“WE ARE AN INCLUSIVE SPACE, WITH NO BORDERS” reads the tagline for AZEEMA magazine, a London-based print and digital platform devoted to confronting the ongoing battle for diversity and representation in media. For an area of the world so landlocked, the young magazine provides a refreshing and all too necessary perspective on the creative lives of women in the MENASA region. Their content fuses in-your-face fashion photography and video with the stories of up-and-coming and established creatives, mixing raw testimonial with unexpected visual components. Identity and culture are at the core of AZEEMA’s content, providing a space for exploration, inspiration, and celebration for Middle Eastern and North African women and their diaspora. We sat down with the magazine’s founders to chat how they’re paving the way for a new conversation around identity.
Jameela, you founded AZEEMA on your own, but it’s now run by four. What brought these women together? How did everyone get involved?
AZEEMA: “AZEEMA means something special to each of us in different ways, but it’s the magazine we all needed when we were growing up. It’s given us the opportunity to create a platform that is meaningful not only to us but to other young women too.
“Everyone got involved at different points in the process and the team formed organically. We all share a similar vision for AZEEMA and we’ve become a little family in a way, a sisterhood.”
So often the heritage and values of MENASA culture are portrayed as the “other” in mainstream media – if included at all. Though your publication is focused on creating an inclusive space for women of MENASA culture, how does this work to change outside perspectives as well?
A: “The work we do, the images we share, and the stories we tell each serve several purposes. Our main focus belongs with women in the MENASA region and their diaspora, but we also want our content to educate and inform others. We try to showcase the broad talent, vibrant community and amazing women that exist internationally, whilst also bringing attention to important matters that are happening across the globe, not just in the UK or USA.”
I’m always inspired by how our generation is moving the print publishing forward. It has a lot to do with looking at media and content as a conversation rather than enforcing a specific point of view on your reader. How does AZEEMA follow this same model?
A: “We try to avoid bias by covering a range of topics and sharing stories/experiences from the perspective of different women, so that there’s no false or singular narrative. Also with our images, though some people may just see a beautiful picture, there’s often a story behind it. For example, our issue one cover which was created with regards to the Saudi ban on women driving (now lifted) – we want our content to open up many conversations. There are many parts of AZEEMA that people can resonate with.”
AZEEMA experienced doubt from others in the early days but has grown despite that. What have been the biggest challenges for the magazine? The biggest successes?
A: “The biggest challenges have probably been funding (or lack of) and timing, as we all have full-time jobs, which makes it harder to work on AZEEMA. We’ve been really lucky to receive so much support from the community, which is our biggest success. It gives us the confidence to carry on and push our work further.”
Your imagery and aesthetic are striking. What inspires the visual directions of your shoots?
A: “We try to make all of our shoot concepts not just aesthetically pleasing but with meaning and underlying themes. We want all of our shoots to be beautiful and powerful.”
That said, it challenges a lot of preconceived notions about MENASA culture, and Muslim culture in specific being conservative in comparison to Western and European norms. Can you speak to this?
A: “The international media often has a tainted lense of MENASA culture and Muslim women. It’s important to us that we continue to share different perspectives, not only to serve the needs for representation of our community but to educate others too! We’re here to show people that you can’t paint us all with one stroke.”
How is personal style woven into the identity of AZEEMA?
A: “Personal style and attitude drips from the pages of AZEEMA. Many of the women featured wear their own clothes/jewellery and bring their own personal vibe to each shoot. Everyone shines through.
“In terms of our own personal styles, we each have very different aesthetics and skills. But our unified identity is one of empowerment, togetherness, and determination with a side of attitude and DIY.”
Any brands coming out of the MENASA region you have your eyes on? Elsewhere in the world?
A: “There’s a lot of talent out there right now and we have our eyes on some amazing creatives/individuals, such as Sayran, Local Brown Baby, Nor Black Nor White, Supriya Lele, and Noorvana, to name a few.”
What’s in store for issue 4?
A: “We’re taking time this year to work on other AZEEMA projects, so issue 4 is on hold for now, but you can expect more powerful women and beautiful images, more personal stories, more attitude, more culture. Just more!”