We are pleased to announce Dounya Hamdan as our Twelfth Muslim Woman of the Month!

Dounya Hamdan is one of the founders of the Unsweetened and Unfiltered podcast. Launched in 2019 by Dounya and her friend Zaina Kahuk, Unswtnd + Unfltrd was created as a safe space for women to express themselves, and to discuss important topics relevant to their everyday lives, including the more taboo ones that our community tends to sweep underneath the rug.

From light-hearted discussions about self-love, spirituality, skincare, and culture, to tougher conversations about infertility, divorce, and domestic violence, along with a range of other topics, this podcast is not only raising awareness about the struggles and hardships many women are facing, but it is also celebrating their strength, resilience, success, and what it means to be a woman in all aspects.

Since its launch, Unswtnd + Unfltrd has grown into a true sisterhood, one that’s filled with support, comfort, and empowerment, and that has been a source of healing and growth for so many women, including Dounya herself.

Through sharing these stories, Dounya has been able to open up more and talk about her own struggles and hardships with the hope of helping other women find comfort in knowing that they are not alone.

The latest season of Unswtnd + Unfiltrd has recently launched, and it will be the beginning of Dounya’s journey running the podcast on her own. With each new relatable and inspiring episode, she continues to amplify women’s voices and tackle the tough conversations we all need to hear and have in our community.

As “a lover of justice and equality,” as she describes herself in her personal Instagram bio, Dounya is not only making an impact online through her podcast, but offline as well through the many philanthropic initiatives she has been a part of, as well as those that she initiates herself.

In 2015, she created a GoFundMe campaign for a Walmart employee that was fired after being wrongfully accused of stealing empty cans and bottles. The campaign generated over $20,000 worth of donations that gave him the opportunity to change his life for the better. This is just one example of the powerful efforts Dounya has made to help others and support communities in need, in addition to her continuous and endless support of the Palestinian cause.

For all of the work she is doing to bring about positive change in and beyond our community, for all of the lives she is impacting, for her beautiful, kindhearted soul, and the strong, inspirational role model she is for Muslim women everywhere, Dounya deserves to be celebrated.

So without further ado, I am going to pass the “mic” over so that you can learn more about this incredibly admirable Muslim woman from the lovely storyteller herself.

Read on to hear Dounya’s inspirational story, as well as her perspective on a variety of important topics including faith, hijab, and divorce, and to find out what more she has in store for Unswtnd + Unfltrd!

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Where do I begin? I am a proud Palestinian American Muslim woman, born and raised in Chicago, but of course, my heart resides in the village of Al-Bireh, Palestine. It’s interesting how many, if not all, of my decisions have been made solely based on my identity. The majority of my choices or way of thinking has been birthed from being Muslim–that’s what I truly identify with first and foremost.

I graduated from DePaul University with a Bachelors of Science in Business and I majored in Accounting. I work full-time for a private asset firm here in Chicago, but I knew that wasn’t the end of the road for me.

As much as I love crunching numbers, I also have a passion for exploring my creative side. Ever since I was little, I would cradle a drawing pad and some markers and draw my loved ones. My creative side shifted in adulthood and I began to draw less and write more, and I share my writing through my platform.

Interestingly enough, the reason behind my writing and the creation of my podcast are actually identical. Being the first-born daughter of immigrant parents, as rich as my childhood was, there were moments where I was faced with adversity and I had no one to turn to.

“It’s interesting how our hardships can lead us closer to what is meant for us”

What I mean by that is, a lot of women share this same sentiment where they feel alone at times with whatever they are struggling with, and that’s because we often sweep these hardships underneath the rug for fear of what society might say. It’s interesting how our hardships can lead us closer to what is meant for us, and this podcast and the sisterhood that has bloomed from this platform is something that I will forever be grateful for.

Aside from the podcast being my passion, oftentimes you’ll find me in a local cafe indulging in a lavender latte and my nose buried deep in either a memoir or any other nonfiction piece. I used to actually work with publishing houses and share book reviews on my Instagram. My love language is truly coffee and books!

I absolutely love cultivating relationships with people from all walks of life and I am fortunate to have the chance to meet so many different women who truly inspire me. I am oddly enough an extroverted introvert–I love mingling with people, but I also love my solitude just as much.

What is Unswtnd + Unfltrd, and why did you start it?

I would have never thought in a million years that I would be a podcast host, but here I am now, an avid podcast listener and storyteller. Unswtnd+Unfltrd was released in 2019, and the intention behind it was to share the stories of women from all walks of life.

Growing up, I was either too young to hang out with my older cousins or too old to hang out with my younger cousins, and so I was tragically stuck in the middle. Unfortunately, when I had gone through certain obstacles, taboo at that, in my life, I felt so alone. As appreciative as I was of the support given to me by my loved ones, to no one’s fault, they couldn’t truly understand what I was facing.

“We come from a society where a man’s whisper is heard louder than a woman’s scream.”

This is why I have poured my heart and soul into this platform because I understand what it means to navigate certain moments in life with no guidance or validation. I want this platform to be a safe space and to extend as a helpful resource for all women within our community and other communities, too. I don’t want women to feel like they have to face any fight on their own.

The intention and the mission behind this podcast is to primarily focus on elevating the voices of women. We come from a society where a man’s whisper is heard louder than a woman’s scream. I want every woman to feel empowered and to know that her story is powerful, and for her not to feel silenced or alone in her struggles. But I also want to highlight the many triumphs that these women have achieved, too! That’s truly worth celebrating!

What kind of impact has your podcast had, not only on your life, but on the life of others, and the community? What have you learned the most through this experience and the stories you’ve heard and shared?

How many times have you gone through something difficult and felt completely alone in your experiences? Chances are you weren’t alone, but how would you know this when the stories of women are constantly being swept underneath the rug?

Oftentimes the guest and I talk about super tough topics like divorce, mental illnesses, navigating grief, relationship struggles and conversations surrounding abuse, which can be very heavy. And yes, those conversations are challenging to have openly and publicly. These stories serve as a reminder that Muslim women, and women in general, are resilient and can conquer anything that they are faced with.

I also love to showcase empowered women who go against the grain to accomplish incredible things like writing a New York Times Best Seller! The podcast has highlighted women who work day in and day out to create a fair and just system in the political sphere. I’ve also had women who educate others on how to care for their bodies. These are the conversations we NEED to have.

“There are those who finally feel seen and heard, even if it’s not them behind the mic sharing their story.”

So many women have either emailed me or sent me a direct message expressing their appreciation for these stories, these episodes laced with vulnerability and resilience. There have been quite a few women who have personally shared with me that they are finally seeking therapy, or that they are better communicating their boundaries to their respective partners or parents.

There are those who finally feel seen and heard, even if it’s not them behind the mic sharing their story. That’s super powerful–to drown in self-doubt and then you finally hear another woman speak, and you see yourself in her story and finally feel validated.

I’ve learned, as cliche as this sounds, that everyone is truly going through something, that it’s super important to have compassion towards one another. There have been times where I was in awe of the stories shared by my guests, like you would have never guessed they were facing such difficult hardships.

What are your future goals for Unswtnd + Unfltrd?

This is a tough question to answer since lately I have been trying to be more present, but goals are something that are healthy to put in place. I would have never imagined for this podcast to flourish in the way it has for the past two years (it’ll be two years in March, Inshallah).

I just know that I will leave the future of this podcast in the hands of its listeners and supporters. Ultimately, that’s who it was created for, and I am excited to see where these conversations take us. I am excited to continue seeing this platform grow.

“Our stories need to be told and deserve to be heard.”

We have surpassed 285K downloads. In its inception, iTunes recognized us on their platform as “New and Noteworthy.” From that moment, I knew this platform would be something I would continue to fully invest my heart in.

Our stories need to be told and deserve to be heard. Life is truly unpredictable, and currently I am riding the waves and hoping for the best when it comes to this platform and what God has intended to come out of it, Inshallah.

Your podcast is helping shed light on many topics our community often doesn’t discuss like divorce, domestic violence, infertility, etc. Why do you think our community chooses to suppress these topics and what work still needs to be done to normalize these conversations? Why is this so important?

I truly feel, in my personal experience, that we have an unhealed generation raising our generation. Our parents and grandparents had their share of trauma, but they didn’t have the resources to heal their wounds.

There is also a lot of shame running through our community surrounding these topics. This leads to more deception and less education in regards to the rights of women and how to navigate certain situations.

“Our faith empowers women”

Our culture in a way takes the front seat, while our religion is being negated from our everyday lives. Our faith empowers women–there is no shame in divorce, seeking professional help in regards to our mental health, or even something as specific as the rights of women within intimate relationships. As rich as our culture is with its traditions and so on, there is a sub-sect that tells us otherwise and so, for so long we have decided to stay hush hush about these so-called “taboo topics.”

For now, I can’t stress enough how important it is to continue sharing these stories and to embrace them without any judgement. I truly have a lot of hope for our generation. We are challenging these cultural ills and making decisions for ourselves.

Have you ever received any criticism or backlash for discussing these topics? If so, how do you deal with that?

I truly have not received any to my surprise since we do talk about many different and challenging topics. I think with the release of the very first episode, a woman had messaged me and let me know that she enjoyed the episode, but she also hopes we can highlight the beauty of our culture. I couldn’t agree more!

The purpose behind discussing these topics isn’t meant to shame our community and bring it down. Rather, it’s meant to educate and empower us more through our struggles, and I always try my best to tie it back to our faith, which actually always happens naturally.

But for anyone else dealing with backlash, I think it’s important to listen first before getting defensive. Understanding why someone feels the way they do and what you do with that feedback is up to you.

Photo taken by @qookio on Instagram

As a Muslim woman who isn’t wearing the hijab, have you ever been made to feel “less than” or not “as Muslim” as those who do wear it? How have you overcome that, and how can we as a community be more inclusive and respectful of one another’s journeys with our deen, especially in regards to the hijab?

We have shared so many episodes on this topic, and it seems like we still have a lot of work to do. Some people have such an obsession with the outer and physical appearance of women, and they completely negate the personal experiences or choices of women. No one has the right to tell you how to present yourself, especially in terms of physical appearance.

“…no one can tell me where I land on the scale of what it means to be Muslim.”

We are all struggling in our own ways, especially when it comes to our spiritual journey. We truly need to stop this dissection of Muslim women and crucifying them for how they choose to practice their faith.

Did I at times feel less than or not fully Muslim for not wearing the hijab? Of course, but this came from external sources and not how I viewed myself internally.

But thankfully, I have moved past that mindset and I truly know what’s in my heart and what conversations I have with God behind closed doors, and no one can tell me where I land on the scale of what it means to be Muslim. Hijab is such a beautiful journey and one that I hope to find myself on soon, Inshallah.

In a podcast episode, you share how “going through a divorce was the hardest but most rewarding lesson you’ve ever gone through and that you learned so much about yourself through that.” Can you talk more about this?

Going through divorce was something I never planned for, but to be truthful, I never planned to marry young either. But at the time, I was allowing others to make choices for me, even the person I was with.

Through this hardship, and honestly, I would say it was more so a traumatic experience in more ways than one, I finally decided to take accountability. But first, I had to work on my relationship with God. It was almost nonexistent during the time I was in that abusive marriage.

I completely lost control of everything including myself. It was like I carried all of this shame and guilt and I made myself believe that I wasn’t worthy of Allah’s mercy.

Looking back, I wish I could embrace that woman that felt so scared and so fearful, anxiety-ridden and hopeless, and I wish I could tell her that everything will be ok, better than ok.

“It has helped me understand that life isn’t meant to be lived by the terms and conditions that others have in place for me.”

I remember one night where I honestly felt like giving up, and I finally chose to muster up the courage to ask Allah for help. I remember just pleading with God to get me out of this situation, and after I finished praying, I felt so much peace for the first time in a long time. The next day, I woke up and decided to finally get out.

But my journey was far from over–I suppressed what I went through for years. I had a breaking point this past summer where I felt everything from that point in my life had finally caught up with me. I finally got a therapist, and honestly, it has been the best decision of my life.

Going through that divorce allowed me to work on my relationship with God on a much deeper level. It has helped me understand that life isn’t meant to be lived by the terms and conditions that others have in place for me.

How can we better serve women who have been through or are going through a divorce, to help them transition back to society? What support/resources do we need to offer as a community?

I think we need to first and foremost focus on how to prevent these divorces from happening in the first place. What I mean by this is, I feel like we come from a community that pressures us into marriage, but doesn’t prepare us in the least possible way.

Do we encourage seeking individual therapy before entering this lifelong commitment? Do we provide open discussions in regards to intimacy in Islam, or the rights of a woman in a marriage?

“…we need to remove the stigma surrounding divorce.”

Have we sat down with the couple and discussed the importance of financial literacy? What expectations does each person have of one another? What about having more discussions about what red flags to look out for, and how to exit a relationship that doesn’t feel right before one makes the decision to walk down the aisle?

In regards to assisting divorced women to transition back to society, we need to remove the stigma surrounding divorce. I have seen our community negate the traumatic experiences a divorced woman has gone through. The last thing she needs to hear is how she is at fault for allowing the marriage to deteriorate.

We also need to find ways to financially support these women, and to also help them navigate the legal aspect of a divorce. Thankfully, there are many incredible resources out there. but these conversations need to happen so that we can shine the light on these incredible organizations that do help women.

What advice do you have for Muslim women who may be going through a divorce or is struggling in some other way? How can we be strong despite the negative experiences we face, and not let them define us?

Going through a divorce, even if amicable, can still come standard with grief, frustration, heartbreak and feeling like you’ve failed. Other times, a divorce can be super traumatic and messy, and she may need more than a shoulder to cry on, like a counselor, legal help, etc.

But I want to let her know that she isn’t alone, that this isn’t the end for her, and she’s super brave to make such a heavy decision that at times may come laced with a lot of doubt.

Someone once said that these hardships written for us by Allah are also the same struggles that Allah said we will get through 100%. Every hardship I have gone through has only brought me closer to what is meant for me. It has only strengthened my relationship with Allah.

“Detach from what was and appreciate where you are at this moment.”

These experiences may be difficult, but they always come laced with silver linings. Sometimes, we have to dig a bit deeper, but they are there.

I also advise these women to not carry the voices and opinions of those from their past life. Detach from what was and appreciate where you are at this moment.

Sometimes, we hold onto the beliefs even after the negative experience has occurred. It’s super important that we don’t feed ourselves verbal abuse, especially when we have found the strength to leave the person who was doing the same thing to us.

If you aren’t already an obsessed listener of the Unswtnd + Unfltrd podcast, join the club by checking out their website for more information, and subscribing to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Listen Notes, and iHeartRADIO. Stay tuned for more amazing discussions, and be sure to follow Unswtnd+Unfltrd on Instagram, and Facebook to stay engaged and up to date on new episodes!

Ayah Shaheen
Ayah Shaheen

Founder and editor of AM Women Magazine, Ayah Shaheen always had a passion for writing and reading magazines. She graduated with a BA in Journalism and a minor in graphic design, and it was during her time in college that her journey with AM Women began. Having had such a difficult time navigating through life as a Palestinian American Muslim, she saw the need for a resource that would provide guidance for women like her. Although she always imagined herself working for a popular editorial publication, the lack of representation and her inability to connect with the branding and content of existing magazines motivated her to create her own. By creating this online platform, Ayah is living out her dream of helping American Muslim women live their best lives one article and story at a time. When she is not busy plugging away on her laptop, you can find her either spending time with family and friends or rummaging through racks at her favorite clothing stores. She’s a lover of all things fashion, beauty, Oreo, crab rangoon, and she has a Gilmore Girls kind of obsession with coffee.

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