I’m inches away from approaching Ainee Fatima to ride the train over to Edgewater for our interview, and I’m fangirling. I remember reading an article about her in Seventeen Magazine—being the first hijabi in the publication—and seeing how inspirational she was in her community, as a poet and activist.
After stalking her Instagram full of stunning selfies, I grew to find out that she was even more beautiful in person. Her dark eyes glistened in the summer sun, outlined by winged eyeliner and full lashes that complement her thick, natural brows.
I told her later I read an article about her online from years ago, and there was a comment where a woman condemned her for wearing lipstick, claiming it was a sexually insinuating gesture, especially for a Muslim woman.
The 25-year-old rolled her eyes and took a sip of her summer blended tea, and told me that is one of the biggest misconception about wearing the hijab—that women solely wear it for men.
“Even the whole idea, ‘You wear makeup to look good for guys’, like no I don’t spend $25 on lipstick for a guy to notice my lips,” Ainee said. “People have a problem with every single thing women do. It’s not like a Muslim thing, it’s a women thing.”
But makeup isn’t what Ainee is really known for. Nearly seven years ago, the Indian born poet and now graduate student at DePaul, competed at Louder Than a Bomb, a month long slam poetry high school competition in Chicago, and won.
That poem, a little over three minutes long, would eventually send her to the White House in 2010 where Hillary Clinton would mention her in a State Department dinner where young Muslims were highlighted for their accomplishments. Three years later, Ainee would be the first Muslim hijabi featured in Seventeen Magazine as a part of the “Chime for Change” a global campaign co-founded by Beyoncé and Salma Hayek. No biggie.
Shortly after, Ainee’s presence blew up on social media. She managed to have nearly 70,000 Tumblr followers and 10,000 Twitter followers. Since then, Ainee has gone off the grid pretty much on all social media and has since transitioned from poet to a poetry educator at Poetry Pals, a non-profit youth organization based in Chicago.
Ainee and I talked for nearly two hours about rediscovering her faith, misconceptions about women in her community, and living a life full of racial hardships, but finding solace and comfort in writing and coaching slam poetry, as well as advocating for young Muslim women.
The oldest of five siblings, Ainee was born in India but moved to Brooklyn, New York, when she was two. Spending most of her elementary school years there, she moved to Lincolnwood, Illinois when she was in second grade. Although she came from a strict, Indian and Muslim background, she starting being mistreated because of her culture and religion when September 11th occurred. Feeling straggled between two different worlds, having to balance her Indian and Muslim identity while also living in America, that day redefined her life from that point on.
“I was eight or nine when grown people would honk at me through their cars and would yell stuff like, “Go back home” or “You’re a terrorist,” Ainee remembers.
While enrolled in a Muslim private school, Ainee was required to wear a hijab as a part of her school uniform. Baffled and confused, she didn’t understand why she in particular had to take on that cultural and religious milestone in her life. She often questioned herself, wondering why her brother didn’t have to wear it, and what part about her hair enticed men so much that she had to cover it?
Because of the inequality Ainee felt about men and women in her religion, shortly after leaving private school, she made the decision to stop wearing the hijab.
“I grew up with religion being like this whole ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that, you’re going to go to hell’ type of thing. I grew up with the image of God being a crazy judgmental being who doesn’t like you for some reason,” Ainee said.
Being turned off religion and her culture for several years, Ainee began to try to fit in with fellow public school classmates. She would tell people to call her “Annie” because she thought it was easier and didn’t sound so Indian. She traded in her former private school uniform for band t-shirts and converse while she threw herself into the group of “white punk, Emo kids”.
During her freshman year of high school in English class, instead of listening to her teacher discuss figurative language and classic novels, she would bury herself in her notebook, writing.
In the middle of the semester, her teacher, Mr. Bellwoar, got so fed up with Ainee, he asked her what was in her notebook and surprisingly she let him read it. Mr. Bellwoar wound up being the sponsor for the poetry slam team at the high school, Niles West, and advised Ainee to join. Small problem though—Ainee had absolutely no idea what slam poetry was. While he explained to her what the concept was—taking months to write, edit and rehearse a poem, then performing three minute long poems on stage and getting judged for it—Ainee’s trepidation of exposing herself got the best of her and she declined to join.
“For the rest of the year, he would make me read everything out loud in class,” Ainee said. “We read Romeo and Juliet, and he always asked me to be Juliet. I got so annoyed, I was like why is he always picking on me? But then I guess he was trying to see if I could actually read out loud and perform.”
Sure enough, after wearing her down in another class he taught her during summer school, Ainee was recruited to join the poetry slam team, featuring all new members.
Ainee recalls writing about “vague, teenage” ideas at first: changing the world, hating everything and everyone, and thinking you’re different from everyone else. But Mr. Bellwoar pushed her for more. He told her to focus on an experience she had and tell it like a movie.
Safe to say, Mr. Bellwoar’s words of wisdom definitely changed Ainee’s ideas for writing. She wrote a piece entitled “Ramadan Reflections”, a real-life experience poem she performed at Louder Than a Bomb in 2009. Coming from a religion that doesn’t allow premarital relationships and the importance of protecting chastity, life hit Ainee when she met a boy from high school that caused a tug-of-war between being obedient to her religion, but also struggling with feelings of intense passion and love for him.
In between the period of preparing for Louder Than a Bomb, Ainee started researching Islam again on her own: she started reading the Qu’ran, finding out what wearing a hijab really meant for women, and soon made the decision to start becoming a hijabi solely because she wanted to do it for herself and not anyone else.
It’s inevitable—especially in a town where there is a melting pot of different cultures—to have misconceptions about culture, especially when it comes to Muslim women and their representation in society.
Ainee would often get attacked by white feminists on Twitter telling her that her religion is “backwards” because they see it as if women are wearing hijabs, it’s oppressing for women and like many people, think it’s a statement of men having ownership over them. But Ainee puts those haters and the stigmas to shame.
“The way I look at hijab, it helps you deal with your beauty in a different way,” Ainee said. “There’s men who think the hijab is beautiful, so do I stop wearing the hijab? The idea that it protects you, [by saying] you won’t get raped, you’ll get respect. But you have places like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where women are getting raped left and right while even wearing the whole face covering. It’s not about beauty, it’s about men having power over you.”
A prime example of misrepresentation is Ainee’s own sister, Ruhi, who also wears a hijab. She joined the gymnastics team at Niles West, and managed to be involved in a sport where women wear tight clothing and usually wear makeup during meets. But of course, negativity was thrown her way for her appearance.
“It made people angry. They would say, ‘How are you going to wear hijab and flip around and wear tight clothing?” Ainee said. “But why are you focused on that? Why aren’t you focusing on her talent of being a gymnast? Hijab doesn’t change the way people treat women. And taking it off doesn’t change it either.”
As the four months of constant editing and rehearsing her poem for Louder Than a Bomb passed, the day of finals finally came to an end. Niles West took the win that year, beating out Chicago Public Schools.
“It was really weird for these kids from the suburbs to win,” Ainee expressed. “We were up against kids who faced gang violence, drug problems at home and really, really bad environments. They found solace through writing. But I think what made us stand out was that, yeah we were from the suburbs, but we were mostly kids of color. And we have our own set of problems here in the suburbs, growing up in very white neighborhoods. Not knowing what to do with that, being subjected to bullying.”
Ainee then recounted times of being bullied throughout high school, especially on the bus rides home when she would get called “curry”. There was even one girl in particular who found her Facebook at the time and called her a “bean burrito wrap”.
The emotional writing, editing and rehearsing process of writing “Ramadan Reflections” quickly paid off. Soon after graduating from Niles West in 2010, Ainee received an invitation from the White House. An intern of Hillary Clinton contacted Ainee after seeing her performance of her poem on YouTube, and wanted her to come to Washington D.C. to attend an initiative to highlight young innovative Muslim community around the world.
“I think I was one of the youngest people there,” Ainee told me. “One guy opened up a freaking orphanage in Pakistan and I was like, ‘I wrote some words, why am I here?’”
After being recognized by people in the national government, Ainee had the realization that maybe writing wasn’t sufficient enough for her—perhaps she could be a voice for something bigger.
Also during that period of time, Ainee started to getting invited to speak at Muslim organizations. Ainee remembers someone telling her that the organization had seen her “Ramadan Reflections” poem, but didn’t want her to necessarily talk about the flaws or the troubles within the Muslim community, but that turned Ainee off.
“I was like, that’s not me, I’m not gonna be your poster child for issues within the community,” Ainee said. “They would pay me and stuff, so I wrote a couple of times I wrote really bad poems just for their satisfaction. I felt like a freaking sell out.”
Ainee then took to social media, making a name for herself, blogging about interfaith issues on Tumblr and being a feminine young Muslim woman working at Ulta who branded herself as a "Badass Muslim Girl." Subsequently at the time, Ainee stopped writing. While having to balance her presence on social media and then returning to Niles West to help coach for the new poetry team, she found comfort in helping others write, even if she didn't.
Ainee kept her attention on her platform, not only on social media, but making sure she could make a difference to young Muslim girls in real life.
That’s when an email that changed her life entered her inbox. Seventeen Magazine contacted her and offered to fly her out to New York for a day trip to feature her in the May 2013 issue and talk about “Chime for Change”, a global campaign to showcase awareness for young girls and women around the world.
Although it may have appeared that Seventeen was being revolutionary by featuring the first woman hijabi in their publication, Ainee begs to differ—and for good reason.
Even though her flight was paid for as well as her hotel, Seventeen didn’t compensate Ainee and the two other girls who were featured. Ainee remembers meeting another girl who was being featured for the article, and was being recognized for holding benefit concerts for children in Africa; but was white.
“You really have to censor yourself so much to get ahead in this industry,” Ainee confessed. “You can’t complain. You can’t be like, ‘I think this is wrong that you’re not having a black girl show what she does for her own community.’ You’re talking about a white girl holding benefit concerts for African children. It’s super white savior-ish.”
Ainee was also told by people at Seventeen that they were going to provide clothes for her and she told them she ran a large to extra large, claiming “I wasn’t the skinniest girl ever”. When she showed up to the photoshoot, they had nothing in her size. Meanwhile the two other girls featured were smaller than Ainee, and were accommodated.
After returning from her trip, Ainee concluded the whole effort to contact her and have her featured just wasn’t genuine. When the feature came out, numerous events were in the works for “Chime for Change”, but Ainee was never invited to any of them. At the end of the day, she felt like it was purely a publicity stunt to make the magazine look more progressive.
It wasn’t all bad, though. Ainee gained press for her appearance in the teen mag, and had people contact her, even mothers, thanking her for being a role model to young Muslim women and have real representation in a magazine where young white girls are predominantly advertised.
Obviously because of the article in Seventeen, Ainee’s social media presence was booming more than ever. And to most people, it looked like an envious lifestyle: being popular on the internet, having your accomplishments be recognized in a renown magazine and being well-liked by so many people while online. But as time went on, Ainee didn’t start to see it as fulfilling.
“I think people think it’s like this glamorous life, that you’re internet famous,” Ainee said. “But I’m a college student who’s broke as hell; I live in a suburb and commute to school like everyone else—it’s not as glamorous as everything thinks it is.”
Because of the constant pressure to be held to a certain standard online, as well as the time consuming time spent on her blog and other social media accounts, Ainee took a step back and deleted all her accounts, with the exception of Instagram.
“It felt like being on TMZ,” Ainee expressed. “Everyone’s watching your every move. If you don’t say something about an issue, they’re like, ‘Oh you don’t care about it.’ I’m like, I do care about it, what do you want me to do?”
With the extra time Ainee gained from deleting most of her social media, she was able to fully immerse herself in coaching at Niles West. There, she met two Muslim girls who were on the team and told Ainee she was the reason and inspiration for both of them joining. Young girls would even come up to her at Louder Than a Bomb and gush to her, admiring her for having the courage to speak on stage about boys they liked, or even struggling with wearing the hijab every day or even wearing makeup.
Her recognition didn’t stop at that competition, either. While Ainee was in attendance, she saw that for the first time two Muslim schools had joined the competition and cited Ainee as their influence. That was one of the reaffirming reasons why Ainee believed social media wouldn’t be the key to her success; it was the real life actions and accomplishments that she wanted to pursue in order to make a difference in her community.
In September 2015, Ainee was offered a job as a poetry educator at Poetry Pals, a program where children (ranging from third-sixth graders) from three different schools (one Jewish, one Catholic, and one Muslim) write about their religion through poetry. Then at the end of the month, all the children come together to share their work, while simultaneously raising awareness about the similarities within the three religions.
Embodying unity and understanding instead of conflict is the main theme Poetry Pals exudes, and Ainee helps them express themselves through poetry and storytelling.
Ainee said she believes organizations like this will help children appreciate other cultures, instead of belittling or judging ones that are different from person to person.
“You have a Muslim, Jewish and Catholic kid writing about their religion, trying to find similarities in them and these are like 10-year-old kids that can do this,” Ainee said. “We have people fighting wars over religion and if kids can get together and successfully talk about their religion and be happy about it and find similarities and learn from each other, why can’t adults?”
So what’s next for Ainee? First off, she’s possibly in the works of collaborating on a book with a fellow Muslim woman to write poems about things “brown girls” deal with. To Ainee, that’s the most important role she wants to do in her life; to be a voice in the community amidst young Muslim girls.
“Worrying about fitting in when you’re run by beautiful white girls, blonde hair, blue eyes while these brown girls get overlooked—it messes with your sense of beauty,” Ainee explained.
Recognizing and defying patriarchal values in her religion is also something Ainee wants to vocalize to young Muslim girls as well. She said she thinks there is more to girls than marrying men and having that be their ambition in life when they’re capable of their dreams.
“I grew up in a culture where women should be quiet, [where] your only goal in life is to get married,” Ainee said. “Even after having done all these accomplishments, even in my own family, they’re like ‘Oh, but you’re not married yet.’ I could cure cancer and they’re like, ‘You’re not married yet.’ We’re worth more than our relationship to some man.”
Whether she knew it or not, because of her writing and performing, Ainee became a social activist and made an impact on young Muslim women from all over because of her perseverance and experiences, good and bad.
“Whether it’s writing or not, that’s what I want to do—just help young girls gain a sense of awareness that they’re a lot more worthy and powerful than what anyone says.”