20 Muslim Women to Watch in 2020

Zareen Jaffery

— As told to Jessica Daqamsseh

In 2016, Simon & Schuster launched Salaam Reads, an imprint for Muslim children’s books. Salaam Reads focuses on Muslim characters and their lived experiences. These experiences “will come across in the way these characters interact with the world and their family traditions and their holidays.” Although all the main characters are Muslim, their religiosity is as varied as the entire ummah, proving that “there’s no one way to be Muslim.”

At the helm of this new venture was Executive Editor Zareen Jaffery. Born and raised in California, Jaffery grew up with her nose in a book, completely enamored with the way books can transport their readers. She has been an editor for 14 years, and eight of those years have been in children’s publishing. Prior to joining Simon & Schuster, Jaffery worked on teen fiction at HarperCollins Children’s Books and with adult fiction and non-fiction at Hyperion (Disney/ABC) Books. She also served two years on the Children’s Book Council’s (CBC) Diversity committee, and as co-chair of the Diversity within ALSC (Association for Library Services to Children) Task Force from 2016-17. Jaffery is a graduate of New York University.

In January 2020, Jaffery moved to Kokila, an imprint of Penguin. As an executive editor, she continues her focus on bringing to life creative projects of Muslim authors and championing Muslim characters’ lived experiences. Jaffery firmly believes in the importance of expanding the children’s book market to not only include more diverse voices, but to also encourage more Muslims to pursue the arts.

Recently, Muslim Girl chatted with Jaffery about her inspirations, challenges, and visions for her field.

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

Zareen Jaffery: My nieces and nephews, who range in age from 7 to 13, are front of mind as I consider what impact I can have in children’s book publishing. I want them to grow up with books that reflect and celebrate the diversity of the world — past, present, and future.

In some ways, I’m also publishing books for the kid that I was — a book lover who looked forward to weekly trips to the library, but never found a book that celebrated someone from my background, or really celebrated any background other than white, cis, straight, and largely privileged.

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

It’s rare to be paid for creative work, and I am grateful that I have the opportunity to work with authors, illustrators, and designers in bringing their creative visions to life. But the best lesson I’ve learned is that each person needs to bring their unique perspective to the work — I benefit from having an unconventional-for-publishing background as a South Asian Muslim woman. It impacts how I see the world, and that point of view is reflected in the work that I’m drawn to, and the books that I champion.

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

Book publishing as a whole is a fairly homogenous industry. For awhile, I was the only Muslim acquiring editor in children’s publishing. So the challenge was trying to be everything to everyone.

…there is no one way to be Muslim. Identity is fluid and always changing.

As we all know, the ummah is incredibly diverse, and one person can never fully be responsible for publishing books that will reflect the values, history, cultural traditions or specific religious rites of two billion Muslims. I am so excited to see more and more people, from many diverse backgrounds, join the book publishing world.

I recently joined Kokila, an imprint of Penguin Random House, where I get to work alongside brilliant women of color who share my personal mission to champion stories from under-represented backgrounds. (Salaam Reads continues on as part of Simon & Schuster).

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

That there is no one way to be Muslim. Identity is fluid and always changing. Our individual relationship to culture, religion, spirituality is as informed by our upbringing as it is by the choices we make about the kind of person we want to be, and the kind of community we want to join and cultivate.

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

Keep following your curiosity; it will take you to fascinating, unexpected places, and help you lead a life that is full of surprises.