As a Muslim woman, if you live in a Muslim majority country, you can almost not realise that you have the very distinct privilege of not having your religion either define the entirety of your identity from the outside in, or inversely, differentiate you in a very pronounced way from those around you. In an Arab country, many of your peers share your religion and your religion in turn seeps into much of your culture; the corollary is that you are not whittled down to a label at sight, but more importantly, you yourself don’t feel alien. You are not the Other. But when you are the rare Muslim in a sea of people who aren’t, you can begin to become hyperaware of all of your inherent differences.
Muslim women are often painted as submissive or backwards in mainstream media, or as super fashionable bloggers, but we rarely see young Muslim women who are ‘normal’
“Obviously growing up in the west, my religious teachings often clashed with things my peers were doing and things that I wanted to be a part of,” says Lamisa Khan, the co-founder of the London-based photo collective Muslim Sisterhood. “I completely understand why people struggle with parts of Islam, because as humans we want to be accepted.”
The Muslim Sisterhood collective (no relation to the Egyptian religious entity), which photographer Khan founded along with artists Zeinab Saleh and Sara Gulamali was designed with the intent of creating a digital space that visually collated what being a Muslim woman in London looked like. It aimed to create a community of women who could see themselves represented in a very real way, a way that actually resonated with their own experiences, not only fostering a sense of unity among them, but also combatting the tokenism often associated with Muslim women, and reclaiming the narrative.
We shoot in parts of the city that have large Muslim and ethnic communities, places that have been integral to our British Muslim experience
“Muslim women are often painted as submissive or backwards in mainstream media, or as super fashionable bloggers, but we rarely see young Muslim women who are ‘normal’,” explains Khan. In contrast the collective, whose work has been exhibited at London School of Economics and the Victoria and Albert Museum, seeks to capture the quotidian – and the multitude of faces that make up that representation of every day young Muslim women across London. A cursory skim through their Instagram account will reveal a flurry of women of different sizes and with different skin tones; women from divergent ethnicities and with every version of the hijab on or off – it’s an ode to the diversity of Muslim women in the city.
I completely understand why people struggle with parts of Islam [when they live in a Muslim minority country], because as humans we want to be accepted.
Growing up, all three girls experienced that internal dichotomy that often comes with being a Muslim growing up in the West. “I didn't have many Muslim friends, so I somewhat struggled with my Muslim identity,” Gulamali recalls, “I was brought up in a household which really encouraged Islam, but going to school and socialising I found it very difficult to be open about aspects of my religion. Feeling comfortable about wearing hijab or asking for a place to pray, things like that felt hard to come to terms with as I was so self-conscious about the narratives that would surround me or what people would think of me.”
Feeling comfortable about wearing hijab or asking for a place to pray, things like that felt hard to come to terms with as I was so self-conscious about the narratives that would surround me or what people would think of me.
The three founders of Muslim Sisterhood. From left to right: Zeinab Saleh, Lamisa Khan, and Sara Gulamali
In the Arab world, your religion and your culture are very much intertwined. In fact in many countries, culture is the dominating factor, even in nations with large Christian populations such as Lebanon and Egypt. But what about when you’re Muslim, but your culture is not Arab? Your religion then becomes very much separated from your culture in what can rapidly evolve into a game of tug-of-war with your identity. “I grew up in a very working class white area and had quite a strenuous relationship with my faith and heritage. I always felt internally that I was other and really struggled with being comfortable with the duality of my British Muslim heritage,” Khan recalls. “When you’re told to behave a certain way at home and outside of home everyone is doing otherwise, it can be hard as a young person to deal with both the external and internal pressures. I saw my faith as a restriction enforced on me by my parents rather than as a way of life I had chosen.”
This internal rift was a large part of what drove Khan to create Muslim Sisterhood. “I didn’t see Muslim women represented in a ‘cool’ or accessible way in media,” she says, “For us now the aim is for young Muslim girls to be able to see other people who look like them and live like them.”
I grew up in a very working class white area and had quite a strenuous relationship with my faith and heritage. I always felt internally that I was other and really struggled with being comfortable with the duality of my British Muslim heritage.
And part in parcel of this honest representation is that the trio places a strong emphasis on embracing people of colour, both as the subjects featured in the photos and as the people behind the settings and places they select for their shoots. “We shoot in parts of the city that have large Muslim and ethnic communities, places that have been integral to our British Muslim experience,” Khan explains. In homage to their backgrounds, the girls often select PoC owned places to shoot; places where they get their prayer gear, their hair oils, or their halal food – places which factor or have factored into the fabric of their daily lives. “A lot of these areas are unfortunately becoming victims of gentrification so we like to celebrate local businesses and establishments run by people of colour, like corner shops and chicken shops.” These places were also consciously chosen for the fact that the girls felt comfortable there, where, in Sara’s words, they “didn’t have to feel like we were saying ’sorry’.”
...we like to celebrate local businesses and establishments run by people of colour, like corner shops and chicken shop.
In the same vein, the three founders also staunchly stand by the fact that women of colour should also be unapologetic for their skin tone and believe in using their platform “to tackle anti-blackness within the Muslim community.” Anyone who has lived in the Arab world or in a Muslim community for some time might have noticed that racism can, oddly enough, be very much present, the irony being that as Muslims and Arabs, we are often discriminated against, and yet many are willing to propagate that same discrimination against people with darker skin. “I think the reason that anti-blackness exists as whole is out of the history of colonialism in our mother nations,” Khan posits.
Sometimes it is explicit; darker skinned people are called names and a litany of pejorative terms, looked at as lesser, denied jobs; and sometimes it’s simple as women being encouraged to lighten their skin, a seemingly superficial act that holds miles of discrimination beneath the surface. “We celebrate women from all different backgrounds and also recognise colorism as a problem within our community. It’s a matter of ignorance and it’s important for us to help our communities unlearn these views that were passed onto them,” Saleh explains. “We don’t want to reproduce the same toxic western beauty ideals so we constantly check ourselves and make sure we bring awareness to the conversation.”
We recognise colorism as a problem within our community. We don’t want to reproduce the same toxic western beauty ideals so we constantly check ourselves and make sure we bring awareness to the conversation.
And it is this key trait – bringing a sense of awareness to the conversation – that is perhaps the most important component of Muslim Sisterhood’s message. Awareness about diversity and community; awareness about beauty, reality, and damaging social constructs.
“The project was made by us for us, and that’s why it’s important for us to raise these important issues that impact our Ummah,” says Zeinab simply, “It’s up to our generation to do the work because otherwise who else will?”
You can follow them on Instagram @muslimsisterhood.