Yes, A Hijab CAN Be Stylish

One woman wears her head scarf adorned with crystal-covered triangle jewelry, a nose ring, and electric-orange lipstick. Another blows a kiss to the camera, hand on the hip of her moto jacket. A third woman strikes a regal pose, her chunky cocktail ring worn over her gloves. These young Muslim ladies are from New York, London, and Paris, and they are captured vividly in photographs by Sara Shamsavari, a British artist of Iranian heritage.
Shamsavari's portraits are striking not only in the beauty and vibrancy of her subjects, but in the way they bust the myth that there is only one type of Muslim woman or one way to wear the hijab. In the West, where the hijab can be frequently portrayed as a symbol of oppression, it's beautiful to see women who wear the symbol of their faith with style and pride. By avoiding the typical clichés and letting her subjects' personalities speak, Shamsavari's photographs occupy a space somewhere between portrait, street-style document, and political statement.
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We spoke with Shamsavari about her "Veil" series of portraits, which she says are inspired by the ideals of non-judgment, equality, and unity. "There are so many kinds of beauty," she says, "but theirs is one that has not yet been widely celebrated."
Read on for our interview with Shamsavari and to see her captivating portraits. And, stay tuned to Shamsavari's website and Facebook page for updates on her forthcoming book.
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Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Seot/Sara Shamsavari.
Thanks so much for speaking with us, Sara. Can you tell us a bit about your work?

"I am a photographic artist based in London. My work explores identity and looks at current social and cultural concerns. While each photographic series has a distinct focus, at the heart of my work I hope to encourage the ideals of non-judgment, equality, unity in diversity, and collective responsibility."
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Shamsavari, from the series NYC Veil.
How did you begin photographing women who veil?

"It seems that, over the last decade or so, women who veil have been targeted with a lot of prejudice and abuse in the West. The work is neither as a critic nor an advocate of the hijab, but exists rather to recognize and celebrate its participants as strong, vital individuals who manage to shine despite the struggles of youth, womanhood, and prejudice they may receive as a result of the visibility of their faith."
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Shamsavari, from the series London Veil.
How do women react when you ask to take their photo?

"Surprise, enthusiasm, happiness, gratitude, mostly. Not all people are talkers, but what a person communicates nonverbally through their choice of clothing, colors, prints, and accessories, or through their smile or expression, can speak volumes."
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Shamsavari, from the series NYC Veil.
There's a common perception in the West that women who veil are forced to do so or are somehow oppressed by the hijab. Does your work aim to change those perceptions?

"Overall, not just relating to the veil, I hope my work in this and other series is able to challenge stereotypes and negative perceptions and somehow bring us all closer together."
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Shamsavari, from the series NYC Veil.
Another common perception in the West is that women who veil are so modest that they're unconcerned with fashion. Do your series aim to disprove that?

"That misconception has perhaps been perpetuated in the media, but in reality, on the street, people are people, regardless of whether they wear the hijab or not. There will always be people who dress simply and subtly, and people who dress with creativity, vivid color, and expression. There are so many kinds of beauty, but theirs is one that has not yet been widely celebrated."
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Shamsavari, from the series London Veil.
Have you noticed any differences between the women you photograph in France, England, and the U.S.?

"Directness and confidence in NYC, pride and attention to detail in Paris, and idiosyncrasy and politeness in London seem to be as much a part of the participants' personality as the way they wear their hijab."
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Shamsavari, from the series Paris Veil.
Please tell us a bit about your forthcoming book and if you plan to continue your project in other cities.

"The book is in progress, and I would be delighted to continue the series, so watch for the updates on my site and social media."
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Shamsavari, from the series NYC Veil.
What is one thing you'd like people to take from your work?

"I'm inspired by transformation, and the projects both illustrate and are inspired by the influence of our perceived restrictions, limitations, and challenges and how they make us more creative."
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