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Podcasts voiced by Muslim women have often stayed in niche communities, but The Digital Sisterhood, a podcast launched last year, is on the brink of mainstream success.
The series focuses on the empowerment of Muslim women and it has struck a chord with listeners all over the world for its discussions aimed at hyperconnected Gen Z and millennial Muslim women, often discussing taboo topics and building an online community whose members now attend offline events together.
On Apple Podcasts, The Digital Sisterhood hit the fourth spot on the “Top New Show” chart and is currently No. 1 in the Islam & Spirituality category for the US, UK, New Zealand, and Australia. As of this spring, the podcast has reached 1 million downloads.
The Digital Sisterhood gained more popularity during Ramadan, when many young Muslims try to observe their faith more. I first came across the pod at that exact time, as I cut back on music and replaced it with podcasts, including this one.
The founder and host of the podcast is Cadar Mohamud, 29, from Toronto, who graduated university last year with a major in human rights and equity studies from York University.
We spoke on a Zoom call, and if you’ve listened to a Digital Sisterhood episode, then you know that it usually involves tears, sometimes a lot of them, so it was entirely on brand that we both cried during our conversation.
“The whole thing about TDS is that we are driven by empathy,” Mohamud said. “I really believe empathy can save the world. Call me corny.”
The podcast came together after Muna Scekomar, a former intern for NPR’s Terrible, Thanks for Asking and founder of Beautiful Light Studios, approached Mohamud, after struggling to get story ideas about Black and Muslim people accepted elsewhere.
On the podcast Mohamud has interviewed mainly Muslim women who have experienced different hardships in a raw, vulnerable way, and they talk about how their faith has helped them.
The podcast hasn’t shied away from topics that might be seen as taboo by the Muslim community. Mohamud had her mom come on the podcast to talk about love; women have come on to talk about dealing with grief, how they dealt with their cancer diagnosis, and finding strength after sexual trauma and violence.
And listeners are connecting with it. Alimat Diallo Mahmoud is a 28-year-old from New York who started listening to the podcast last year.
“I was seasoning chicken very late into the night, and instead of opting for some Afrobeats or Bollywood jams, I wanted something else,” she said.
“Whenever I would listen to an episode, it felt like I was in the studio with [Mohamud],” Mahmoud said. “At times it felt like pieces of my own story were being shared.”
Mahmoud said episodes 2 and 3 — a two-part story about a woman named Hilaal, who ended up relocating to a new city due to her ~rebellious~ behavior, and then how she processed the death of a friend — broke her in the best ways.
“Heartache, societal pressures, sadness, and love were the parts of her story that made me feel seen,” she said. “I remember listening to her cry and I cried along with her and Cadar. Her love for Allah and his words, Al-Qur’an, reaffirmed that I wasn’t alone.”
There are very few publications and online spaces available for young Muslim women — perhaps minus joking on MuslimTok or on alt accounts on other social media platforms. The Digital Sisterhood provides a space where religion, faith, and community can mix with discussions about mental health, love, and the internet.
Hafsah, a 21-year-old listener from Canada who asked that her last name not be published for privacy reasons, said she discovered The Digital Sisterhood through an Instagram story.
Hafsah said she finds the stories relatable, but that two episodes featuring Hilaal are also ones she has returned to when she’s feeling low because they strengthened her connection to her religion.
“Listening to Hilaal’s story and how she tied her healing so close to the Qur’an sparked something within me,” Hafsah said. “It made me realize that deep down I’ve had this passion to seek Islamic knowledge and begin my journey to memorizing the Qur’an.”
Lamisah Chowdhury, 18, from London, found the podcast through social media and decided to start listening on her way to university, and was particularly drawn to Episode 19, where author Asmaa Hussien discusses love and longing.
“It was how she overcame the tragedies that she lived through, was able to talk about it openly and now happy and successful after it,” Chowdhury said, explaining that the episode gave her hope at a time she personally needed it.
Some cover dark topics. In Episode 13, a woman under the alias “Sabryna” spoke about her experience of being sexually assaulted. That interview resonated deeply with listeners. Mohamud noted that many people reached out asking if they could get in touch with Sabryna to share their own story and took comfort in hearing from other survivors of sexual assault.
“You see the numbers, and it's a little bit alarming,” said Mohamud, who added it was often younger women and children reaching out about the episode, including one as young as 11. While Cadar and I spoke about the episode and the response it got from the community, Mohamud started to get tearful, and so did I.
What was most powerful about Sabryna’s story was that she told listeners that what happened to them wasn’t their fault and reminded them of their worth — a message that is not always spoken about loudly in Muslim communities.
“She's affirming the people who experienced this particular violence at this age group,” Mohamud said.
Sabryna later created an Instagram account to talk to some of the listeners, but after a few weeks, she was overwhelmed and had to stop. “I am so sorry that you've all experienced this,” she posted. “But hearing your stories is particularly taking me to a really bad place, and I need a break.”
Not all episodes are heavy, but listeners who may have experienced a similar situation as the guests of that episode often share that they go away feeling stronger.
Running a faith-based podcast means focusing on building a community, said Mohamud, who is now running podcast events for The Digital Sisterhood across the US, including hosting live recording in a burqa, a far cry from the usual white man from Brooklyn podcast cliché.
The podcast has led to a Discord server, whose more than 1,600 members talk about Islam and nonreligious related topics, such as anime, parenting, and cooking.
“I understand that this work is not about gaining this and that,” Mohamud said. “I just want to do something that matters.”
Having seen some of their older video clips, I asked if they plan on pivoting to video, like a lot of podcasts have nowadays, but Mohamud said any visual storytelling would be through illustrated art.
“Our designs and our images are very animation-based because I wanted to avoid the objectification of women,” she said. “Obviously these women are telling intimate stories. I don't want them to also have to think, Do I look good?”
Instead, the focus is exactly where it should be: on their stories.