Visible Women

The photo series dispelling the myth that Muslim women can’t be career-orientated

‘Trailblazing Muslim Women’ celebrates the achievements of Muslim women in the workplace. Stylist speaks to some of the women featured in the photos. 

When we think of Muslim women, the mainstream media rarely celebrates them as career-orientated. Myths abound of them supposedly feeling too ‘trapped’ to work or having to ‘pick’ between their faith and their career.

And when Muslim women do make history, like Australia’s first female MP, the narrative is framed as “breaking boundaries”, “stereotype-defying” or their career trajectory is framed as one that’s overcome abuse or violence.

These clichés motivated London-based creative Zainab Khan and freelance photographer and videographer Maaria Lohiya to launch ‘Trailblazing Muslim Women’. The first photo series of its kind, it celebrates and showcases the lesser-known achievements of Muslim women in the workforce on their own terms.

Featuring 21 portraits of Muslim Londoners from diverse backgrounds making strides in their respective industries, including a ‘squad’ shot, participants include entrepreneurs, a documentary maker and a musician.

The ‘squad shot’ is in part inspired by similar shoots popularised by the likes of Vanity Fair and The Hollywood Reporter’s roundtables. The annual erasure of Muslim women – and women of colour more generally – in these photos was integral to Khan and Lohiya’s motivation.

“I’ve always looked up to them but there was never enough representation, enough women like me. I wanted young Muslim girls to learn to be themselves unapologetically and be inspired by powerful, amazing women like the ones part of this project,” Khan tells stylist.co.uk.

“It’s time we stopped waiting for a more honest space in the media and make that ourselves,” Lohiya adds.

With the project part of a broader shift of collectives reinventing tired narratives of British Muslim women, such as Project Ribcage and Change The Script, it’s never been more pressing to celebrate their achievements, given that Muslim women are already at a disadvantage in the workforce.

In 2016, the UK Women and Equalities Committee found Muslim women were three times more likely to be unemployed than women generally. Those in the workforce face multiple challenges: many feel they have to prove they don’t conform to stereotypes, while others dread being told to uncover their hair or face unemployment, a concern that feels particularly pertinent after last March’s controversial ruling that headscarves can be banned at work.

Particularly poignant is the shoot’s celebration of the diversity of Muslim women when the community has long grappled with anti-blackness. After all, as Khan says: “Islam transcends culture, ethnicities and nationalities.”

Ahead, participants discuss their experiences of taking part in the shoot, why it’s so important and the impact this might have on young Muslim women.

Raifa Rafiq, 24, creator and co-host of the Mostly Lit podcast, trainee lawyer and writer

It’s important that Muslim women – who are often portrayed as either oppressed or an ‘exotic’ Instagram make-up guru – are shown to be successful and impactful in the world. I would have loved to see a photo series like this growing up. When you don’t see anybody that looks like you occupying those spaces, you start to wonder whether you’re worth it. You get used to being the one person not being seen.

Had I seen women like me who were black, Muslim and who wore the hijab in the mainstream media, it would have done wonders for my self-esteem. Seeing fellow black Muslim women [at the shoot] allowed me to look at how our successes can be normal.

I hope this ‘new normal’ extends to other black, Muslim women. The shoot stands up and says ‘look, we’re here and if you don’t want to represent us, we damn well won’t sit and wait for you. We’ll do it ourselves’.

Shahnaz Ahmed, 33, senior designer at Livity and founder of Knit Aid

We do need role models that aren’t just bloggers or fashionistas. When Muslim women are mostly judged on their appearance, it’s great to see how they redefine that appearance through blogging and fashion.

But it’s important that Muslim women are allowed to define themselves without attention on their appearance. Having a daughter of my own, I’d like to think that she sees women achieving in different ways as she grows up. And that includes quiet ways, off-camera ways – there are so many.

Fatima Akhter, 25, software engineer and co-founder of Project Ribcage

This shoot shows that there are mothers, daughter and sisters who can still be true to their faith and have exciting, vibrant and successful careers without needing to compromise who they are. When I was younger, a shoot like this would have opened my eyes to the numerous possibilities and avenues [open to me] and removed any worries I had about my future.

Muslim women need to remove any glass ceiling that we may have curated in our heads. I hope that when young Muslim women see this, they’ll realise that they have the tools to succeed – all they really need to do is believe in their potential.

Saraiya Bah, 28, poet and cultural producer

I’ve been very fortunate to be taught from a very young age that faith and career go hand-in-hand. I come from a long line of Muslim women who are multiple business owners, home owners, work within the corporate world and still fulfil their obligations to their faith.

Within the Muslim community, black Muslims are marginalised and don’t receive the same recognition for accolades and praise in comparison to their Arab or Asian counterparts. This, coupled with the rife anti-blackness we experience, can make you feel alienated or that your accomplishments don’t count.

The most memorable aspect of taking part in the shoot was the amount of passers-by who looked at us with smiles on their faces. There are a lot of times where Muslim women feel weary about interactions with the general public, especially when there are tragic terror attacks. Although you know that you’re not responsible, you feel like you’re being constantly judged. So to see them shout out a compliment was a nice memory.

The advancement of the digital age has made the documentation of Muslim women’s achievements more accessible. But do I feel there should be more opportunities to celebrate them? Of course.

Nadia Javed, singer, songwriter and guitarist in The Tuts

I front a female band in a genre and industry dominated by white men. It’s important to show the world that Muslim ‘rock chicks’ like me do exist. I’m shocked to see how few Muslim girls actually play instruments and go into musical careers.

We need more Muslim role models to inspire other girls, empower them and make them believe that they can do things outside of the norm and that there is a community of support.

We’re a long way from having decent representation of Muslim women. But that’s one advantage of social media: we can control our content, we have our own platforms and can reach out, follow and support other Muslims. I’m already seeing a change.

Alia Alzougbi, 38, storyteller and educator

This is a story we don’t often hear and when do hear it, it’s tokenistic, almost as if a Muslim woman is exceptional for the work she is doing. Trailblazing Muslim Women stretches people’s imaginations about who can inhabit which role. With this project, the possibilities of ‘who does what’ are stretched.

Halimat Shode, 24, writer, public speaker and editor-in-chief of The Black Muslim Times UK

I hope this shoot will provide a fresh perspective for those who believe we’re restricted in our lives and daily careers. But I don’t believe the responsibility lies with us to rectify how the wider public views us. No matter what we achieve, many will still see us as oppressed because we practice Islam and/or cover our hair. To each their own. But if someone hasn’t come across positive representations of Muslim women before and is influenced for the better by this shoot, that’s great.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Follow Salma Haidrani on Twitter: @its_me_salma