Toronto-based photographer diversifies images of Muslim women
"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," said Mehnaz Ahmed. (Alia Youssef)
Amara McLaughlin, CP24.com
Published Tuesday, March 21, 2017 2:05PM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, March 21, 2017 3:54PM EDT
A Toronto-based photographer is challenging "representations" of Muslim women after she says she was treated as a "one dimensional person" because of her faith and background.
Alia Youssef’s portrait series, "The Sisters Project," diversifies images of Muslim women by sharing their stories and portraying them in a space that’s meaningful to them.
"Muslim women are really painted with one brush stroke," Youssef said. "Women have been seen this way for so long that people start to hate this whole group of people because they only see one representation of the religion."
This "one dimensional" needs to be challenged, Youssef says.
"It’s the stereotypical image of the women in a hijab, maybe even a niqab, where only her eyes are showing," she added. "This is the idea I’m trying to counter with this project."
This is the main stereotype the 21-year-old is combating with her photographs.
Her photos cast scientists, business women, artists, teachers, designers, athletes and environmentalists – showing Muslim women in a variety of "unconventional" roles.
Youssef is a fourth-year photography student at Ryerson University.
She began taking these portraits two months ago as part of her senior thesis.
"It has been a really eye-opening experience to learn about how Muslim women are represented," she told CP24. "I learned so much, not only about my religion but also about representation as a whole and where these representations really come from."
Although Youssef grew up in Cairo, Egypt until she was eight-years-old, she says she does not appear "visibly Muslim."
"People make assumptions about what my views are because I don’t look visibly Muslim,” she stated. “They’re always surprised when I tell them I am Muslim."
In one form or another, Youssef says all the women she’s photographed have experienced this too.
One woman, Mehnaz Ahmed, an undergraduate science student at the University of Toronto, says she has been treated as the "token" Muslim.
"In most environments I find myself in (at U of T, a lab, airplanes and other countries), I believe that I am perceived as a minority," she told Youssef. "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."
"People just assume she isn’t from here,” Youssef added. “They take her as a token immigrant even though she grew up in Canada."
Ahmed, like others, participated in "The Sisters Project" because she was ready for a “different representation.”
"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," Ahmed said.
"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."
Youssef has photographed 30 women so far and hopes to continue the project after she graduates.
"I want to keep this project alive because I think it is really important," she said. "I’m continuously trying to meet more Muslim women and share their stories."
Youssef will be showcasing her photographs on May 4 at the Ryerson School of Image Arts.