Nayantara Dutta's Unapologetically Muslim puts a Spotlight on Sterotypes

Jordana Weiss

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You may remember Nayantara Dutta from the recent SEEMA Summit, where she spoke on building resilience in the next generation. If her talk left you wanting more, or if you missed the summit entirely- don’t worry. Today’s interview will delve further into her work, and explore the personal passion projects that have made her writing career so fascinating.

One of the most remarkable things about Nayantara is how she’s been able to merge her individual history with her professional life, inspiring an incredible personal connection with the topics she covers. As an advertising content writer and strategist, she’s continually in search of new ways to connect the dots and uncover stories that present truth and inspire empathy. One way that she’s done this is through Defining Desi, an event series focused on giving space to South Asian voices.

Another project that has shaped her career in a big way over the last four years is Unapologetically Muslim, which we were excited to hear about in more detail.

Can you tell us more about Unapologetically Muslim?  

ND: Unapologetically Muslim started as a 82-page trend report, which was my senior thesis in college. With my international background, I was interested in creating a piece of literature that taught the marketing industry how to work with and invest in people of color around the world.

At the time, the immigration ban had completely changed how people were treating Muslims in America. Muslim women were trending, but they were also being tokenized. I wrote the report to document this cultural shift, and explore what Muslim female identity means in three different countries (the US, UK and Indonesia), and share how the media can support Muslim women.

While writing the report, I interviewed over 50 women about how they experience their identity, and was extremely moved hearing their stories. I started the photo project to design a space for those voices. It’s a community space on Instagram where I interview Muslim women from around the world to celebrate their stories and share their full selves.

Can you explain how you set up your #UnapologeticallyMuslim photo series? What was the inspiration? 

ND: The photo series is an offshoot of the project Unapologetically Muslim which I’ve been working on since 2016.

Muslim women are often spoken for, rather than allowed to speak for themselves, so I wanted to develop a platform for self-definition where they could reclaim their narrative. In communities of color, we often see representation from the same set of voices, so I made an open invite for anyone to nominate themselves or others to be featured on the page.

I recently released my first photoshoot for the series, in partnership with Brown Girl Magazine, Saba Zafar, and Shaza Rizvi, which has been really exciting. It features ten visionary South Asian Muslim creatives who are showing up for their communities and commanding visibility on their terms.

We launched the shoot on March 27 for Muslim Women’s Day, and it was incredible to see their stories on the front page of Refinery29. Within the South Asian community, there’s so much more we can do to celebrate Muslim identity, so this was an especially meaningful project for me.

Is there a particular aspect of your upbringing or career that has inspired your passion for allyship? 

ND: I’ve always been aware of how our South Asian community has been fractured by religious conflict. In my view, we have a responsibility to learn each other’s histories and decide how we choose to show up for our communities. Growing up Hindu has made it especially important for me to show allyship towards my Muslim brothers and sisters. It shouldn’t be their fight alone, but we should also know our place. I’m constantly learning when to step up and when to step back.

In the Western world, we often talk about allyship between white people and people of color, but I think it’s just as critical to show support within communities of color. As minorities, our activism should not just be self-serving — we should advocate for our community and others. We can connect over shared experiences, but should also recognize where we carry privilege and how we can hold space for each other.

What is your advice to young people, girls in particular, who might be interested in pursuing a career in your industry? 

ND: Tune into your inner voice. Give yourself permission. Don’t underestimate your options.