20 Muslim Women to Watch in 2020

Nijla Mu’min

— As told to Nada Mousa

In a time of great uncertainty, the world is searching for people with heart and soul to inspire and move humanity forward through difficult times. We are in desperate need of thoughtful beings who have taken on challenges head on.

This year, Muslim Girl, in celebration of the 4th annual Muslim Women’s Day, spoke to women of faith who embody a spirit that we all need. It was my pleasure to interview one such amazing woman — Nijla Mu’min. Known for her inspiring filmmaking skills, Nijla Mu’min’s work and personal aspirations reflect values of truth, love, and faith. Nijla’s work tells the authentic stories of Black girls and women who find themselves toggling between two worlds and identities. Her stories are often informed by dance, poetry, photography, and fiction.

Nijla’s ability to combine riveting plot lines and creative art forms has captured the attention of acclaimed institutions worldwide. She is most well-known for her debut feature film, Jinn, which is stunning ode to the Black girl Muslim experience in all of it’s authenticity and uniqueness. Most recently, HBO invited Nijla to direct an episode of “Insecure,” which airs May 3rd, 2020. She currently has another piece of work, “Mosswood Park,” in pre-production — so the world has more to look forward to! 

Nijla Mu’min’s accomplishments are supported by her passion to meet challenges with tenacity, wit, and of course, skill! When faced by adversity, Nijla rises to the occasion, every single time. She offers our Muslim Girl clique her words of wisdom and straight up realness when we need it the most!

Muslim Girl: What is your biggest inspiration behind the work that you do?

Nijla Mu’min: I’m inspired by the truth and core of humanity. I’m inspired by people who push through the complicated and rocky terrain of life and the choices they make, the love they give, and the faith that they hold inside their chest.

I am inspired by my ancestors, by my faith, and my family. I am inspired by the strength and complexity of family relationships, of love, and thoughtful exchanges.

I am also inspired by art as a form of healing, emotional release, and catharsis. As a writer, poet and filmmaker, I pull a lot from music, dance, poetry, and film that explores the different facets of humanity, and our will to live, despite the harshness around us. I am interested in peeling back the layers of identity, of duality, and emotion in an attempt to make sense of the world around me. 

What has been the best lesson you’ve learned along your journey?

I’ve learned that just because something doesn’t happen on your time or schedule, doesn’t mean it won’t eventually come to fruition, or that something else won’t present itself.

As people, there are many things we don’t control, and sometimes it’s best to surrender to that instead of trying to force things into existence. Years ago, I had an image, or projection in my mind, of what my career would look like right now. But I’m in a different place, doing things I never imagined I’d be doing. That’s because I kept my mind and heart open, and didn’t remain stuck in an idea of what I thought I should be doing. Five years ago, I never thought I’d be working in television as a writer and director, but now I do. I’ve directed episodes of “Queen Sugar” and “Insecure,” and I’ve written for television.

I am a poet, screenwriter and filmmaker at heart, and that will always be my lifeblood, but in opening myself up to other possibilities, I’ve become a better artist and person. As I work toward making my second feature film, I use these experiences working in television to both sharpen my skills as a film writer and director, and sustain my lifestyle. 

What is the most important challenge you choose to overcome as a Muslim woman in your field?

There are a lot of barriers for women and women of color in the film and entertainment industry. It can be really difficult to get support and financing to tell stories about people and cultural worlds that haven’t been explored or given validation in mainstream cinema. This was one of the barriers we faced when making my debut feature film “Jinn,” about a Black girl exploring love, life, and spirituality after her mother converts to Islam.

I don’t wait for anyone to tell me what I can do. I do it. 

There weren’t many films we could identify that were similar to ours, and were produced by Hollywood studios. There also weren’t many people willing to take a chance on making a film like this. So, we (my producer Avril Speaks and I) decided to make the film independently, raising most of the financing ourselves by applying for grants, pitching to private equity investors and financiers, and doing a Kickstarter campaign. We would not allow the challenges and barriers of the industry to stop us from making this film because we believed in our hearts that this story needed to be told.

Throughout my career as a writer and filmmaker, I’ve never allowed anyone to tell me what I could or couldn’t do when it comes to telling stories. I know that there are challenges for women and women of color in this industry, but I’ve always found ways around them by working with an independent, “by any means” mentality, collaborating with likeminded, passionate artists, and putting my heart and soul into the process of making art. I overcome challenges by staying true to myself, to my community, and to my love of stories. I don’t wait for anyone to tell me what I can do. I do it. 

What’s the one message you hope to deliver to the next generation of Muslim girls?

Tell your story, and stand in your truth. Don’t be silent or let someone tell you that your story isn’t important or worth sharing. There were people who didn’t understand why I wanted to make a film about a Black Muslim girl exploring her identity and sexuality, and at one point in my life, I internalized their beliefs and thoughts, at the expense of abandoning this story idea for a long period of time.

But it reemerged in my life and I understood that it was my calling. When we feel a story so deeply inside our souls, we should listen. I encourage you to tell your story. 

What do you wish you could say to yourself 10 years ago?

Remain open to the different possibilities and blessings that will come your way in life. These may not be what you originally envisioned, but in opening yourself up to them, you are growing as a person and an artist, and fortifying yourself for the journey ahead. Additionally, trust your instincts more. When something doesn’t feel right inside your stomach, it usually isn’t right for you. Don’t make decisions out of fear, desperation, or pity. Stand in your truth and lead with passion and conviction.