As I looked into the dark, almond-shaped eyes of a woman donning an American flag-themed hijab, I could not help but have mixed feelings. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing the normalization of Muslims and women wearing head coverings, especially through a poster intended to protest the inauguration of the very man hellbent on ostracizing us. However, beyond the flag imagery — we’ll get to that in a second — my first impression was that the light-skinned, head-covered woman has become the token image of Muslims in America.
The image is quite the stereotypical depiction of Islam in America. But in the Muslim community, we know that on a very basic 101 level, not all Muslims have the same skin color, nor do all women wear a scarf upon their head. Do these differences make us any less a Muslim? No.
In a conversation with Muslim Girl, the original photographer revealed that complexion was an important factor when he created the original piece. On the contrary, for Ridwan Adhami, he said it had to be a a darker girl.
“For me, it couldn’t be a white girl or a light-skinned Arab girl,” Ridwan explained. “Making it a girl with Brown skin added an additional layer of meaning.”
Then there’s the flag. It reminds me of tacky flag-themed clothing that borders on a violation of the U.S. Flag Code. It also brings to mind those cliché images of a middle-aged suburban white dad trying to identify with his son and prove he’s “cool” by wearing baggy clothes and a backward ball cap, using inappropriate and outdated slang to validate himself.
It’s hard not to notice that the Muslim woman’s image is the one that has to prove its patriotism the most. Not only does she have to literally have the symbol of our country plastered across her head in order to “belong,” but the meaning of the hijab has to be co-opted by the nation. The American flag is one that, for many people, has come to be known as a symbol of militarism, capitalism, orientalism, and neo-colonialism. All concepts that have harmed Muslim women in irreversible ways.
And yet, even the American flag hijab is not enough. Through a side-by-side comparison, it’s clear that not only was her skin lightened, but she was also slimmed down to resemble more Euro-centric features (check out those cheekbones!) and she was given bright red lips to top off her look. Even when overcompensating her display of American pride, the Muslim woman is sexualized and made to look more attractive to the Western gaze.
While he might not have been originally motivated by these concerns, according to Ridwan, the idea he had in mind didn’t look like this. Not only was red lipstick never part of the plan, but he also said he even specifically asked the model to keep her make-up muted and eyebrows unplucked.
“[I] explicitly remember telling her nude makeup when she asked,” he said. “She intentionally didn’t pluck her brows.”
It’s without a doubt that the imagery is striking. However, it’s important to note that the posters that so many waved nationwide were a whitewashed version of their Muslim photographer’s vision. They were a lighter-skinned, high-cheekboned, thin-browed, and red-lipped image manipulated in an effort make the Muslim woman embraceable.
This was the original photo:
This is what Fairey created:
I would have loved to see a less sanitized depiction of a Muslim woman being used, giving a real push back to the status quo of being Muslim and American. At the same time, it’s interesting to wonder, how do we know that the images of the woman with a flower in her hair and the other with dreadlocks were not also Muslim? Because… they surely could have been.
At the same time, it seems as though that right now, at this moment in time, this is the type of imagery capable of resonating with the American public. Despite feeling like yet another token Muslim image has been created, it’s still a point of pride that the original photo that became a symbol of the largest protest in U.S. history was taken by a Muslim photographer. Let’s celebrate the milestones, but never allow ourselves to stop asking questions about symbolic representation.
Edited by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh and Naaz Modan.