Asoomii Jay: From Hijab Tutorials to Social ActivismWritten by Chelby Daigle
Assma Galuta, aka Asoomii Jay, 25, has been an active YouTuber since 2011 when she began doing hijab tutorials. “I saw a lot of my friends removing their hijab and it made me sad,” she explained, “They were just doing it to fit in with their Canadian friends and they would say ‘I don’t look good in a hijab’ or ‘I don’t feel welcome in a hijab’. I started my YouTube Channel because I wanted to show girls that they could still look pretty and feel pretty and be stylish and wear the hijab.” Her channel became popular internationally with thousands of subscribers on YouTube and tens of thousands of Facebook followers.
But when Galuta was faced with a personal crisis, which included being diagnosed with thyroid cancer and struggling with depression, she made the decision to remove her hijab. “I realised I needed to better myself with ihsan (doing good things knowing Allah is watching) instead of focusing so much on what is on my head,” she shared, “I realised I was wearing [hijab] for people, not the right reasons. I was so hesitant before removing it only because I was afraid it might encourage girls to follow, so it took me two years to make this decision after wearing it from the age of 9.”
Galuta is still an advocate for hijab and even participated in this year’s Carleton University Muslim Students’ Association’s World Hijab Day doing hijab styling. “I still am and always will be a supporter of the hijab because in my eyes those who do it right have my highest respect and admiration. I still feel part of ‘hijabi culture’”
But Galuta’s decision meant she was left with a major social media fan base which she could no longer feel right producing hijab tutorials for. What to do? Social activism has become her answer. From promoting fundraisers for Syrian refugees to raising awareness about Palestinian human rights, Galuta has leveraged the social media following she built over the years to raise awareness about issues of social justice which matter to her.
In the Summer of 2014, during the conflict in Gaza, Galuta partnered with Time Vision Productions, a Toronto based multimedia production company founded by Muslim Canadians Maaz Khan, Younes Mohamed and Mustafa Mawla, to bring the plight of Gaza’s civilians to your average Canadian citizen by showing footage of the four boys who were killed on a beach in Gaza by Israeli missiles to passersby on the streets of Toronto.
After the Ottawa shooting in October 2014, Galuta and Time Vision teamed up again to address what they felt was a rise in Islamophobia and hatred crimes against Muslims. With the Blind Trust Project, they hoped to share a message of coexistence with their fellow Canadians. Mustafa Mawla stood blindfolded with a sign asking people if they trusted him enough to hug him. The video recorded people’s reactions, which were surprisingly supportive, with one person going as far as to leave his car in the street to go and hug Mawla. “People think that Muslims are violent or very closed-minded,” Galuta explained, “so when people saw this Muslim man hugging people, it got them to see Muslims in a different way and it touched them.”
When Galuta posted the video on her YouTube Channel she did not expect it to go viral. “But I knew that it was going to explode when Aquila Style (an international Muslim women’s lifestyle website) shared it”. The Blind Trust Project now has over two million views on Galuta’s YouTube Channel.
In the video, Galuta made the choice to wear hijab. “People are very visual,” she explained, “If I were just to stand without a scarf and say ‘I am Muslim’ I did not think it would elicit the same reaction as if I was wearing a scarf. It’s the same as our choice with which guy would be the one to hug. We chose Mustafa because he has a beard, so it’s all about people’s stereotypes about what Muslims look like, also it is Muslims who look like this who face the most backlash.”
Soon Galuta and the Time Vision team were getting calls from local and international media who wanted to interview them about the Blind Trust Project. The attention was both exciting and overwhelming. “Two minutes before we went live for our interview with Russia Today,” Galuta explained, “they said ‘Get ready there are over 700,000,000 people watching’ and I was like ‘WHAT?! As a Muslim when you go on to mainstream media you are representing a lot of Muslims whether you like it or not, so you have to put in that extra effort to show them that Muslims are well-educated, well-spoken and we aren’t just closed minded and ‘uncivilized’.” Needless to say that is a lot of pressure for a group of young Muslims.
Galuta soon discovered that not all media outlets were necessarily supportive of The Blind Trust Project’s message of coexistence. “I was not happy with the interview with Sky News,” she explained about her interview with the British channel, “They edited the video in a way so that they didn’t show their questions. At one point the interviewer asked if we really believed that Islamophobia was a real thing or just something that people have created and I got upset and I said no it is true, why do you think we are doing this, why do you think hate crimes are happening. I felt that the questions they were asking were just to get a rise out of me and they didn’t take the issue of Islamophobia or hate crimes seriously.”
Another disappointment came closer to home, from CBC TV, when the Blind Trust Project Team were interviewed as part of the documentary ‘Are We Safe?’ “I thought the documentary was about the Muslim perspective, like do Muslims feel safe given the backlash after the Ottawa shooting,” she explained, “I didn’t know that we were just going to be a segment in a documentary about whether Canadians feel safe because of Islamic extremism. We stood outside for 45 minutes in the freezing cold, talking about what influenced us, our concerns about Islamophobia, and our message to Stephan Harper, and they only showed 5 minutes of me crying!” Galuta cried on camera while discussing how she had lost someone she considered a good friend due to Islamophobia after the Ottawa shooting. She didn’t realize that CBC would use that footage.
But Galuta enjoyed her interviews with Tapestry on CBC Radio and Global News as well as Germany’s Der Spiegel. “The interviewers were unbiased,” she explained, “we were allowed to say what we wanted to say, nothing was edited, no words were put in our mouths. They heard us out.”
But Galuta’s favourite interview was not with a media outlet, but with a class of South Korean high school students. A Korean American teacher reached out to Galuta to speak via Skype to her Religion class about Islam. “They really liked the Blind Trust Project,” she shared, “The students were really compassionate.” The students also dug deeper into other challenges facing Muslim youth in Canada. “They asked us if we felt that Muslims in the West were having an identity crisis,” she explained, “They asked because the teacher of the class was Korean American, and she felt that she had had an identity crisis growing up in the States and trying to hold on to her Korean values.”
Galuta knows firsthand the challenges of working out your identity when you have grown up in more than one culture. Galuta grew up between North Africa, Dubai and Canada and has been very open on social media about the difficulties she has faced balancing Western, Muslim, and Arab cultural expectations, while trying to explore what she wants out of her own life. She feels the difficulty Muslim Canadian youth often face is that they can’t meet any of these cultures’ expectations. “Even when I was a hijabi, it was still not good enough,” she shared, “People would say ‘Why are you wearing skinny jeans, why are you wearing Western clothes, why are you wearing colourful clothes. You are going to hell!’ So I felt like I was horrible and a really bad person. And then the Canadian community would tell me ‘What’s this on your head? Go back to your country!’ So, you are just stuck there asking ‘Who do I turn to?’”
As a psychology student at Carleton University who is also open about her own struggle with mental illness, Galuta feels that this struggle is beginning to take a serious toll on the mental health of Western Muslim youth. “There was a study that we read in one of my classes where it found that a lot of North American born Arabs had been diagnosed with clinical depression.”
Being a YouTuber, Galuta has learned to grow a thick skin when it comes to what other people think of her. “The one thing that I wish someone would have told me when I first started is ‘Don’t Look At the Comments!’,”she shared.
She has some words of caution for aspiring Muslim YouTubers. “Those who were raised on the internet, particularly those of us who are more culturally Western, we are very open,” she explained, “We share good news, bad news. But with Arab culture it is all about privacy. You have to worry about what people will say and what your image will be. So if you are going to be online, try to keep it neutral, don’t share anything you might regret because once it is online, you can never take back. Obviously be yourself, but you have to keep limits online.”
Galuta has had to face a great deal of online backlash over the years. “When you become a Youtuber, whether you like it or not, you are put on a pedestal, people see you differently,” she explained, “Younger kids will look up to you and say that you are their role model which is a lot of pressure. I received an email from a woman who was in a halaqa where a girl said her role model was Asoomii Jay. She looked me up on Google thinking I was some sort of religious leader and when she found out I was a YouTuber she was so angry at me.”
But Galuta feels that her negative experiences as a YouTuber have made her stronger and more prepared to face the challenges that taking a stand on controversial social justice issues like Palestinian human rights or Islamophobia present. “I’ve been through it all so bring it on! If you have a message you want to put out there, just do it and be confident.”
Check out Asoomii Jay's Youtube Channel here
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