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Volume 55, Number 2March/April 2004

In This Issue

Azizah Rising -- Written and photographed by Samia El-Moslimany
Azizah’s staff, from left: Mariam Aziz, editorial assistant; Amber Nadirah Khan, designer; Tayyibah Taylor, publisher and editor-in-chief; Saleemah Abdulghafur, chief operating officer; Suad Najeeullah, fashion coordinator.
Azizah’s staff, from left: Mariam Aziz, editorial assistant; Amber Nadirah Khan, designer; Tayyibah Taylor, publisher and editor-in-chief; Saleemah Abdulghafur, chief operating officer; Suad Najeeullah, fashion coordinator.

AzizahUnder a humid summer sun in Atlanta’s Botanical Garden, six women adjust their poses before a photographer’s camera. Modeling brightly colored wedding gowns, each seems styled with a different world culture in mind. Tayyibah Taylor, founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Azizah magazine, adjusts a gold-embroidered, intricately wrapped turban on a model’s head, while passersby in shorts and T-shirts cast curious glances their way. The next day, the photographs will be couriered across the country to Redmond, Washington, where Marlina Soerakoesoemah, the magazine’s co-founder, creative director and designer, will put together a four-page spread.

First published as a quarterly in the winter of 2000, Azizah is the only nationally distributed magazine in the United States for—and by—Muslim women. The name, Taylor explains, means “strength” and “dearness” in classical Arabic; it’s a common name among Muslim women worldwide. “Our reader is a woman who is striving to better herself in all areas of her existence—her spirituality, her religion, her social and intellectual life—a woman who makes no apology for being a Muslim, and who makes no apology for being a woman,” says Taylor.

“It’s inspiring,” says Shakeel Syed, vice president for e-commerce of IslamiCity.com, an Azizah advertiser. “There hasn’t been any Muslim magazine on the scale of Azizah. They have a wide-spectrum audience, irrespective of cultures and backgrounds.”

Azizah takes time to look inside the issues, and it’s more self-critical,” says Asifa Quraishi, an attorney who has written for the magazine.

"Our reader is a woman who is striving to better herself." —Tayyibah TaylorOnly Muslim women write the articles for Azizah. Mohja Kahf, author, poet, contributor and associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas, calls the Azizah perspective “primary, not secondary—women are writing the story; they are looking into the camera and speaking. They are not objects of someone else’s analysis: They are the active agents.”

Taylor likens Azizah’s articles to a dinner party. “You talk about food, you talk about fashion, you talk about what is going on in the world—it is this great conversation.”

It is not always an easy one. Taylor keeps the magazine broadly appealing by carefully walking what are often fine lines between conservative and progressive views on hot-button issues ranging from AIDS and disability to polygamy and marriage. Kahf comments, “They dance this dance by using a large variety of writers and contributors in every issue that keeps them interesting to the progressives, the middle-of-the-road Muslims and the conservatives.”

Most criticism, Taylor says, has targeted Azizah’s cover portraits of women, who are always shown wearing a head scarf of one type or another. They are not fashion models, she explains, but the women whose accomplishments and viewpoints are covered in the magazine. They have included a state representative, a doctor, a filmmaker, and civil-rights and community activists. “Azizah is a magazine about Muslim women, and that is why they are on the cover,” Taylor asserts. “We listen to both criticism and praise with a careful ear.”

Other readers cheer on Azizah’s unabashed visual approach. “I love the big, glamorous, glossy pictures,” exclaims Kahf, who is also a subscriber. “Finally! Complimentary, beautiful images of Muslim women!”

Azizah is the sole publication of WOW Publishing, Inc., founded in 1999 by Taylor and Soerakoesoemah. A year ago, Saleemah Abdulghafur, the magazine’s chief operating officer, joined them. “WOW is a fluid acronym,” Taylor explains with a laugh. “It stands for ‘Women of Words,’ ‘Women of Wit,’ ‘Women of Wisdom,’ ‘Women of Wealth’—we hope!—all depending on what we are feeling at the moment!”

The magazine started with the partners’ personal savings, a few subscriptions and loans from family and friends. Three years on, its greatest challenge remains financial as advertisers wait for a track record of well-established publication and distribution. Fifteen percent of the magazine is now given over to advertising; Taylor would like to see that grow to 30 percent by the magazine’s five-year mark—but without ads for cigarettes or alcohol. Although “we continue to survive by keeping our payments to ourselves at a minimum,” she says, “we only accept advertisers that are in step with our readership—politically, spiritually and culturally.”

In Azizah’s seventh-floor office on Peachtree Street, Taylor takes responsibility for editorial content, and Abdulghafur concentrates on advertising and circulation. From Redmond, Soerakoesoemah focuses on design and production, including the magazine’s website. Backing them is a growing corps of more than 100 contributing editors, writers, photographers, artists and poets who, because of their desire to see Azizah succeed, have volunteered their talents or accepted nominal fees.

Soerakoesoemah finds the cross-country collaboration works well. “Tayyibah and I are on the same page. A lot of what I do she likes, and what she doesn’t like, I’ve had no trouble changing,” she says. “We trust each other.”

Working on each issue, says Taylor, “I meet the most phenomenal women. I learn so many things. When I see the smiles that come to women’s faces when they see the positive reflection of themselves and the excitement it brings—I love it. And I love it when women tell me it has made a difference in their lives.”

Creating Positive Images

Tayyibah TaylorMarlina SoerakoesoemahTayyibah Taylor’s soft, caramel-voiced demeanor belies the depth of her determination. Born in Trinidad and raised mostly in Toronto, she became a Muslim following a 10th-grade field trip to a local mosque. Taylor’s Christian parents supported her decision.

As a student at the University of Toronto in the early 70’s, Taylor says her worldview began to crystallize in the Black Student Union during conversations over coffee with Muslim converts and us conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War. “As a result of our debates,” she reflects, “my outlook was reshaped from the political, the earthly, to the spiritual.”

But this led to involvement, not detachment. “I was profoundly affected by the absence of positive images of people of color. There were none—not in the media, not in textbooks or catalogs or billboards,” she remembers. “I knew something was wrong.” Her discovery of Ebony magazine was “an epiphany: seeing people of color positively portrayed.” This, she says, was where Azizah began.

Later, Taylor moved to the US. She married and, after her third child was born, followed her husband to Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, where he had accepted a basketball coaching job. There, she began studying classical Arabic and the Qur’an.

Six years later, she returned to the US with her family. Taylor commuted to Seattle to serve as the director of an Islamic school. In the late 1990’s, with virtually no resources, she formulated a plan to produce Azizah. “It was like a force taking over, propelling me—you find the people, you find the money, and you find all that you need.”

Then she met Marlina Soerakoesoemah, and their partnership was born. “I knew that I wanted to work,” says Soerakoesoemah, “but I felt that I had to do something different. I had asked God to help me to be a tool to help the ummah [the worldwide Muslim community], and working on Azizah was the way.”

Following Taylor’s move to Atlanta in 1998, the partners kept in touch. Now, thanks to electronic communications and couriers, Azizah thrives.

“Being a Muslim and being a woman in America is a powerful fusion,” says Taylor. “We have our American legacy of free speech and the culture of critical thinking. We have our Islamic legacy of pursuit of knowledge and autonomy. Together these are an irresistible combination.”


Samia El-Moslimany Samia El-Moslimany ([email protected]) divides her time between Seattle, where she is a free-lance writer and photographer, and Jiddah, where she operates a portrait studio.

This article appeared on page 13, 15 of the March/April 2004 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 2004 images.