Interview: Sakeena Rashid, Founder of Islamoji, on Representation, Justice, and Entrepreneurship

A discussion on startups, social justice, Muslim identity, and navigating political discourse.

Sakeena Rashid, creator of Islamoji. | Image source: Islamoji / MuslimGirl

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 emoji and GIFs designed to express the naturally diverse experiences, humour, and culture of Muslim youth today.

“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.”

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. With the Muslim ban that became a travel ban, and is back to a Muslim ban, and all these things, everything has become related when it comes to Muslims and politics and social issues.

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.

In the process of developing Islamoji, you’ve mentioned using online courses and attending developer meetups. What were your most impacting learning resources?

When I got the idea to develop the app, it just sparked this learning path where I had to figure out if this was even feasible. From that point, once I decided that it was, I began taking online courses. It wasn’t so much in the behind-the-scenes or technical aspects of development, it was more so the business side of developing an app. Like, once you have it developed, how do you find a market, how do you test that market, how do you get it out there? So it was more of the business side then technically code something. That was interesting and a learning process.

Also, just joining different app developer groups to network with like-minded people, to ask questions, to get that feedback, to learn what was working and what wasn’t working. And also to just share ideas — that was really essential for me through this process. Read different books, tons of things. It was definitely a learning process where I wanted to make sure that I had all of the information to see it through. Hamdullah, I was able to do that and able to launch it and get it out there.

What inspired you to develop for iOS in particular?

Just networking within the group I was in, that was strongly advised to start with iOS. A lot of developers also were focused only on iOS. They would just create iOS versions of their apps and wouldn’t even bother with the Android market. We still do have plans, eventually, to release the app for the Android market. We’ve had a lot of requests from Android users, but it was from that experience, from working with people who’ve already created apps and been successful in the market, and having that direction from them that that was where the focus should be for your initial app and any subsequent app.

Since releasing Islamoji, what has the communal response been like?

It’s been really positive. It’s been a really cool experience just to get messages and emails from different people who have downloaded the app, are using it. It’s been a really exciting experience. Of course, to get media from some of these larger networks, like MuslimGirl and different features, is amazing. But just to hear people saying, “I love this,” and that they use it every single day, and to have my friends send me emojis that I thought of in my mind and now they’re out there — it’s just a really fun process and I’m glad that people are enjoying it. I love to get emails and testimonials about it.

Do you have a favorite emoji design in particular?

There’s so many that just make me laugh. Probably, there’s one that’s the dabbing hijabi emoji. I just think it’s hilarious and use it all the time. And then there’s the animated GIFs, and there’s one that’s like, “laughing my hijab off,” which I think is so funny, and there’s a “bye, Felicia” hijabi emoji. My family, we all have the app and send the emojis to each other all the time. We think they’re so funny. I’m biased, obviously, but we get a kick out of it.

What were your main considerations when strategizing how to fund Islamoji?

Honestly, I did have a budget and researched what it would cost. I pretty much came right on to what I thought the expenses would be. I had a savings that I wanted to use in order to fund the project, but then I also created a LaunchGood campaign. With that LaunchGood campaign, we set to make a certain amount of money to finish the app and fund this publishing company I have, Deeni Girl Media, and expand that. The campaign went okay, but we didn’t reach the funding goal that we had that we set.

I was able to finish financing the app and get it completely paid for, so that was good, but this larger idea of having a Muslim publishing company that publishes Muslim authors and tackles these subjects that aren’t out there, and gives Muslims a voice of their own and allows them to reclaim their narratives from media. It’s still a project I’m working on and that I hope to get funded.

What stories and perspectives do you hope to explore through the platform?

There’s so many different topics that the Muslim community could benefit from, and those types of books just aren’t out there. I started this company years ago and wrote down different books that weren’t available that I thought people could benefit from, and years later I’m still seeing so many that aren’t available.

One, for example, is a book I started writing over a year ago. It’s an autobiography of my life, but a very short time frame. It’s about my life experience the year after my father passed away. Writing that book, I’m realizing this kind of narrative is missing within our community. If you go to an Islamic bookstore and you’re looking for a book on death or dying, it’s like, “this is the punishment and the grave, this is what will happen to you if you go to the hellfire.” But we’re not at that phase, yet. Here and now, if you’re dealing with the loss of a loved one or the loss of a child, or a parent, what do you go through? What does your body experience? Are you going to be able to stay in school? Are you going to just completely fall apart — how do you get through that? Especially in my case, where my father wasn’t in hospice, he wasn’t sick: he was there one day and the next day he wasn’t.

To have those kind of stories out there for other Muslims, who are all gonna go through that, every single one of us is going to experience someone that we love dearly and that’s close to us passing away. How did this person deal with it, how did they get through it? We need those stories, and that’s just one example. Even autism in the Muslim community. Relationships between husbands and wives and how to strengthen those. How to raise happy Muslim children. There are so many subjects that aren’t out there that easily could be. It’s about someone finding the value in having this publishing company out there and helping to see it become established. That’s what I’m continuing to work on — getting funding and working with others who believe in that mission and will support it.

What factors do you think keep these discussions from the mainstream?

I think for Muslim writers and authors, one of the barriers is just a lack of information. A lot of people just don’t know the process. They don’t know how to get published, or they try to go about self-publishing and they’re lured into vanity presses. But that’s just one part of it, where even after it’s published, how do you get it into stores? How do you get media attention? Deeni Girl Media is trying to be that platform for Muslim writers where they can be published, promoted, in bookstores and have a presence at trade shows and be able to succeed and earn a living from their writing. But it takes support for us to get to that point where we can do that.

I do know of another publishing company that specifically publishes for Muslim authors, but it’s not specifically a Muslim publishing company. I have a friend who’s with them, and a lot of the marketing that’s done on her books, it’s done by herself. Other people are seeing that there’s a market there, that there’s money to be made, and trying to exploit that, versus really wanting to help the community or see these publications out there. So it isn’t about fostering some kind of growth within the Muslim community, it’s simply a marketing tactic. That’s the difference with Deeni Girl Media: we’re in the community, a part of the community. We want to see these authors succeed and their work out there.

“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.”

Social impact initiatives and community projects are a part of your overall plan for the company’s growth. What inspired this for you?

With Islamoji, specifically, I wanted to try to give back, to have a charity component connected to it so that there’s something positive when we’re successful and able to give that success back. I spoke with someone at my local mosque and was talking about a refugee sister who had come here recently but she didn’t really have anything. The sisters said they saw her and she’s always wearing the same thing, but one day asked her: do you need something or have something? She had been wearing that same garment everyday and really didn’t have anything. It’s sad because a lot of times, we have people right around us who really are suffering or going without, and we don’t even know. And they may not speak up and ask, maybe out of feeling ashamed, so it becomes incumbent on us to ask, and make sure those resources are available. That was something that kind of sparked the whole idea to connect charity with the app.

With that sister specifically, I was able to collect a lot of different clothing items and scarves and different things for her, but continuing on that, I would love for that to be as an ongoing basis with the growth of Islamoji and the growth of Deeni Girl Media, we can establish something that’s much more substantial than just one person or one small effort. But a much more substantial, continual gift of charity. That’s something that I’m working on and hopefully we can build as the company grows.

You plan to develop STEM education programs for girls through the growth of the media company and app. What inspired this concept and what impact do you hope for them to have?

In terms of STEM, that was just an idea that I thought was so important, especially when it comes to girls and even Muslim girls, where a lot of times there’s not that exposure. Girls aren’t taught about science and math and careers in technology and engineering and things like that. But there’s so much potential there. There’s so many women who, when they have been introduced to it, they made just amazing contributions to that field. So I’d love to be able to continue work in that area and be able to develop a program for young girls where can we have these workshops to expose them to STEM and allow them to do projects individually and group projects where they get excited about the creative aspects of technology. As we grow and have the funds, it’s something I’d love to implement.

“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.”

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 make a worthwhile impact.

I feel like 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 easy for these prejudices to develop and how can these ideas can be combated and productively engaged with?

I think with trying to combat those types of perspectives, it especially gives Muslims…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 campaign on LaunchGood.