Jenna Mahale as “Meet the Muslim girls harnessing the power of TikTok to make fun of racists” for I-D
“I thought, no one’s going to take me seriously.” Before she found viral fame on the platform, 20-year-old Aaliyah Aaden was skeptical of TikTok. She had seen the dance fads and the looping lip-syncs and she was unimpressed.
“I hated TikTok,” she says emphatically, “I thought it was the cringiest thing.” But as any savvy internet-goer will tell you nowadays, TikTok contains multitudes. Over the past year alone, short clips on everything from personal coming out stories to the mass internment of Uyghur Muslims in China have gone viral. Users have employed the app to organise strikes in solidarity with underpaid teaching staff, decry school shootings, and protest the hypocrisy of their political representatives.
It all sounds very serious, but what links the disparate content most often is a particular sense of humour. This is one of the things Aaliyah (@aaliyahthe1st) kept in mind when she began making content on the app. “I realised that the majority of TikToks are actually quite funny,” she tells us, also noting her surprise at the demographics she discovered. “I saw a lot of hijabi girls on there. Girls who were literally wearing what I was wearing.”
When Aaliyah began posting about her personal experiences with her faith, she quickly found herself going viral. “I didn’t really come from an area where many people around me were wearing a headscarf,” she says. “It was a very small neighbourhood, and everyone knew each other, so when [my family] moved in it was like: eyes on us.” Her first viral TikTok was an exaggerated version of a real event that clearly resonated with her viewers. “I was on a bus minding my own business, and these strangers were looking at me while I’m trying to fix my headscarf,” she explains, “they seemed scared of me.”
In this way, TikTok has created a space for young people to skewer ignorance, and more broadly vent their frustrations about experiences they might otherwise feel powerless to fight against. As writer Rebecca Jennings pointed out for The Goods by Vox, broadcasting a political message on TikTok has fast become the easiest way for those without an established platform or audience to spread it to the largest number of people in the briefest amount of time.
In Rebecca’s words: “It takes the best of Twitter (brevity, as videos can be a maximum of 60 seconds but most are much shorter) and YouTube (the ability to see someone’s face as they’re speaking to you) and adds the ability to go viral with virtually zero followers.” The killer combo creates an intimacy with the viewer, and does it quickly. This is obviously very useful if you’re trying to get across an important message about respecting other people’s humanity, even if it is coated in a few layers of sarcasm.
16-year-old Areess (@rere.lahx) felt compelled to address the Islamophobia in her community after an experience she had when competing in a Taekwondo match. “A group of people from the German team were telling me that I wouldn’t make it,” she says gravely, “that ‘You don’t deserve to be here’ and ‘Your religion doesn’t teach you this’. One of them even said: ‘You should be in the kitchen.’”
When Areess started making videos on TikTok, it was expressly to combat the perception of Islam as a negative, restrictive religion. “I wanted to show that we’re positive people, we’re just like them, and we’re all about fun and jokes.”
Of course, virality is not always kind. “You get the odd comment from trolls going, ‘Go back to your country’, and stuff like that. I got one comment calling me Shamima Begum,” Aaliyah says. “These are things I’m not shocked by. You’ll get hate for whoever you are, and people will just attack you because of what they see. But I don’t even mind: I had all these other positive comments from people saying the video was funny, telling me they love the way I think and how pretty I am!”
Far from needing to battle a flurry of negative comments, Areess has instead found herself responding to earnest questions in her DMs and teaching some of her viewers about her faith: “I’ll get one or two people who are a bit ignorant, but just curious too. Like a woman had messaged me the other day asking, ‘What is Islam?’ and, ‘Why do you pray in a corner?’ She was genuinely so interested.”
It’s clear that TikTok is evolving into a powerful political tool that no one could have predicted in its humble beginnings as a dance app. The fact that its power can potentially be wielded by, well, anyone with a good mind for memes is certainly cause for concern, particularly since the company itself has admitted to actively restricting the reach of content by disabled, queer, and fat users. But right now, in this little corner of the web, Islamophobia can well and truly take a hike.