A Discussion with Tayyibah Taylor

For her, it’s all about images.

“Growing up in Canada at a time when there were no positive images of people of color and the only images were (on TV in) the American news – which, at the time, was all about Civil Rights, protests, riots and police dogs being sicced on people – there was this feeling within myself that something was wrong.”

After becoming a young woman and converting to al-Islam, it was the Muslims – especially the female – who became the new targets of racial profiling by the media

“The images of Muslim women in the media are always negative. Either, she is a victim of men, a victim of religion, a victim of war or we are terrorists. You won’t see the Muslim woman who is to be admired, emulated and commended, in the media.”

So, for Tayyibah Taylor, the decision of TIME Magazine to place the photo of a young Muslim woman with her nose cut-off on its August 9th cover, was just another example of racial profiling.

“This is the image of the Muslim woman that is perpetrated throughout the country. (In other words), we are thought of, as someone to be pitied – someone who’s oppressed. We don’t think of the Muslim woman as an empowered being,” explained Ms. Taylor, the founder of AZIZAH Magazine, the only American-published Islamic magazine for women.

Ms. Taylor, who was the August 9th guest of the internet radio show, AmericaMuslim360 (www.blogtalkradio.com) was discussing aspects of the media, her life, Muslim womanhood and the religion of al-Islam.

AZIZAH Magazine is, according to its website, “a unique publication that presents the issues, accomplishments and interests of Muslim women in North America.”

As the 57-year-old publisher described it: “AZIZAH is, first and foremost, a vehicle to give voice to Muslim women …to give them an opportunity to define themselves, instead of being defined either by Muslim men or by people who are not Muslims, and (to give the Muslim woman an opportunity) to have a conversation about her issues, instead of others having the conversation about her.”

Incorporated in 1999, the seasonal magazine with a current circulation of 40,000 copies was first published in the Winter of 2000. Now, the Fall 2010 issue with a release date of October 1st  will be the 24th edition of AZIZAH.  The cover price is $8.50 and the subscription price is $30 per year for the four quarterly issues.

Each full-color, glossy edition features a cover photo of a Muslim woman from a different ethnic group. “The first issue featured an African-American on the cover.  The second issue had an Asian sister on the cover and the third, an Arab-American,” Ms. Taylor recounted in her interview on American Muslim 360. The magazine’s co-founder and co-publisher is an Indonesian-American by the name of Marlina Soerakoesoemah.

Ms. Taylor first became interested in al-Islam during a high school field trip. “I was a sophomore in high school, studying world religions and as part of a field trip, we went to a masjid in Toronto. When I heard the adhan (call to prayer), it resonated with me very strongly and when the class went back, I stayed to speak to a woman about Islam,” remembers Ms. Taylor, who actually accepted the Deen (religion) at the age of 19.

The Muslim lady to whom she spoke, was wearing a short skirt with her head uncovered, according to Ms. Taylor. But the woman taught her a valuable lesson that day: “Islam is perfect but Muslims are not.”

Today, Ms. Taylor strongly believes that the Muslim woman in America is in “a unique position,” to help both the general society and the Islamic society.

The combination of her “American legacy of freedom of speech, freedom of movement and critical thinking” and her “Islamic legacy of spiritual agency (G’d-given role of khalifah or caretaker of creation) and the pursuit of knowledge” has resulted in the formation of a dynamic Muslim woman who is not usually found “in a majority-Muslim country.” Therefore, Muslim-American women are entering “all spheres of society using their talents and expertise to help propel humanity,” she explained.

Within the Ummah or Islamic society, the adult-female’s impact will be seen in the reconfiguration of the social gender imbalance. The Muslim woman’s recent entry “into the field of scholarship of Islamic theology is helping to correct the Muslim gender asymmetry created by Muslim men (who served as) the sole interpreters of the primary knowledge sources of Islam (Qur’an and Hadiths) for centuries and the cultural adulterations that crept into” the religion, Ms. Taylor related. 

“The presence of Muslim women in the scholarship fields is helping to correct” these two areas which often allow “cultural traditions to trump the religion,” the soft-spoken editor told the American Muslim 360 audience.     

But for Tayyibah Taylor, it is still about the images – or the lack thereof.

The absence of any positive African-American images in the media was pivotal in her upbringing. Though many members of her family were highly educated and professionally trained, “the fact that I never saw a reflection of that anywhere in the media impacted” on her greatly, she said. She remembers in her youth seeing an Ebony magazine on her aunt’s table which became an “epiphany” for her as she flipped through its pages, soaking in the colorful pictures of accomplished African-American business persons and professionals.

“In the same way that I grew up in Canada, not seeing positive images of people of color and internalizing that; it is the same thing when people do not see positive images of Muslims – they internalize it,” Ms. Taylor said. “And even though, intellectually, you might be able to separate the fact that all Muslims are not terrorists but, because of what you are constantly seeing, there is still something in you that is saying: ‘Well, this is a violent religion and Muslims have no place here!’” 

As a result of the media’s racial profiling of Muslim females, the editor-in-chief has noticed two other negative “images” that the media has fostered. “One is the scanty-clad haram girl that is often seen in popular culture. The other is, what I like to call, the turncoat. This is the Muslim woman who says: ‘Nothing is right with Islam and all Muslims need to be reformed,’” explained Ms. Taylor.

The idea to start an Islamic magazine for woman was conceived in the “early ’90s” at a Muslim women’s convention where sisters of different professions, ethnicities and schools of thought (mazhhab) had gathered from across the country, according to the cosmopolitan publisher who was one of the selectees  for The 500 Most Influential Muslims (of 2009) book.

“The energy and expertise in the room was very empowering and remarkable, so I said to myself: ‘I would love to capsulate this and put it on the pages of a magazine, so that everyone can see who Muslim women are!” thought the Trinidadian-born Canadian whose family left the island when she was seven years old.

Nine hard years of reporting, editing and publishing finally paid off. In 2009, AZIZAH Magazine which is based in Atlanta, GA was the recipient of a national journalism award for an article on environmental issues entitled “Color Me Green.”

In her role as khalifah, the serene publisher is convinced that the Last Revelation has rendered the concept of war obsolete. “With the completion of the Qur’an and the establishment of the Prophet’s community in Medina, I believe that war, as an institution, has far outlived its usefulness,” she said.

For her, “the whole cycle of revenge and retaliation is very juvenile” because people have put their “energy and faith in violence and hatred. You hurt me; therefore, I have to hurt you. So of course now, you are hurt even more, and so then, you have to hurt me even more. And the cycle goes on,” she expounded, adding that people need to step away from “retaliation and revenge” and onto “reconciliation and forgiveness.”

Defining al-Islam as “the spiritual formula for peace for all people and all places,” she addressed the current Islamaphobia, witnessed in the Ground Zero/Masjid Center debate and the hysterical call for the burning of Qur’ans on September 11th.

“This is a bigger issue than freedom of speech or freedom of religion. It really speaks to where we are, as human beings in our spiritual, intellectual and social evolution.”

Ms. Taylor also condemned the terrorism and extreme tactics of so-called radical Muslims as “senseless violence” which, she believed, is being used “for political reasons.” The popular journalist/lecturer said, “This brand of Islam is so un-Islamic,” and suggested that “we put down the guns and the bombs” and employ “the spiritual weapons of truth, righteousness and prayer.”