If you haven’t heard of Alia Youssef yet, you will. The up-and-coming Canadian photographer is on a mission to not only blaze a trail for Muslim women in the industry, but also totally flip their image on its head. Her latest series, “The Sisters Project,” profiles Muslim women in a way that might make you think twice before you judge a book by its cover. Or, in this case, its photo.
“The Sisters Project combats negative stereotypes of Muslim women by showcasing the diverse stories of inspirational women across Canada, while also creating a space of inclusion and belonging for all self-identifying Muslim women to embrace and celebrate their unique identities,” Alia explained to Muslim Girl.
And it’s been resonating. So far, her work has been showcased at the Parliament of Canada, the Aga Khan Museum, and Nuit Blanche. Alia has also been recognized with both the “Combating Hate, Advancing Inclusion” award and the Dr. Julius Lukasiewicz Award for “producing photographic work that reflects the unique ability of photography to capture images which normally escape the naked eye, and with the touch of a finger, record beauty as it exists everywhere.”
Oh yeah, and did we mention she shot for our Muslim Girl x Getty Images stock photo collection?
Below, Alia talks to Muslim Girl about the inspiration behind her work, how anyone can get involved, and her advice for Muslim women trying to break into the field.
“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.
Growing up as a Muslim woman, in some cultures practising creative talents are admonished because of enforced gender roles. Who or what inspired you to learn photography?
My mother was always passionate about photography and studied filmmaking at London Film School before I was born. As I grew up, it was clear how creative I was so she knew I would inevitably also become an artist. Although I tried many forms of art before finding photography— I dabbled in acting, playwriting, painting, and drawing, but quickly pushed everything else aside when I first picked up a camera. The moment I picked up a camera was at a children’s birthday party. My mom handed me her point-and-shoot and asked me to snap some photographs of the kids. I got very entranced with my assignment and spent the rest of the party taking photographs. When we got home, my mom looked at the photos and acknowledged that I had talent in the area so she fostered it. My mother and father quickly helped me get my own DSLR camera and I began becoming the neighbourhood photographer: I did everything from birthday parties, to family sessions, to headshots, to a CD cover, to shooting my first wedding within the first couple months of that first event. Since I was making money from photography and winning awards from the very start, I believe there was no reason to not support me as I grew as an artist. My father’s sole request was for me to take it as seriously as possible, so that’s why I ended up moving to Toronto to go to Canada’s top school for photography.
“Everyone wants to be perceived in a positive light but at the same time I'm not looking for anyone’s approval. If you aren't perceived positively find or create spaces where you are, and always remember your existence is your biggest form of resistance.” ▫️ Amal is a 22 year old Somali-Canadian. She loves trying different foods, doing activities with her friends, and enjoys having deep meaningful conversations with folks. When she’s alone she likes to paint and read. (She actually painted the mural behind her in this photo.) Amal’s favourite quality is “that I am able to constantly self reflect and figure out ways in which I can improve myself. “ The most important things in life to her is having piece of mind and being happy which is a constant process for her. 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.”
The Sisters Project has become more than a photo series. Your subjects link up and foster sisterhood. Did you expect such growth?
When I first conceptualized the project, I had no idea it would be anything more than a school thesis project. Everything that came next has been a huge surprise and a blessing. When I started to realize that the women in my photo series were connecting, supporting, and speaking with one another I was elated. One of the core reasons I began the project was my craving for a deeper connection with Muslim women, and my hope to one day feel that sisterhood. The fact that it has happened for me and for the women in my project is incredible because I think this sisterhood is what’s most needed right now.
“When I email people, they think I am a man because my field of work is definitely overwhelmed by men, so when they see me, they see a little chunk of a woman. Breaking stereotypes is important in my work as a researcher." ▫️ Dyhia is a 32 year old Algerian-Canadian. She is the program manager at Ecotrust Canada and an advisor for Africa at the University of British Columbia's, Sea Around Us. When she isn’t working hard she likes to go on hikes and her favourite place to find herself is in her bed. Being a working Mom it's the only time she finds time for herself. Dyhia’s favourite quality about herself is that she is bold and outgoing. When I asked Dyhia if she feels visibly Muslim she responded, “Yes my hijab says it very well and people often tell me, "welcome", thinking I am a Syrian refugee or something.” I also asked her how she would like to be perceived and she commented, “I like breaking stereotypes so it is not important for me how and what people think about me. Whatever they think, I will exploit it in my favour. “
How did you come up with The Sisters Project?
I took a “Women In Islam” course in my final year of university and we were speaking a lot about Muslim women’s representations in historical and present-day media. One class, our teacher invited a guest speaker from a local Muslim women’s organization and one of the speakers said: “I’m tired of Muslim women being painted with the same brush.” I had wanted to start a portrait series for my next school assignment, so I decided at that moment that I would start a photographic portrait series that showed how diverse Muslim women were. Before I began taking any photos I did a lot of research on how the community was feeling and if this project was something the community would appreciate. One of the books I read was actually Amani Al-Khatahtbeh’s book “Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age.” What she spoke about struck a chord with me that my feelings on media representation and growing up post 9-11 were shared. I began photographing my mother and sisters and quickly started meeting women of all ages, backgrounds, and careers in Vancouver, BC and Toronto, ON and started asking them similar questions about how they feel they are represented, perceived, etc. I then took all the photographs and interviews and started the Instagram, which I have been updating once a week for a year now with inspirational Muslim women.
“Although at times immensely challenging, being a mother has been integral to my identity and academic accomplishments. Even on long tiring nights that I have had to nurse a sick child whilst studying for exams or writing papers, I have never felt like my being a mother has dampened my dedication or hindered my success. If anything, motherhood has grounded me as a scholar and enhanced my learning and teaching. And as a reward for my devotion to both, with each child I have reached a new echelon of education and honour.” ▫️ Sabreena is a soon-to-be mother of four as well as a PhD candidate and researcher at McMaster University (Hamilton). Her fieldwork is in areas of migration, race/ethnicity and identity and Sabreena is frequently called upon as an expert regarding these issues by academic publications and the media. On top of this, she also sits on the Board of Canadian Council of Muslim Women (Toronto) and is the co-leader of “Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom”– a female-led, interfaith, social justice initiative that combats anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim discrimination. Until recently, Sabreena was also a makeup artist. The different facets to her led me to ask how she feels she’s perceived. Sabreena told me, “In the academic universe, women who are fashion forward are often seen as incapable of also being intelligent and driven. Especially in the earlier part of my career, I felt this was yet another reason for me to have to work harder to prove myself to those who doubted my abilities. And, for many years I hid my weekend job [as a makeup artist] from my department for fear of being branded. Because I like to dress well and look polished I am often perceived by other academics as not the intellectual type, that's until I open my mouth or they see my writing, that is, then all doubts are cast away.”
As a Muslim woman who is projecting Muslim women as themselves from a diverse range, how do you deal with negative backlash in response to sensitive subject matter?
The internet can be a very mean place, especially to Muslim people. I’m creating a positive, empowering space on the internet that showcases amazing Muslim women and I will do my best to keep the internet space I occupy safe for the people in my project. What I’ve also learned is, I can’t control what gets said when the project is shared through other channels and media, all I can do is hope that my project has affected more people positively, and changed more minds, than what I can see from certain comment sections.
”I step outside of others' expectations. I've been like that for a long time and I know it's been a challenge for my family to witness. I never necessarily surpassed expectations but I also haven't failed to fulfill any. I think I just learned early on to put them aside and look for answers to my questions.” ▫️ Faye is a 29-year-old Vancouver-based tattoo artist. She is best known for exploring her roots through sacred geometry and being inspired by ornamental art, Arabian/Islamic geometry, Indian henna/mehndi, and textile motifs. Rainbows are commonplace in the studio where she works, which is symbolic of how much it is a happy place for her. Besides the studio her favourite place is to be surrounded by children and animals. She told me, “they don't judge or have the same kinds of assumptions as we do, so I feel safe in being my truest self with them.” Faye told me she would feel incomplete without animals. Her favourite hobby is walking in the forest with her dog and she has backyard chickens named Booklah, Sophie, Elsa, Dandelion, and Susan. “They are all beautiful and full of personality. In exchange for food, shelter, and water, they gift us with fresh eggs everyday.” When I asked Faye what’s most important to her she simply responded, “The pursuit of justice.”
What advice do you have for Muslim women going into artistic or creative fields?
My advice to everyone, not just Muslim women, is to hone your story and figure out how to communicate it with your passion. I believe that this project is as successful as it is because I am so passionate about the message. A portfolio of photographs, paintings, songs etc. that you have no personal connection to or that anyone else could make, won’t be what’s successful. Viewers, as well as people in the industry, want to know your motivation and why this particular story is important to you. So if you care about environmental issues, create art about it. If you’re obsessed with animals, make art about it. If you care about mental health, make art about it. Just make sure that you’re in your own art somehow, and make sure you care. Also, remember the purpose of why you’re doing it, because if you stay true to WHY you’re doing it, then nobody’s negative responses can phase you. Remember why you’re making it for yourself and for people like you.
“Working out is one of the most important things I do for myself every day. Working out grounds me, challenges me, forces me to pay attention to my body, it strengthens me so that I can be more focused outside of the gym.” ▫️ Outside of the gym, Ayesha is the Canada Research Chair in Religion, Law, and Social Justice, she is also an Associate Professor at the Social Justice Institute (University of British Columbia), and a Member of the Board of Governors at UBC. Ayesha told me her best quality is that she works hard. She added, “I have been blessed with a life full of joyous gifts and a countless number of these gifts are unearned, just plain lucky. Like, having a healthy, functioning body, being born into a middle class family in a country where economic mobility is possible, being born at a time when women at least rhetorically have equal rights. But a lot of the gifts are the result of persistent, hard work. As women of colour, we’re taught to undervalue our hard work, but we work hard. Some of the hardest working people I’ve ever met are women of colour.” For someone that does so much, time is invaluable. Ayesha told me that the one thing she knows for sure is that time is limited on earth and that we’re allowed to be greedy with it. Ayesha told me, “I want to spend my time doing what I love, with the people I love. I want to be incessantly, eternally, ceaselessly in love; in love with the people, in love with coffee, and light, and cherry blossoms, and the ocean.”
What’s next for you?
In March I will be having my first public artist talk at the Ryerson Image Centre (Toronto.) I’ll be talking about Muslim women’s representation pre and post 9/11, I will be talking about my collaboration with Muslim Girl and Getty Images on their campaign to flood the web with positive images of Muslim women, and of course, I’ll be focusing on The Sisters Project. After that, I’ll be co-teaching a digital storytelling course at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (Surrey, BC) designed specifically to empower Muslim women to tell their stories through photography and film. In the summer, I’ll be embarking on a cross-country trip in hopes to meet, photograph, and interview more incredible Canadian Muslim women. As well I’ll be creating a short film about the trip which will be published in the fall. Come September, I’ll be exhibiting The Sisters Project in a solo exhibition at the Ryerson Image Centre (Toronto) which is very exciting for me, as I’ve been looking forward to having a solo exhibit of the project since I began it.
“My yoga centre is my OM away from OM. It is my sanctuary, it is the place I have created for others to feel connected to themselves and each other.” ▫️ Salimah is a 46 year old entrepreneur, yoga centre owner, and yoga therapist. She is of Indian origin, was born in Nairobi, Kenya and immigrated to Canada when she was 4. She absolutely loves walking, especially if it’s to a place she has never been before. Being in new situations with new people is actually the quality she loves the most about herself. It’s one of the reasons ‘saying yes’ is so important to her, it allows her to continually shift perspective, and find herself connecting and laughing with others. The person she laughs the hardest with though is her son who Salimah told me has “spontaneous answers to just about anything.” Salimah has such a positive and beautiful outlook on things, she told me that she believes “in the magic of life, in giving up what’s good for what is even better, in a higher power, and in acting on intuition.” When I asked Salimah how she thinks she’s perceived she responded: “Lesbian, Yogi, Brown, Muslim aka Human” but she would prefer to just be perceived as human.
If other sisters would like to participate or support you, what is the best way for them to do so?
The best way to support me personally is to follow and share. I created this project so that it could be viewed and interacted with, and sometimes it’s difficult to get that attention no matter how much media coverage gets placed on the project. It means the most to me when people put my project on their stories or repost some of the images because it shows that they believe in this project enough to attach their voice to it.
If any Canadian women would like to be involved I’m doing a cross-country tour this summer. If they follow the Instagram page and DM me, or email me through the website www.thesistersproject.ca I will for sure get in touch with them.
“The student group office represents a lot of my growth in university. This is somewhere I find I can stress, work, cry, and laugh all within one space. It’s a space where I feel whole, instead of fragments of my various identities that I feel in other spaces.” ▫️ Dahab is a 21 year old Eritrean-Canadian, for the majority who don’t know where Eritrea is, it’s a small East-African country. Although Dahab herself is not an immigrant, she would like to be a social worker working with immigrants and refugees and doing community development work. Dahab is a huge fan of food, so her favourite past times will either be cooking, eating, or finding new food spots. When I asked Dahab how she feels she is perceived she told me: “In the area of Toronto I live in I am perceived as belonging because most of the people around me look like me or understand that my code of presentation does not make me less than. I feel like I'm viewed as the "average/everyday Muslim". In other areas of Toronto and other places I have been to I think I am perceived in clouds of negativity either as foreign, suspicious, oppressed or stupid. To complicate it a bit more I feel the perception of me is not only influenced by the scarf on my head but the way I dress as a whole. I can see the difference with the way I am taken in by others when I walk on to campus in an abaya versus when I walk on to campus with ripped jeans and tights underneath. The airs of foreignness and oppression fade a bit but the feelings of suspicion, and stupidity remain. The scarf on my head has attached me to a religion and I love that, but others see this attachment and the degree to which I am attached as threatening, like I am someone that needs to be watched. I also feel like I'm perceived as stupid because religion and spirituality is something that I feel society looks down upon, and to hold firm to a religion, something that you can't "prove" is somehow indicative of my level of intelligence.”