Photographer Alia Youssef On Depicting The Truth Of What A Muslim Woman Is Like Through Her Work
- IWB Post
- August 12, 2019
The Ryerson Image Centre, in Canada, recently hosted a unique exhibition – pictures of Muslim women. And no, not in the usual manner where she is either depicted as the victim who is silent, not in control or to solely discuss the fact that she wears a hijab or burqa. She is much more than that – a fact that Canadian photographer Alia Youssef presented at her exhibition of ‘The Sisters Project.’
Even when she was a young teenager, she had this inherent desire to use art to share a different reality of what a Muslim woman is like and thus, years later, she started her project, The Sisters Project. With the intention to show the world how Muslim women really are, she traveled to 12 cities across the country and photographed 85 Muslim women to see them in their communities, their homes, or at their jobs.
When Mehnaz isn’t busy being a full time Bachelor of Science student, an undergrad researcher, and a senior mentor with the FITF Peer mentorship program, she enjoys going to quaint neighborhoods, independent gelato shops, and strolling by a large body of water on a nice day. She is 21 years old, was born in Canada, and her favourite quality in someone else is when they put in the effort to learn things about her. This brought up an interesting question of how she feels others perceive her, and she told me “In most environments I find myself in (UofT, a lab, airplanes, other countries) I believe that I am perceived as a minority. Sometimes I think people see me as a token… a representation of the ‘Muslim woman’, almost like a prototype for how most Muslim women act, what they do, and what they aspire to be. ” Then I wondered on the contrary how she would like to be perceived, “I would like to be perceived as a capable, intelligent, confident person whose determination, perseverance and resilience amounted to any success I am fortunate to receive. Furthermore, I hope to one day be perceived as a kind, generous, philanthropic leader who just happens to be a follower of Islam and is a good role model.”
139 Likes, 3 Comments – The Sisters Project (@the.sisters.project) on Instagram: “When Mehnaz isn’t busy being a full time Bachelor of Science student, an undergrad researcher, and…”
In a recent interview with VICE, she shares her experience of meeting such varied personalities and her aim behind the project.
On The Sisters Project
“It started a year and a half ago in the fourth year of my undergrad, I was taking a class called women in Islam. Being a Muslim woman, surrounded by a lot of Muslim women we were talking a lot about present day representation. One day one of the women said ‘I’m so tired of being painted with the same brush stroke, as every other Muslim woman’ and I think it was something that I’d been thinking about as well. Also, since I’m a portrait photographer I think it just kind of set a light bulb off.”
Randa’s favourite pastime is playing tennis or running in the streets (even in the winter!). She told me running is the best stress reliever when her Kinesiology workload is heavy. Randa is 20 years old and has an air of confidence about her which is so refreshing, her own favourite quality is “that I believe in myself, I believe I can make a change one day, I believe I can be a doctor and follow my dreams, even if so many people try to make me not to.” Randa moved from Egypt 5 years ago, and goes back often, her favourite place is on the beach in Sinai, Egypt, and she loves hanging out with her high school best friends from Egypt who make her laugh so much it hurts. When I asked her 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. I don’t even take the time to defend them, because if I told them how awesome we are, they would never believe it anyways, but it’s enough that WE believe in ourselves, we don’t need anybody telling us what we are and what we are not.”
137 Likes, 2 Comments – The Sisters Project (@the.sisters.project) on Instagram: “Randa’s favourite pastime is playing tennis or running in the streets (even in the winter!). She…”
On how it all started
“So I did it as a thesis project for school and then while I was still in school it got popular. Somehow the parliament of Canada found out. So when I graduated I had already established that people were passionate about the project and I continued working on it. I realized I was showing a lot of women from Vancouver and Toronto, but my statement said that it was a project about Canadian Muslim women, so I felt like it was time to get some other perspectives, other experiences from Muslim women that weren’t just in some of the “biggest cities” in Canada.”
Tazeem is a 49 year old licensed Esthetician, spa business coach, blogger and author. She has most recently contributed to the best selling book, “365 Life Shifts” with a chapter called “Slow Down to Re-Frame.” When she’s not working, she absolutely loves learning, especially from business and personal development books, and she is obsessed with Pinterest. Tazeem’s own favourite quality is her passion for all that she does.She also loves meeting new people, creating connections, her smile, and her enthusiasm for life! (It really is such a breath of fresh air when you meet her.) When I asked Tazeem what is most important to her she responded, “Always be kind, if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything ♥”
106 Likes, 5 Comments – The Sisters Project (@the.sisters.project) on Instagram: “Tazeem is a 49 year old licensed Esthetician, spa business coach, blogger and author. She has most…”
On the false stereotypes she is hoping to address
“I feel like growing up mostly post 9/11, there were two images of how Muslim women specifically were depicted in the media. The first one was, well really is an invisibility of Muslim women. There weren’t ever really stories of how successful or exciting—really any positive stories coming out about Muslim women.
“I wear hijab, so I know for sure that if I want people to think differently about Muslim women, I will have to be a representative of that. I try to appear open, fun, easy to talk to and all the positive stuff. So when people talk they say, “Oh I have a Muslim friends who sings”, for example.” ▫️ Dina is a 22 year old kinesiology and health science student at York University. Although her favourite place is at her beach house in Sinai, Egypt (where she originates from), anywhere that she can sing makes her happy. Dina can speak three languages, loves swimming and diving, plays and coaches tennis, loves dancing and likes meeting new people. Since Dina is visibly Muslim her answer comes as no surprise when I asked her how she feels perceived: “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.”
176 Likes, 1 Comments – The Sisters Project (@the.sisters.project) on Instagram: “”I wear hijab, so I know for sure that if I want people to think differently about Muslim women, I…”
So that left the only other depiction that you really ever saw, which was ones of trauma, ones of grief, from those from abroad, depicting war-affected areas or were talking about clothing, the only real stories you see about muslim women are where she’s’ the victim, she’s silent, she’s not in control, or we’re talking about her clothes. Not in Teen Vogue, not in television, not in movies. I think all of that really played a part in how I felt about myself growing up, how I felt about being Muslim myself because it definitely affected me in a bad way because I thought people would only assume the negative stereotypes on me.”
On how she found the women in every city she went to
“That’s a great question. Facebook mostly. I used social media to help me find these women. Canada’s quite small in the way that people are connected. And then of course when I got to the cities themselves people would be like, ‘oh you’re for sure photographing this person, right?’ and then I’d be like… ‘no?’ and they’d say, ‘let me connect you!’ So once I actually got to the city a lot of people would advocate for people I didn’t know about in their community. I was really overwhelmed by the kindness. Even though it was really daunting to do this by myself, I really found my subjects were my biggest supporters and helped in whatever way they could.”
“Tea meditation leads to contemplation for me. Anything can be a dialogue with the divine when you transform it from the mundane to the sacred.” ▫️ Aalya is a 27 year old Pakistani-Canadian who identifies as a Nizari Ismaili Shi’i Muslim. She described her identity to me as being a minority within a minority within a minority. When I asked her how she would like to be perceived, Aalya told me, “I want to be perceived as that person whose thoughts, words, and actions reflect the Islamic ethos by helping those who exist on the periphery of society and its norms.” Being informed about her identity and faith itself is important to Aalya, she is completing her masters degree in both education of Islamic societies and civilizations and teaching. She is also a secondary religious educator. Aalya told me what’s most important to her is “being an inclusive ally for others and seeking consent, always. The safety, wellbeing, and happiness of my loved ones are also very important to me.” Aalya appeared to me as very thoughtful, conversational, and spiritual, she admits that she believes she is perceived as “a spiritually rooted happy-go-lucky camper who thinks and talks excessively.” She mentions often that she is always thinking; her favourite place to find herself is when she is lost in her own head. “I have a vivid imagination and possess a reflective nature. Getting lost in one’s thoughts can be a dangerous habit. So it is just as important to find myself. The only time in her life she can recall not being flooded with thoughts is when she was skydiving 7 years ago, “but after the free fall, thoughts began to float back into my mind,” she told me.
180 Likes, 9 Comments – The Sisters Project (@the.sisters.project) on Instagram: “”Tea meditation leads to contemplation for me. Anything can be a dialogue with the divine when you…”
On what she learned from Canada’s Muslim women community as a whole
“I’ve learned so many things that I’m still processing. But speaking to the similarities between all of them, I think all of them are really on the same page as me. I guess the people who joined the project are believers in the message of the project, meaning that they all feel the weight of the stereotype in their own cities one way or another. I really felt like a lot of people, despite where they were in Canada, or how big or small the city was, there’s a lot of advocates for the Muslim community and I think muslim women, in general, are super involved—it really feels like everyone is volunteering or working with some organization to try to better their own community or try to better Muslim women’s experiences in Canada, so that was something that really struck me.”