UNGA 2020: 'I began my activist journey by telling the story of Muslim women I knew'

Jana Amin, 17, is an Egyptian-American with a powerful message to spread

Portrait of Jana Amin. Courtesy Jana Amin
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“Did you ride camels into school? Can your mother drive? Did you have to ask your father’s permission?"

These were some of the typical questions Jana Amin faced when she moved as a young Muslim girl from Egypt to the US.

They made her think long and hard about the perception of Muslim women in the West – and more importantly, what she could do to change it.

After an extraordinary journey, Ms Amin will on Thursday appear online at a high-profile side eventof the UN General Assembly's 75th session.

Jana Amin giving a Ted X Talk. Courtesy Jana Amin

Outgoing, confident and already an accomplished public speaker as shown by her TEDxYouth@BeaconStreet Talk, Ms Amin is unlikely to be fazed by the exposure.

She will gladly use the panel discussion as a platform to further empower Muslim women.

Ms Amin’s enthusiasm and self-possession are evident as she speaks from her Boston home.

Her inner strength comes from formidable women, including her grandmothers, who she says instilled in her “a type of power at a very young age”.

She first discovered the power of the media's portrayal of Muslim women as “victims of oppression, submissive servants or even political pawns” when she left the Middle East for America, aged 12.

“My friends and teachers were shocked to see that I was a self-identified Muslim, Arab woman, and yet I was nothing like the women they had seen in the media,” Ms Amin says.

It was not something the schoolgirl was going to let slide, especially when asked such uninformed questions as the one about her mother driving.

Her mother, Rana El Kaliouby, a computer scientist and entrepreneur, is chief executive of a technology company and a well-respected author.

“I mean, she could do much more than drive, right?” Ms Amin says.

But their encounter with her was the first time many of these American pupils had met a Muslim woman from the Middle East.

“It was a bizarre experience I think because of the way the West portrays Muslims often times,” she says.

“For me, it began my activist journey by telling people the story of the Muslim women I knew.

“A year or so after that, I started realising that this was a way of bridging the gap between the US and the Middle East: sharing with them what it meant to be a Muslim woman; that there are Muslim women who wear the hijab or niqab and there are those who don't.

"And it's not even about the garment. It’s about their intelligence, their intellect.”

Ms Amin set up an initiative called “Bantoota”, the Arabic word for girl, on Instagram with the strapline: “She’s Just Like You. Changing the narrative around Muslim women one woman at a time.”

She used the social-networking service to listen to stories and then share them.

“I realised what they had was powerful and it was just incredible to see that growth and journey,” Ms Amin says.

“People would say, ‘Oh, my gosh, thank you so much for sharing this’, and that completely inspired me. Then these girls would say, ‘Wait, I inspired somebody? How can that be?’”

There is no future for the Middle East without its women and girls

A passion grew within her to help young women by becoming an advocate for girls’ education and women's empowerment.

It is a role that she has found extremely rewarding in spite of a somewhat shaky start.

As part of her work, she joined the Collateral Repair Project teaching English to refugees in Jordan.

At first, with a glitchy Skype signal, Ms Amin found the online teaching difficult and was not convinced of its usefulness.

“I thought nobody was learning anything, because it was just such a mess,” she says.

“Then, at the beginning of a class, this Yemeni mother says, ‘Miss Jana, can I have a moment?’ And I'm like, ‘Sure, go ahead.’

“This mother brings up her four children and has them speak together in English.

"It's incredible to see because she's basically taught them what we've learnt over the past two weeks, saying things like ‘Hi, hello, how are you? I'm a refugee’.

"It was so amazing to see that when you educate one woman, you're educating a whole family and a community.”

Further evidence of Ms Amin’s growing influence will be there for all to see at the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal Action Zone on Thursday, where she will be asked to put forward “policies to further the world”.

Unsurprisingly, she is excited and not in the least daunted by the opportunity.

“It will be on really tangible policies that can improve and progress SDGs on an individual level or recommendations we have for businesses,” Ms Amin says.

In the new era of virtual meetings, she believes that important institutions such as the UN are opening up to the entire world, which she describes as “a blessing”.

But lockdown has been tough on Ms Amin who, gregarious by nature, concedes that she is craving some human connection.

She consoles herself by playing the harp, an instrument that she has learnt since emigrating, and looks forward to competing for her school squash team.

“You always need some sort of physical movement and it’s a fun way to connect with other people my age,” Ms Amin says.

Which, naturally enough, brings her back to advocacy.

“In Egypt, there are still lots of stigmas surrounding women in sports,” Ms Amin says.

Jana Amin meeting with Malala. Courtesy Jana Amin

She is inspired and hopeful for women in the region, talking of increasing female involvement in politics, such as the role of UAE’s Noura Al Kaabi, the Minister of Culture and Youth.

“Women who are in positions of power, whether that's in the government or in businesses, are role models for us,” Ms Amin says. “It's incredible to see what those women are doing.

"And it's clear to see that their work is really driving forward progress in the Middle East, because there is no future for the Middle East without its women and girls.

"I really do think there are a lot of young women who are currently taking up the fight for the region's future.”

Ms Amin's immediate future lies in finding a university place in international studies, either in America or, as she hopes, following in her mother’s path to the University of Cambridge.

Without putting too much burden on her young shoulders, it is difficult not to draw comparisons with other inspirational young women of today, such as environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist for female education.

Last year, Ms Amin made sure to attend Malala’s inspirational lecture at Harvard University and unabashedly asked for a selfie with the Nobel Peace laureate.

She went on to write an editorial for the Malala Fund publication Assembly.

When Ms Amin gives her thoughts tomorrow as to what meaningful action is needed to change the world for the better, it is unlikely to be the last we hear from her.