An Interview With The Founder of Islamoji, Sakeena Rashid on Representation,Justice and Entrepreneurship

An emoji of a dabbing hijabi can also be a powerful expression of identity. Islamoji, an app for iOS, embodies the greater challenge of addressing Muslim representation throughout media and tech spaces. Its creator, Sakeena Rashid, is a writer, entrepreneur, and the founder of Deeni Girl Media. Islamoji features emojis and GIFs designed to express the diverse experiences, humour, and culture of Muslim youth today.

In discussion, she shared her perspective on the startup process, social entrepreneurship, engaging in dialogue, and the responsibility of speaking out against injustice:

Muslim identity is routinely politicized and debated in media. How does Islamoji relate to the issue of representation and why is it important?
I think that the app is important because it’s something that’s relatable, especially to Muslim youth, where oftentimes when you see depictions of Muslims in media, it’s very one-dimensional, it’s largely negative, biased. But as Muslim youths, they don’t always latch onto that. They know that they are so much more than those headlines. So to have something come in that’s fresh, that’s young, that appeals to this pop culture but brings Muslims into pop culture — something that they can see that represents themselves. It has emojis that they would use, it has sayings that they would actually say and send their friends and things that represent their holidays and foods. It’s a way for them to reclaim a sense of themselves, where it’s like pushing back against that kind of political side that you see Muslims portrayed in the media — it’s taking that ownership back for themselves and saying, you know, this is what we are. We do have our own identity. We do have our own phrases and things that we associate with and this is something that reflects this in a positive way.

A sampling of emoji.

What do you think of the mindset that tries to separate discussions of social justice and ethics from business and entrepreneurship? This especially relates to issues of representation and how companies can contribute to certain narratives while claiming to be apolitical.
I think when it comes to technology and social issues with Muslims, especially with my app, for example, it’s hard to separate the two. With the climate that we’re in right now, politically, it’s so tense. This last election was such an extreme from what we’ve seen in previous elections where Muslims were just so singled out. So, to kind of have that political theme be the backdrop for what’s going on socially, it’s hard to separate Muslims from social activism and social issues because they’ve become one right now. 

This idea of the protest, it’s become this icon within our culture right now, where you see protests all over the world — you see them constantly. As Muslims, we’re not only seeing them within the community, but so many Muslims have become more aware, socially, and they’re joining other protests outside of the Muslim community and being more involved. Which is a good thing, it’s excellent, and it’s exactly what we should be doing. We should be working with other charities, we should be working with other organisations and finding out how we can strengthen our community as a whole, and not just from within. You can’t really separate those two anymore, they’re kind of combining as far as the political and social spectrum when it comes together.

Do you think that entrepreneurs and startups should have a proactive mindset when it comes to social initiatives? A common barrier seems to be the perception that a company has to be hugely successful before being able to make a worthwhile impact.
I feel like that social giving has become a trend with entrepreneurship. In Islam, it’s just a fundamental part of the faith; we have to give that charity if we have it. That was something I thought was important to me. But definitely, I feel like any entrepreneur should look at that as the starting point to their business. Allocate a certain percentage of what your profit to charity, and it doesn’t have to be something substantial. Very small amounts and small efforts can really help change somebody’s life. Even this past Ramadan, there’s the company LaunchGood: they had this campaign where if you could give just a little bit of money for 30 days, it could help so many people in these initiatives they’re trying to create. So many people joined it and people were able to start businesses and get books published — it just had this ripple effect. That’s the understanding that entrepreneurs need to have: you don’t have to commit to a large amount. It can be dropping off canned goods to the local food pantry. But once you start that commitment, as your business grows, that commitment grows, and you’ll give more and more. You’ll see that impact in the community.

It’s common for people to make conclusive assumptions about the identities of others. Islamoji engages this issue of representation rather directly. Why do you think it’s so common for these prejudices to develop and how can these ideas can be combated or productively engaged with?
I think with trying to combat those types of perspectives, you just have to speak up. And it takes ourselves to speak against it, and those around us: our families, friends, allies, to push back when you hear someone say something that you know is discriminatory, that you know is prejudiced, to say: “actually, that’s not true.” We have to start speaking up more. We can’t allow ourselves to have this bystander mentality. People are seeing people being attacked on trains and on buses, and the public is just recording it or just standing there, or being entertained by it. We have to really push back against it because it’s so dangerous. It kind of builds this momentum when so many people see these things and don’t do anything about it. It’s upon us to speak against it, when you see something that you know is wrong and you see people pushing those kind of prejudices out there.

I’ve personally experienced that: I was at a previous job. My manager was telling me, “Don’t let the cashier have his friends in the lobby when he closes. I don’t want them in there because I don’t trust them and I think they’re gonna steal something.” I said, “oh.” And then she said, “Well, you know how black people…you can’t trust them, they steal.” I was like, “really?” She was like, “you know?” I said, well, what do you think I am? She asked what I mean and said she didn’t know what I was talking about.

I said: “I’m black.” She’s like, “no, you’re not.” I was like, “yes, I am!” She said, “I didn’t mean it like that, you just can’t trust them.” It blew my mind. The thing that’s funny and ironic about it is that she did trust me. She had trusted me: I was making bank deposits, trusted with security codes. She trusted me, she just didn’t know that I should be in that group of people that she didn’t trust. We had a conversation about it afterwards, but to kind of ignore those opinions and ignore those perspectives doesn’t do any of us any justice. But it’s speaking against it when it’s revealed to you and kind of taking a stand I think is everyone’s responsibility.

Initiating a dialogue or directly challenging someone’s ideas can seem awkward or unnerving, but it seems like being willing to engage in that dialogue alone can be productive and humanizing.
It can be awkward, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to be a superhero just to open your mouth and say something. Just speaking up for yourself and someone else, being challenged with this stereotypical perspective, it doesn’t have to be a combative situation. It can be a conversation. A lot of times, having that conversation with someone who doesn’t know, and they’re not exposed to different people and they just have this prejudice, can really open up their mindset. And it’s like, “I never thought of it like that. I never looked at things that way.” Don’t look at it in terms of, this could really go bad, or be something aggressive. Just simply having a conversation with someone who has a different viewpoint can open someone’s mindset.

As a human being and entrepreneur, what do you identify as one of your core principles?
I think I would say justice. I’m a big proponent of just fairness. Where I see injustice being put on someone, it’s something that really bothers me. I see someone that’s being treated a certain way or being talked down to, it’s just something that really bothers me to my core. And we see that all over the world. We see that with different countries that are at war and there’s an aggressor and there’s people being persecuted and driven from their homes. We see it locally, within our own country, where people are trying to cling to different health coverage they have and benefits to keep their medication going. And they keep them surviving. It’s what we see in society. I need to get my own footprint out there, to make an impact in any small way that I can. Just to make things, to even the playing field where people who you don’t hear from them, you don’t hear their voice, you don’t hear their perspective, are able to have a platform. And that’s what I want to do through my work.

Explore Islamoji online and its LaunchGood campaign.

Read the full interview at Medium.

Written by Zac Tomlinson

Human, thinker, analyst, seeker | Organizer @StartupTampa | Research @USouthFlorida