Azeema uses its pages as a brave force for empowerment among MENA women and beyond
The publication and platform started out as a ripple of rebellion addressing media misrepresentation, and is growing into a movement.
Growing up, we all look for cultural representation of ourselves as a target for our aspirations. But what if you can't see yourself on screens, or amidst the pages of magazines, or can, but feel that you are being portrayed in entirely the wrong way? It's a problem felt worldwide, and the motivation for the founders of Azeema, a magazine and organisation putting women from minority and marginalised backgrounds centre stage.
Founded in May 2017 by editor Jameela Elfaki as her final major project at Central Saint Martins, it began as a way to address these inherent feelings of omission from the media and find an alternative portrayal for Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) women and women of colour. Since then, it has grown exponentially – a testament to its resonance with people who shared her frustrations – and evolved into a platform with power.
Pam Nasr, photographed by Prod Antzoulis
Pam Nasr, photographed by Prod Antzoulis
“It started as a solo project, more of an exploration, a rebellion, drawing from personal thoughts of misrepresentation, and the need to feel connected to my mixed heritage and womxn [a term coined to include transgender women] of similar backgrounds,” Jameela explains. “I think I realised quite quickly after the launch of the first issue that this was to be way more than just a solo project. It wasn’t just me that resonated with the messages and existence of the magazine. After the first launch, I had so many messages of encouragement and young womxn saying to me that they were so happy that a magazine like this even existed. I realised that I wasn't alone and this ultimately changed the path of Azeema.”
The title is an Arabic word and a female name meaning strength, determination, resoluteness and courage, and on its pages, and in the community events and projects the team puts together, this is exuded in myriad ways. From Surfing Iran, a feature shot by Italian photojournalist Giulia Frigieri depicting hijabi women surfboarding, to life drawing workshops involving Azeema’s community, its output is celebratory, empowering, welcoming, educational, and, vitally, kaleidoscopically representative.
“We want to give [our community] a space to be comfortable, feel heard and represented whilst discussing important issues and perspectives in our community,” says deputy editor Sunayah Arshad. “As we’re based in the UK, another focus of ours has been to educate and inform people who may not know much on these topics, and why we feel they are important to our community.”
Jameela is half Sudanese, half English, and is joined on the team by UK-born and raised Sunayah, Saudi Arabia-born senior editor and features editor Noor Alabdulbaqi, culture editor Evar Hussayni, who grew up in Stockholm, but also lived in San Diego and the Kurdish area occupied currently by Syria, and Londoner fashion editor Ella Lucia. The wider team also includes social media and production assistant Shams Fekaiki, editorial assistant Shayma Bakht and Hong Kong-based radio producer Yassmine Benalla. With a wealth of personal experience to add to the pot, each with a unique perspective and connection to the mission, and a strong creative vision, the content of Azeema is packed with powerful, yet largely unheard, narratives.
The Haraka issue cover, photographed by Jameela Elfaki
Saffiyah Khan, photographed by Jameela Elfaki
“We want to give [our community] a space to be comfortable, feel heard and represented.”Sunayah Arshad
GalleryV&A Friday Late
Though born and raised here, Sunayah says she spent much of her childhood feeling “quite disconnected from my heritage and culture,” she describes, and the magazine has been way to reconnect. “Working on Azeema has introduced so much to me, from the people I’ve met to the stories I’ve read. It gives me the opportunity to explore and celebrate my identity, as well as others.” Noor, whose teenage years were spent moving around different countries, says the platform gives her, and her friends and colleagues, a chance to challenge the broad brush stereotypes of MENA women she witnessed internationally. Equally, Evar feels Kurdish people are “continuously politicised and rendered invisible both here in the West and in the Middle East. This has fuelled my observations on representations (or lack of) which has turned into a passion where my objective is to dismantle and destroy said invisibility. Azeema’s existence allows me to do exactly this.”
Over its short few years, the magazine itself has matured from the self-proclaimed “raw” first issue Habibi – whose cover piece titled Borders focused on the then-enforced driving ban for Saudi women – to issue two, themed Huia (Identity), which explored issues of strength, self-love, sexuality and mental health in its community; and issue three, Haraka (Movement), 170 glorious pages of features exploring movements of all types, from small revolutions to widespread surges for freedom. Across writers, creatives and subjects, a huge spectrum of people are encompassed. Some of the team’s favourites include Prod Antzoulis’ fashion shoot featuring stylist and director and model Pam Nasr, shot south of Lebanon, and Malak Kabbani’s shoot of renowned Egyptian belly dancer Dina, accompanied by an insightful interview piece.
The Walls Are Red, The Skies Are Blue, photographed by Hanane Louardani
Handwritten letter by Noor Alabdulbaqi’s mother
Last year, however, the team took a hiatus from print to develop other aspects of the burgeoning business. “The mag is really full-on,” says Jameela. “We needed a break to recharge, and focus on our community.” This has included an eclectic programme of events, including DJ courses, hoping to diversify the people behind the decks, and a V&A Friday Late, that comprised a panel talk looking at “decolonising the art school” and a life drawing workshop. For the latter, Azeema’s fashion editor styled three models to walk through one of the biggest rooms in the V&A, as an extension of a feature from issue three. “It was a surreal experience,” Jameela recalls. “It’s just good to reach people on a personal level, and meet the people who have supported us.”
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A break from making the magazine also opened minds, and doors, to the idea of Azeema’s own creative agency, which is kicking off with a Nike collaboration, no less. “I’ve always been mad ambitious,” says Jameela of the idea to start the agency. “Even after only the second issue I started thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if we could work with brands. It quickly became apparent it was a natural progression. We’ve already built our connections [with the magazine] so that’s given us a head start.”
The Habibi issue cover, photographed by Jameela Elfaki
Elements, photographed by Jameela Elfaki
Print is still at the heart of the organisation, though. “I want to keep the magazine special,” Jameela says, noting that issue four is currently underway, as are plans to branch its projects out internationally.
“In times of uncertainty,” Jameela sums up, “[Azeema] gives us hope to have something positive and to know that we aren't alone, we are celebrated and strong.”
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