How one photographer is changing representations of Muslim women

Earlier this month, Getty Images announced a new partnership to promote positive images of Muslim women online. Muslim Girl founder Amani Al-Khatahtbeh identified how a Google search result for “Muslim women” only showed one-dimensional stock footage. There’s a lack of creative images that portray positive representations of Muslim women and truly show the diversity of their lived experiences.

Alia Youssef, a Toronto-based photographer, saw this problem and set to solve it through her work. She started capturing images of Muslim women, from all backgrounds, in spaces that are meaningful to them. It’s as simple as showing a scientist in her lab as she prepares experiments. Or an athlete that is getting ready to train. The common feature is that all the women are Muslim, and shown in unconventional ways. Well, unconventional if you are only used to seeing tired tropes and stereotypes that completely miss the diverse experiences of muslim women’s lives, and further dehumanizes them. Below you’ll see some of the portraits that comprise Youssef’s The Sister’s Series, which will be shown at the Ryerson School of Image Arts on May 4th.

Soad, an environmental design student.

“The hearts of all humans are my nationality: a quote from the poem Jawaz Al-Safa by a dear poet to my heart, Mahmoud Darwish.” Was Soad’s answer to my question “what’s your nationality?” It gets better — when asked her what sect of Islam she is she responded, “Love”. (Alia Youssef)

In Youssef’s words:

“From pre-19th century imperialism to Trump’s Muslim ban, colonial representations of Muslim women have circulated in literature and media time and time again. These representations depict Arab women as voiceless, oppressed, demure, and helpless, essentially complete victims of their patriarchal societies. This one-dimensional image is stamped repeatedly on the bodies of every single Muslim woman, all 850 million of them, Arab or not. This “sameness” has had a part in motivating a 42% increase in the number of hate crimes against Muslim women in the past three years and has become the basis for widespread Islamophobia.

The Sisters Project counters the idea that Muslim women can be painted with one brush by humanizing and diversifying the narratives of Muslim women. The project asserts that agency and individuality is broadly present in Islam, intrinsically and extrinsically, in the everyday lives of women across the globe. The portraits that make up this project show Canadian Muslim women doing and creating, showing their abilities, and excelling on all levels in their communities. Whether a kinesiology student considering medical school, an ESL teacher who eases immigrants into Canadian life, or the program manager of Ecotrust working tirelessly to preserve the British Columbian rainforest, these women make up the fabric of contemporary Canada. This project subverts labels and false associations, counters voicelessness and lack of agency, and shows women in control of their lives.”

Amal, 22-year old Somali-Canadian

When I asked Amal how she thinks she’s perceived she responded, “To be honest, being Muslim is one thing, but being a black muslim woman is the most powerful combination of things and it scares the hell out of people.” (Alia Youssef)

Dina, 22-year old kinesiology and health science student at York University.

“I think I am perceived as if I am in a shell. I know nothing. People get surprised when they  see how well I play tennis, or that I speak three languages, or that I ride bikes, or that I sing, or that I do anything normal people do.” She wants to instead be “perceived as someone who can do anything, can speak about anything, and someone educated that knows what I am talking about.” (As told to Alia Youssef.)

Randa, Kinesiology student from Egypt.

“When I asked Randa what she thinks the biggest stereotype of Muslim women are she responded, ‘That she is severely oppressed, which is the biggest joke too. Every time I hear this I laugh, I laugh at the ignorance.” (Alia Youssef).

Sahar, 33 regulatory affair specialist in pharmaceuticals from Iran.

Sahar told me if there is on thing she knows for sure it is that, “we are nothing – everything is nothing but love.” (Alia Youssef)

Lobna, 19 year old student at York University.

When I asked Lobna how she thinks she’s perceived she responded, “I don’t think I am perceived as a Muslim woman since I’m not visibly muslim, people usually don’t guess my ethnicity, but, as a woman, I think I am more perceived on my appearance than I’d like to be. I would like to be perceived as a human being without judgemental tags, and for people to get to know the person I am instead of the person I appear to be.” (Alia Youssef)