll on Instagram, which always ends up longer than expected, I’ve just never really found much joy in it. Even back when most people dreamed of becoming bloggers, I never saw the appeal: I couldn’t relate to their desire to share their lives so publicly, and felt a disconnect with their content as a result.
Then, around January last year, I discovered With Love, Leena. The account follows the day to day life of Texas-based content creator Leena Snoubar, covering everything from fashion to parenting to all things lifestyle. In one video, she gives a tutorial on how she removes makeup stains from her hijabs. In another, she shares an intimate day out with her mother and sisters, where they grab brunch and go wedding dress shopping for her youngest sister. Scrolling through her account, I found myself feeling—for the first time—like I was actually getting something out of my Instagram experience: I’d never come across a Muslim influencer who was so visibly Muslim and yet didn’t feel the need to justify or be bound by their religion.
It was only when I came across Leena that I realized my feelings of disconnect on social media had less to do with the platforms themselves, and more to do with the kind of content I was seeing. Maybe it was the algorithm or just my lack of social media engagement, but I was almost exclusively served either general fashion and beauty content—which I assumed was because of my gender—or Islamic videos, with little in between. It made me feel alienated in terms of my other interests, and like I had to separate my religious identity from the rest of me, or else somehow justify their intermingling.
For a lot of young Muslims, being online as a visibly Muslim person creates a pressure to either always be preaching Islamic content or advocating for our religious identity. When I first started out as a journalist, I often felt a heavy responsibility to justify my identity, and to prove, somehow, that Muslim women were not limited to the stereotypes projected onto us. But constantly having to justify my identity also meant constant emotional labor, and as I quickly learned, this only ever led to burnout. It’s a pressure that content creator Maliha—who says she’s been an “internet girlie” since before influencers became popular—is very familiar with. “I started out with my YouTube channel, and then Instagram, and because a lot of my content was cosplay I became the ‘hijabi cosplayer,’” she says. “But I’m not very good with having a niche, and when I moved to TikTok, I started making content that I connected to more, mostly rants and healing—social justice-y stuff.” Despite pivoting directions with her content, though, she soon found that her audience hadn’t changed or expanded at all: Maliha says that even though her content wasn’t Islamic, TikTok’s algorithm was almost exclusively showing her videos to other Muslim users.
This sort of systemic stereotyping, that comes from both outside and within Muslim communities, is exactly what some influencers like Leena and Maliha are challenging with their diverse content. Despite living continents apart, I immediately felt a connection to Maliha—one that came from so many shared experiences, not just as Muslims, but also as young women. She’s just an average twenty-something, sharing her everyday thoughts, laced with a little humor and, often, a lot of sarcasm. I’m not the only one who has felt a connection to her work, either: Maliha says that her role as a content creator has helped her make friends across the globe.
For 20-year-old Younis AlZubeiri, this sense of community has played a big role in his own content creating journey. “My overarching goal with my content was to also be that outlet for other Muslims on the internet that didn’t really have someone to look to online,” he says. “In the world of Andrew Tates and [other] horrible role models to young kids, especially Muslims, I tried to just be a source of good to them.” He first started creating content at 14, making videos about comics just for himself. But slowly, his focus started shifting. “When I had followers who looked like me tell me about my impact on them, there was a light that switched,” he shares. Now, he has over 100,000 followers on TikTok, where he shares videos exploring culture and entertainment and diversity within both.
Along with creating spaces of acceptance for Muslims from all walks of life, many of these influencers are also challenging what it means to be visibly Muslim in 2023. This means fighting stereotypes offline, too: Amira Rahmat, a food and travel blogger, often embarks on solo trips and says she’s always met with surprise when people see a young Muslim woman traveling alone. “When I post content on my page, a lot of the comments I see are, ‘Oh, you’re so brave to travel alone,’” Amira shares. But likewise, she says many of her commenters are inspired by her videos: For many Muslim women, who have to fight back stereotypes that Muslim women’s pardah or religious restrictions keep them confined to their homes, seeing women like Amira and being able to share in her experiences has become a crucial part of shaping their confidence and self reflection.
It may seem like these are just a bunch of random creators covering various topics, but that’s the point. In this age of growing Islamophobia, they’ve begun to play a very important role in humanizing all of us beyond our hijabs and beards and masjids. They’re creating their own spaces, where being Muslim doesn’t impact or influence all the other parts of themselves. This is just as pivotal within our community as it is outside of it: Muslims who find themself stuck between proving themselves to other Muslims and justifying themselves to non-Muslims seeing creators just being honest and unapologetic about whatever topic they’d like can give us a lot of strength on the days we most need it. “It’s such a fine line to be a Muslim artist in any capacity,” says Dubai based content creator Emad. Whether or not you talk about religion, he continues, you’ll be judged by Muslim and non-Muslim creators alike, and pigeonholed by both. “For someone like me, I wanted to get into Muslim content because it’s fun. [But] so many times it happens that you become a ‘Muslim creator’ and then you do a fun TikTok dance and suddenly you’re not a Muslim creator because you’ve apparently done something wrong.”
This isn’t always easy. But when the polarized opinions and criticism become too much, Younis says that humor helps—especially when met with harmful alt-right and other extremist narratives. “I can’t just post about being a leftist and expect them to change,” he says. “You have to go about it in another light and try to convey the point you’re trying to make through humor.” These are baby steps, he adds, but making viewers laugh can challenge pre-existing notions that all Muslims are the same and that they don’t exist outside of a one-dimensional identity.
These small steps go a long way, and are already making a difference for creators (and viewers) around the world. Pakistan-based food blogger Emon Malik says the content creator economy has been growing in her country, and credits that to the growing diversity of creators. And the number of Muslim content creators is only growing.
“With more [diverse] content creation, people are more informed,” Amira says. “It comes from personal experiences, not Google, and it’s more raw and authentic.” It’s also more relatable—and for me, inspiring. When I see content creators like Leena or Maliha or Amira, it gives me the push I need to be more unapologetically myself. As these content creators have shown me, I’m more than my religious identity, but I don’t have to hide it away, either.