These 6 Photographers Are Muslim, But That's Not Why You Need To Know Their Work

Yumna Al-Arashi
To celebrate the first-ever Muslim Women’s Day, we spoke to six diverse female artists from around the world. These women are creating work that reflects on the modern Muslim experience and culture.
Influenced by inward and outward perceptions, each is using their art to explore identity and femininity, challenge misconceptions about Muslim women, and redefine the unique narratives of the Muslim experience.
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Nadirah Zakariya

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

In a series of self portraits she calls Thirty-Two, Malaysian photographer Nadirah Zakariya explores her identity as a woman living with Vitiligo, a skin condition that causes the loss of skin pigment in blotches. Accompanied by found objects, Zakariya decides to shoot herself “as-is" in her home, without concealing her Vitiligo spots, which she says she used to hide for years. Inspired to spread awareness about what Vitiligo is within her community, Zakariya unveils its power to be beautiful and empowering.
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Has your experience as a Muslim woman influenced your work or the way you approach it?

"Islam encourages us to seek knowledge, and that has been my main motivation in all that I do. For each project I embark on, there is always something new to learn. Sometimes it is learning about my own self growth.

"Growing up in Malaysia, I was not exposed to many Muslim female artists except for the works of Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. Of course now there are more Muslim female artists producing incredible work, and with social media platforms their work is easily accessible."
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Are there any challenges you've found being a Muslim photographer and getting your work out there?

"I am fortunate to be based in Kuala Lumpur where being a Muslim and a female photographer is not so uncommon. The art community here is also booming, so it is quite an exciting time to be in Southeast Asia."

What do you hope your work inspires in people?

"I hope that people will be inspired to express themselves in any form, regardless of gender, religion, race, or background. I believe everyone has a story to tell that we can all learn from."
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Yumna Al-Arashi

New York City and Los Angeles

In her project Northern Yemen, Yemeni-Egyptian-American photographer Yumna Al-Arashi sets out to reframe the image of the hijab, challenging the all too quick assumptions made about veiled women. Photographed against the Yemen countryside, a place she calls a second home, Al-Arashi transforms the hijab and the women underneath into captivating symbols of power, emulating the Yemeni women she describes as strong leaders of home and land. Combining dramatic landscapes with bold silhouettes, Al-Arashi's delivers an empowered vision of femininity through arresting images of grace, strength, and beauty.
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Your images evoke such power and beauty. What was your intention with this representation?

"My intention is to show the true power and beauty of a woman. I'm interested in seeing less of the imagery of women where she is empty, sexual, and pretty. I'm interested in inspiring other women to view themselves this way. To dig deep and find that powerful woman. I make work about women for women."
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What did you want to say to or about Muslim women with this project?

"I'm tired of the victimized image of a Muslim woman. I feel as though the way western media portrays us is just as oppressive to her as they believe the veil is to her life. We see a veiled woman and our brain has been trained to automatically think of pity, oppression, and have-nots. I want us to stop looking at Muslim women this way. This project's goal was to see the Muslim woman in another light, a more powerful one."
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Ayesha Malik

New York City and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

In ARAMCO: Above the Oil Fields, photographer Ayesha Malik delivers an intimate look inside Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, a gated community originally created as a home for American employees of the Arabian American Oil Company, now known as Saudi Aramco. Exploring the layers of identity within the 22-and-a-half square-mile town housing the world's wealthiest company with the world's largest energy reserves, Malik captures the complexities of a home that is neither fully Saudi nor fully American, and shares the surprising warmth, familiarity, and timelessness of this place that so many Aramcons call home.
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Do you think there is a need to reframe how Muslim women are perceived?

"Yes. In the same way that women have had to reclaim their identity, I feel as though now more than ever there is a need for women who are specifically Muslim. I think the world — and this is a generalization — often sees Muslim women within this sort of impermeable black box. Whether it's a hijab or even a niqab or abaya, people automatically see “Muslim." Some wear it and some don’t. It is a covering, and doesn’t necessarily imply anything about the women wearing it and it shouldn’t. As a society, we have allowed ourselves to read into appearances so heavily.

"I remember someone looking at a photo of mine, and saying the woman was wearing both a symbol of oppression (an abaya) and holding a symbol of freedom (a smartphone). I felt pretty frustrated by the statement. I thought, well, that is a pretty abrupt assumption about someone. Muslim women do not need to be spoken for — they can speak for themselves in a million different ways — because we are all unique individuals."
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How did your upbringing influence the layers of your identity?

"While growing up in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, I was generally unaware of my identity as most of the kids were pretty similar to myself; we were from all around the world and living in this place together. I was an American kid originally from Pakistan. We all had these unique facets to our identities and backgrounds, but fundamentally we were kids. When I went to college in NYC, I wasn’t always perceived as American because I didn’t look or seem it — who knows what that means anyhow!? And then in Saudi Arabia, outside of the community I grew up in, I always feel more American or more Pakistani. On top of that, sometimes people think I am Saudi because of how I look and because of my work. I fit into all these labels and yet I don’t fit fully into any — or do I?

"It can be hard to navigate the world when you aren’t quite sure where you fit into it, but it also means I can walk in many worlds. When you see how people or the media categorize people from other places, it can be upsetting when your personal experience is different. Through my work, I like to put out that personal view in hopes that people expand their own. If I am reinforcing another stereotype, I am no better than anyone else."
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Nidia Marissa Donyada

Singapore

Through her distinct use of vibrant colors — mostly pink and blue evoking candy-coated nostalgia — Singaporean photographer Nidia Marissa Donyada oscillates between portraits of empowered, creative girls in Singapore and places during her travels that capture the essence and beauty of the city. Be it people or place, she aims to create images that evoke curiosity, purpose, and reminiscence.
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Has your experience as a Muslim woman influenced your work or the way you approach it?

"My faith does not influence my work unless there is a reason to do so. As a Muslim woman, I am just like any other woman living their life to the fullest."

What are your hopes as a Muslim women in the current political climate?

"Fortunately, I live comfortably in a multi-racial country with a society that respects all races and religion, and I'm lucky and thankful. What I hope can be improved is the perception that all Muslim women are oppressed and are incapable of achieving great things because of their faith."
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How does youth culture influence your work, and what are your hopes for Muslim youth culture within the arts?

"I'm pretty sure when I was a teenager (and like all teenagers), or even now in my 20s, we go through trying to find ourselves, our interests, our style, our taste in music, etc. I think the experiences I have gone through in my life with friends and relationships have been adapted and translated into my photos.

"There are many Muslims I know involved in the arts, and I hope that being of Muslim faith or a certain race or gender would not be a reason not to get recognized for their creative work. I am a female, I am a photographer, and it just so happens that I am also a Muslim. I'm not afraid to be who I am."
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Alia Youssef

Toronto, Canada

To counter the idea that Muslim women can be painted with one broad stroke, Egyptian-Canadian photographer Alia Youssef started The Sisters Project, a portrait series that aims to humanize, diversify, and showcase the unique narratives of Muslim women. Youssef photographs women excelling in their communities — doctors, scientists, artists, athletes, and students, capturing them in places that are meaningful to them. She hopes her project asserts that personal agency and individuality is ever-present in Islam, and that Muslim women are diverse in career, passion, and background, and have different ways of showing and practicing their faith.
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How has your experience as a Muslim woman influenced your work or the way you approach it?

"I moved to Canada when I was 8 and from the get-go I was constantly frustrated from the assumptions placed on me as an Egyptian Muslim woman. When I started taking photographs at 14, I was immediately drawn to portraiture and one of the first conceptual photos I took dealt with representations of Muslim women. It was a diptych titled ‘The way you see me versus the way I see me,’ and it featured a silenced woman with tape over her mouth (the way you see me) contrasted with a woman smiling at herself in the mirror (the way I see me). Looking back at it, the images were pretty cliche, but it’s funny to think that at 14 I was concerned with almost identical issues as I am now at 21."
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Do you think there is a need to reframe what others think about Muslim women?

"The representations of Muslim women in literature and the media need an overhaul. From pre-19th century imperialism to Trump’s Muslim ban, colonial representations of Muslim women circulate in literature and media time and time again. These representations depict Arab women as voiceless, oppressed, demure, helpless, and complete victims of their patriarchal society. Muslim women have been subjected to this one-dimensional image, and through my project I have learned Muslim women have not been the perpetrators of this representation. We are in desperate need to reframe the stereotype of Muslim women to better reflect the individuality and humanity of this group of people."
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Iman Aldabbagh

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovinia

Saudi-American photographer Iman Aldabbagh captures playful and intimate moments of her young toddler in her ongoing series Where's Layla, in which she cleverly obscures a part of Layla with angles or objects, piecing together a unique view of the daily moments of childhood. Influenced by the layers of her own identity—having been born and raised in Saudi to Palestinian and Armenian parents, going to university and starting her career in southern California, and finally moving to Sarajevo seven years ago—beyond the themes of parenthood and childhood in her work, Aldabbagh explores cultural and ethnic identity, displacement, self-image, queer Arab identity, women's rights in Saudi, and most recently artists and social taboos in Saudi.
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Has your experience as a Muslim woman influenced your work or the way you approach it?

"I don't think it has influenced the content of my work necessarily as much as my Arab identity has, but maybe it has influenced the way I present my work in the Muslim world vs the non-Muslim world. I think being in Saudi specifically where artwork will be censored, there's already a sense of caution."
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Do you think there is a need to reframe what others think about Muslim women?

"In the context of the 'western world,' Muslims in general are stereotyped negatively and Muslim women specifically are stereotyped as submissive, hijab-wearing, and prude, so of course there is a need to reframe this. Muslims are multi-layered and a diverse group of people; some Muslims could identify as such only culturally as opposed to those who identify with it religiously or spiritually.

"Muslim women are black, white, Arab, Asian, etc. They can come from Indonesia or the Netherlands. Muslims are feminists, patriarchal, or neither. Some Muslims are gay and practicing the religion, other Muslims are gay but non-believers. Some want a traditional family, some don't want to get married. Some want to get married but not have children. Muslims can be agnostic or spiritual. Muslims can be secular. They can be converts. Some Muslim women believe in hijab and others don't. Some choose to wear the hijab, and some are forced to wear it. Some remove the hijab and become more devout. Some Muslim women identify as transgender. Some practicing Muslim women wear bikinis at the beach. Some hijab-wearing Muslim women go dancing with their friends, female and male alike. Some Muslim women are patriotic Americans, some have served in the military and some have supported Trump. Some Muslim women have had a Christian upbringing. Some Muslim women date. Some Muslims who live in restrictive societies drink alcohol, other Muslims who live in free societies don't. Muslim women are doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists. They're also artists, musicians, athletes, models, journalists, humanitarians and dancers. Some Muslim women are oppressed, some are free. Muslim women are poor, middle class, and rich. Some even billionaires. Muslim women are beautiful inside out. Some can be bad people too. Muslim women are as diverse as other women in the world. Muslim women are women. Muslim women are human."
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