These Women Want the Beauty Industry to Realise Being Muslim Is Not an Aesthetic

Welcome to our brand-new series Wonder Women. Throughout the year, we’ll be profiling the women who inspire us and asking them to share the secrets to their success—how they keep motivated, think positive and strive towards their goals. No one’s perfect, remember, so we’ll be encouraging them to share the strategies they employ whenever anxiety kicks in or life’s stresses have got them down. Life is a journey, we’re all a work in progress and these wonder women can help guide us. This week, founders of Muslim lifestyle destination and online community Amaliah Nafisa and Selina Bakkar talk authentic representation, the problem with self-care and choosing not to believe the hype.

I haven’t admitted this to them yet, but I’d really like to be friends with Nafisa and Selina IRL. Not only are they completely killing it in a business sense, running a kickass online platform that has some of the media industry’s biggest players quaking in their boots, but they also have the profound ideas and wisdom we all want—no, need—to hear. Plus, it helps that they are bloody hilarious, and who doesn’t choose their friends based on their sense of humour? Below, the sisters share everything, from their advice for starting a business with someone close to you to why they think the beauty industry has got the conversation with Muslim women all wrong via a take on self-care that will make you rethink your own definition of the term. Read on and tell me you don’t want to be friends with them too.

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Amaliah.comPICTURED: Nafisa and Selina Bakkar 

Being both sisters and business partners, how have you found navigating those two very different forms of relationship and what advice would you give any of our readers who might be looking to embark on a project with someone close to them?

NB: The biggest thing is knowing where your skillsets lie. It feels really natural to start a business with a friend because you know them, etc., but you need to make sure you go together. For me and Selina, we have very different skillsets and strengths, and I think that makes us work really well together.

SB: You do have to have a good relationship to begin with. Just because you’re friends or relatives doesn’t mean you can start a business. You need to be able to communicate well and have a strong bond because business can shake you and you will come across really hard times. It’s like a marriage: You really have to be strong. And so that’s why communication is so important, and I think we’re both pretty good at articulating ourselves. [Laughs.]

NB: You also have to have a values fit. Sometimes you might not have that with your own family or friends and that can cause problems. When someone comes to us with a proposition or partnership, we know exactly how each other is going to react. And in the same way as relationships, you can easily find yourself in a very toxic business partnership.

But do you guys argue?

SB: I was just about to say, “But she’s such a bitch!” [Laughs.] No, no, I’m joking. The only drawback is that you do swear at each other, but not in a rude way; it’s just that there are no pleasantries. Once Nafisa did something to the site, and I thought it looked dreadful and told her that she had ruined it.

NB: I was like, “But I worked so hard on it!”

SB: If that was someone else, I’d have to book a meeting room and sit down and explain all the things I like and then subtly explain what isn’t working. And so with family, you can get to the point much quicker. When we brought a team on, we obviously realized that’s not the way to give feedback.

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Amaliah.comPICTURED: Selina Bakkar 

You guys are at the helm of a really exciting and growing business, so to the outside world, you look like you’ve really got your shit together. But do you ever feel anxious? Does your confidence ever get knocked?

BOTH: Always. EVERY DAY!

NB: One thing I always say is don’t believe the hype. And number two, don’t put anybody on a pedestal. I think the startup world and running companies is super glamorized, and actually, there’s only about 2.5% glamour in the whole journey. The rest of it is hard graft and horrible moments.

It’s very easy for people from the outside to look in and think it’s all rosy, and then as a consequence, when they try to start a project and come across a difficulty, they can think, Oh, no one else finds it this hard. Maybe I’m not cut out for it. So I think it is important to share the difficult stories.

SB: What I’ve started to realise is that we have a responsibility to not only share the highlight reel. We have the younger generation and a lot of women looking up to us, and sometimes you have to be honest and say this is hard. I know people look at me and think, Oh, you’re a mum and you have a business, but I have a tribe behind me and I have people helping.

NB: It can take its toll on everything from your relationships to your mental state to your physical state. The end of last year, I was really ill, and my immune system was down. But I wasn’t alarmed. I just knew it was part of the journey. You’re going to have highs and lows, and that’s okay. It’s not about saying that if you managed things better, you’d never have lows—it’s about making sure you have the resilience to get through them.

How does beauty fit into the world of modest fashion, and what does the term modest beauty mean to you?

SB: Islamically, we are told that Allah loves beauty, so it’s a responsibility for us to look after ourselves. But that beautification isn’t just about your external. It’s actually about your character, how you conduct yourself around other people, how you articulate yourself.

NB: There’s a huge emphasis in our religion about character and the beauty of your character. We are all products of what we put out into the world. I think sometimes when we think of beauty in a Muslim context, for us, beauty does span character, too. That’s why I think there are loads of discussions around the commercialization of beauty.

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Amaliah.comPICTURED: Nafisa Bakkar 

On that note, I’ve read some great pieces on Amaliah on the topic of authentic representation of Muslims in the beauty industry. How well do you think Muslim women are being represented in this realm?

SB: If you look at us, you’ll see just how different we both look, yet we are both Muslim. I wear a hijab, and Nafisa doesn’t, but I still don’t see people like Nafisa representing Muslims in this space. The beauty industry’s idea of a Muslim is like a cardboard cutout: It’s very curated, highly styled. It’s a start but—

NB: There seems to be this theory that all Muslims will feel represented by this one cookie-cutter model, but we’re not all going to see ourselves in the same three Muslim influencers that brands always use. Brands still don’t really understand who Muslims are on a principle level and what those principles mean for our lifestyle. Being Muslim is not an aesthetic, but in beauty and fashion, it’s easier to represent an aesthetic than a full lifestyle. Actually, before all the hoo-hah surrounding the L’Oréal hijab advert, Amena Khan said that hijab-wearing women still wash their hair and that it’s important for us to know that.

SB: Wait, do we?! [Laughs.]

NB: To me, that felt really patronizing. Someone wrote a really articulate piece on Amaliah where they said maybe the 13-year-old me craved to see someone in a hijab [in an advert] to see like, Wow, look, she can do it, but the 26-year-old me wants to see someone that actually stands for my lifestyle and my principles and who I am as a person, not just what I look like.

SB: We’ve grown quite quickly, and we own a percentage of the market of Muslim women looking for information. That means we have a responsibility to educate brands on how to talk to Muslim women and even to work out if they actually need to—it shouldn’t be just a CSR [corporate social responsibility] thing. If they genuinely want to do it, then we’ll help them talk to Muslim women in a respectful, empowering way.

NB: It feels like a abit of a frenzy as though brands are going, Oh shit, we need to represent Muslim women. At this point, a lot of Muslims are just seeing right through it. It begs the question: Who is it for? When we see headlines like “This Muslim Woman Is Breaking Stereotypes Because She’s in a L’Oréal Hair Campaign,” it’s like, hold on—she didn’t create the stereotype in the first place, and therefore it’s not her responsibility to break it.

How do you feel about the word self-care, and what does that term mean for you? What does it look like in your lives?

NB: I think the current conversation around self-care is very superficial. It’s all very much bubble baths and candles, and actually I think sometimes self-care is wrapped up in self-sabotage. It’s all very short-term, instant gratification, but sometimes self-care is doing those difficult things like getting up and going to that meeting even if you don’t want to, because you understand the long term effects of it. It’s about making it happen even when you’re struggling. Self-care shouldn’t be led by desires, and right now it really feels like it is.

SB: Self-care is a fairly materialistic pursuit where it’s all about spas and buying stuff and “treating” yourself. It’s all very individualistic. As a Muslim woman, I’ve been taught about finding your purpose, which is something we all want to do, Muslim or not, right? So I think self-care is about getting yourself to a point where you can benefit yourself, those around you and your local community. We need to get away from the narrative that it’s all about improving yourself. You need to do something for your local community, too, because that will feed you. You definitely feel better helping other people.

You both evidently have big dreams, else Amaliah wouldn’t exist. But how do you guys take note of those dreams and make sure they happen?

NB: We have about a thousand Google Docs, and one is literally called “Amaliah Dreams.” It’s stuff we haven’t planned for that we just want to do eventually. And then we have other ones that are a bit more strategic and need to happen in the next three months because of X, Y and Z.

SB: We voice-note a lot, and obviously we see each other outside of work loads too. A family teatime will often turn into a board meeting.