Dounya Of Unsweetened & Unfiltered
by Zoe Rayn; Editorial Director
Instagram can be an annoying place, but it can also be a magical one. The amount of talented, kind and hilarious people I've been fortunate to meet through the app make the stupid algorithm and influencer content worth sifting through. This proved itself to be true again earlier this summer, when a young woman named Dounya slid into my DM's to introduce herself and her podcast, Unsweetened & Unfiltered. Naturally intrigued, we chatted and set up a coffee date where we spent an afternoon talking about everything and anything; from identity, to faith, dealing with trauma, and most importantly, having pride in your heritage.
Dounya, an outspoken Palestinian activist and feminist wanted to create a space for women to feel like they aren't alone in their hardships or struggles. Each episode highlights a new guest and ranges from serious issues to more lighthearted topics - all aimed at bringing us closer because, at the end of the day, we're all in this together.
Z: Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
D: My name is Dounya which means the world in Arabic and it is actually pronounced the same way it is spelled. When I was younger I used to dislike how many vowels there were in my name but the current me appreciates my parents for the unique way they decided to spell it.
Born and raised in Chicago, but as much as it is a huge part of my being, I will always call Palestine home. I am Palestinian from both sides of my family and I try to visit my homeland often. I always used to say that to be Palestinian doesn’t only mean I am from there, geographically speaking, but it is what makes me who I am. It has taught me empathy, strength , vulnerability and to always fight for others and for what is right.
I am the oldest of 5 children which means that my life consisted of many trials and errors. I didn’t have an older siblings to look up to, but fortunately, I have finally reached a point in my life where I am content with who I have become. A woman of many stories, a woman of no regrets, a list of mistakes transformed into lessons learned and someone who wants to continue growing in order to change the world for the better. Even if I create a small ripple, it is more than I had anticipated for myself.
Z: What inspired you to create a podcast? Was there a specific moment that you knew it was what you needed to do?
D: The internet is an interesting place to say the very least. My co host, Zaina Kahuk and I have been friends on Instagram for quite some time. We communicated through likes, a shared love for sarcasm and the many DM’s girls send one another to say, “Hey, I see you and I appreciate what you are doing.”
This online connection became a real life friendship when Zaina reached out to me to discuss potential projects. Her goal was to highlight the voices of women from Muslim and non Muslim Arabs, South Asians and North African communities. I messaged her back right away to let her know I am all in!
I have always had this urge inside of me to do something outside of sharing posts on social media. I just didn’t know where to start and what it is that I wanted to do. Initially, we wanted to make videos of women sharing their stories from across the world. The thing is, Zaina and I didn’t have any mileage points, sorry not sorry, and we were balling on a budget currently. This meant that flying to the guest’s city to create these videos of their personal stories was not realistic. So, back to the drawing board we went. A few lattes later, and a couple of more head scratches - Zaina suggested that we create a podcast!
Here’s a little confession: I never knew what podcasts were until that day in March of 2019.
From that moment on we have been hard at work to bring stories, specifically ones detailing taboo topics, to life. Our goal was to share stories of struggle and hardships of women while also highlighting their many triumphs. In return, this would allow other women to not feel so alone in whatever they are going through. Thankfully, it has been uphill ever since!
Z: That’s crazy! And so far you’ve only been up and running for three months and seemed to have received an incredible response! What has been your favorite part of this journey?
D: This is a project that demands a majority of our attention but I now understand the saying, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”. This isn’t to say that we haven’t come close to pulling out our hair or at times almost quitting but it is something I genuinely love doing. I haven’t been excited about something in a long while and so I will forever be appreciative of Zaina for bringing this idea to life.
I recall posting on my Instagram page about creating this podcast and right away my DM’s were flooded with women saying, “We needed this”.
Taboo topics such as mental health and divorce are not commonly spoken about across all cultures not just mine. But I wanted to hone in on specifically how our community goes about these life events. This is where it differs from one faith, one culture and one group of people to the next.
It was exciting when we were randomly browsing Itune’s one day and we came across the “New and Noteworthy” list and we saw our podcast highlighted under two different categories! Side note, Itunes should notify people when they make these lists b/c we could have totally missed it.
To see our podcast on this list meant the world to us because out of the thousands and thousands of podcasts out there, we made the list! Little old us with no podcasting experience but the passion to create change got us on this list!
Aside from this accomplishment, what truly makes my day is when women reach out to us to simply say thank you. Thank you for making me feel less alone. Thank you for talking about this much needed topic that needs to be discussed. Thank you for providing an outlet for young girls and women of all ages to feel like they have a space to share their most vulnerable stories with no judgement.
I am not one to believe in small circles. This world is filled with billions of people and I want my circle of friends and group of women to come from all walks of life. We need to continue connecting with one another and sometimes it just takes one shared story to bridge the gap between humans.
Z: Using our voice is such a crucial part of encouraging change, on both small and large scales, what do you hope your listeners take away from U+U?
D: I want our listeners to know that they are not alone in whatever struggle they are facing currently. I have gone through many hardships in my life and at times I would ask, “Why me?” not knowing it wasn’t only me going through this.
I want us to learn from one another and I believe society needs to understand how to empathize with one another. Once we grasp this idea we can learn how to understand each other’s struggles. With knowledge comes empathy and with empathy comes love. Love allows us to see that we are more alike than different.
We live in a time where we have filtered out the bad parts and learned how to only showcase the “perfect” snapshot of who we are. It’s not healthy that we have focused so much on perfecting our online presence and neglected who we are offline. When we see others “thriving” in their 15 second snaps we find ourselves in this rabbit hole of not being good enough or the feeling of being overwhelmed that things are not going right in our lives. With the stories we share on our podcast, we show the vulnerable and raw side of who we are. We want to showcase the stories of hardships that we normally don’t show the world.
As an Arab woman, I also feel the need to defend who I am and the faith/culture I come from. This is because the wrong narrative is being highlighted by the media and it is unfair. I want us to take back our stories and rewrite them from our authentic point of view. I am here to speak up for myself and allow other women to tell their stories unapologetically.
Z: Lastly, any exciting episodes/projects/events coming up?
D: We have been working nonstop to create episodes weekly for our listeners. We are hoping to expand our guest list to include women from all walks of life to showcase the parallels between all of us, regardless of faith and culture. It is truly gratifying to see brands contacting us wanting to collaborate, too. We are currently working with FabFitFun and Amazon Audible!
It makes us feel whole knowing that this project is coming full circle! Recently, we have also become members of The Wing here in Chicago. It is a collective space for women to get their work done, collaborate and attend workshops and events.
We have connected with so many women through this process and we hope to continue this momentum of growth and seeing our ideas come to life!