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The Sisters Project: Changing The Way Muslim Women Are Viewed

Growing up in Canada post 9/11, photographer Alia Youssef only ever saw the media depict Muslim women in two ways.

On the one hand, they were invisible, unseen and dislocated from any sort of independence, success or identity.

“So that left the only other depiction that you really ever saw,” Youssef recently told VICE, “which was ones of trauma, ones of grief, from those from abroad, depicting war affected areas or were talking about clothing, the only real stories you see about muslim women are where she’s’ the victim, she’s silent, she’s not in control, or we’re talking about her clothes.”

Years later, Youssef has set about addressing this issue by launching the “Sisters Project”, a photo series depicting Muslim women as they really are – as academics, artists, scientists, activists and a whole host of other careers, qualities and identities the standard narratives elect to ignore.

We first wrote about The Sisters Project two years ago. Since then, Youssef has gone on to photograph 85 women in 12 cities across Canada, in an effort to portray each of them in a manner reflective of how they view themselves.

Check out some of her latest photos below:

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“The best part of riding my motorcycle is when I take off my helmet and people are shocked to see my hijab underneath. It makes me laugh because no one expects hijabis to do something like this. That’s why I want people’s perception of girls who wear hijab to change.” ▫️ Fatima is 16 and a second year Bachelor of Science student at Dalhousie University (Halifax.) Her proudest achievement is finishing her first year of university at just 15 years old and having done well academically. That achievement didn’t come without its challenges. Fatima told me entering university at such a young age was also the most challenging moment in her life because everyone doubted her abilities and thought her being there was a joke. She let me know that people’s doubts in her just makes her work harder and better, which in turn has made her more confident in herself. Besides riding the motorcycle which is something her and her mom love to do, Fatima loves to read and her favourite place to find herself is in a book. When I asked Fatima how she would like to be perceived she told me, “as a proud, hard working, and responsible Muslim woman who loves helping out people in need in anyway she can.” ▫️ #thesistersprojectgoesacrosscanada

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“I always wanted to be a doctor to help people and to do things with my hands.” ▫️ Sura is 41, a dentist, a part-time instructor at the faculty of dentistry at Dalhousie University, and a philanthropist working in Halifax, NS. Besides spending time with her four children, husband, friends, and riding her motorcycle, Sura is very passionate about helping people and volunteering. She provides support to young refugees and immigrants to go to dental school, as she wants to ease their experiences of adjusting to a new country and help them with the financial burden of going to the expensive program. Her proudest achievement is in fact her own education, as her parents immigrated to Canada for her schooling. She also is proud that she helps people as “everyone is fighting his/her own battle and a little thing goes a long way.” When I asked Sura what her own favourite qualities are she listed, “perfectionist, honest, fair, good hearted, and hard working.” Sura’s biggest challenge is dealing with people who don’t appreciate her “dedication, honesty, and hard work.” She continued, “Because I know that whatever I do I do it from my heart and I give it 110%. I know that I do it so that I can sleep at night and know that I did my best.” ▫️ #thesistersprojectgoesacrosscanada

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“For me, a storyteller is someone who’s curious about other people and their inner and outer journeys. This is why I love listening and interacting with the people around me.” ▫️ Aya is 23 and a CBC journalist focusing on community stories residing in Halifax, NS. Writing has always been influential in Aya’s life. She told me, “My mom was someone who deeply respected and admired the journalism profession. I remember her saying that good stories can have a strong impact. All of that captivated me, especially as a young girl who found it very hard to fit in at school. I didn’t feel like what I said or wrote mattered, so the idea that I can be part of a platform that values my voice and the voices of others appeals to me.” One of her proudest achievements is when she won first place in a short story competition because “I didn’t expect it at all and I was literally jumping up and down from the excitement.” Aya’s favourite quality about herself is that she loves to uplift others. She continued, “What inspires me the most is the people I meet and talk to for stories when I’m at work. I can say that so far I’ve met with diverse business owners, artists, mothers, refugees, students, community leaders, and many more. And these people have shared their expertise, intimate stories of hardship, hopes for the future or their achievements with me. I’ve learned so much from them and I still am. Listening to them has really opened my heart and mind.” Aya’s biggest hope is “to see more diversity in newsrooms across Canada. To see more people of colour, LGBT folk, and people with disabilities as journalists working in television, radio, and web.” ▫️ #thesistersprojectgoesacrosscanada

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“You can not control others; you can only control how you respond to others.” ▫️ Lila is 40 and a police officer specializing in race relations in Ottawa. Her proudest moment is when she became a police officer, telling me: “I knew at a young age that it was what I wanted to do and I worked toward that goal until I achieved it.  I never knew that I would be the first Arabic speaking Muslim woman to be hired in Ottawa.” Lila has made a large impact on her community and within the police service. Being the only Muslim woman in the Ottawa police force for over a decade, Lila wanted to encourage more Muslim women to apply by revising the uniform policy to include uniform hijab. Since she has made a formal request, the Ottawa Police is now successfully working towards including hijab in their uniform. Her favourite quality about herself is how positive she is. She told me, “I always look at the glass half full, or I try to.” When Lila is not working in her community, or taking care of her two young children, she loves to play sports, mostly basketball or volleyball. Athletics have always been important to Lila’s life. She shared with me that in her youth she won a bronze medal at the Canada Winter Games for weightlifting, representing Alberta (where she grew up). When I asked Lila what her biggest hope is she told me, “I would say that I hope my children grow up happy and healthy…in a broader context, I hope that our Indigenous people receive the reconciliation and peace they so rightly deserve.“ ▫️ #thesistersprojectgoesacrosscanada

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“From New France, to Canada, to the nation within a nation of today, I am a part of this story, with its triumphs of coexistence and tolerance, and its tragedies of colonialism and oppression. I am a Canadian, and I claim the term, unhyphenated and unapologetically. Wherever my journey takes me, it will take me there as a Canadian, linked to its past and hopeful in its future.” ▫️ Idil is a 34-year-old writer living in Montreal, Quebec. She told me her proudest accomplishment is her writing, no matter what else she does in her life. Even when she is advocating for people’s rights, or travelling in beautiful locations for work, her writing is what ties everything she does together. She continued to say, “Being able to express myself and my innermost thoughts, feelings, and creativity is a gift that I am endlessly thankful for. Communicating through art, writing, speech, or other means is a way that we reach out and touch each other’s lives, it’s how we catch sight of each other’s souls.” When she is not writing or advocating, Idil loves reading, hiking, and swimming. As a past swim instructor and lifeguard, she still loves diving into cold bodies of water and enjoying herself as a “creature of the water.” When I asked Idil what’s most important to her she told me, “the most important thing to me is the heart; love. I think that there is so much that happens in this world, a lot of which is disturbing and distressing. Love is not a negation of hate, it’s a higher order. Love has reality whereas hatred is an absence, a negation. Love is from Allah, and it can heal the world. Love has informed all of the material, intellectual, and formal aspects of my life. When you read an angry op-ed I’ve written about the rights of Muslim women, it’s because of love. When you see me advocating for the inclusion of black people in a space of power, it’s because of love. When you witness me taking up space in a traditionally white boardroom, it’s because of love. Love is an equalizer; it is magnanimous because it has stores of wealth that cannot be exhausted. It is forbearing because it is powerful.” ▫️ #thesistersprojectgoesacrosscanada

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”I step outside of others' expectations. I've been like that for a long time and I know it's been a challenge for my family to witness. I never necessarily surpassed expectations but I also haven't failed to fulfill any. I think I just learned early on to put them aside and look for answers to my questions.” ▫️ Faye is a 29-year-old Vancouver-based tattoo artist. She is best known for exploring her roots through sacred geometry and being inspired by ornamental art, Arabian/Islamic geometry, Indian henna/mehndi, and textile motifs. Rainbows are commonplace in the studio where she works, which is symbolic of how much it is a happy place for her. Besides the studio her favourite place is to be surrounded by children and animals. She told me, “they don't judge or have the same kinds of assumptions as we do, so I feel safe in being my truest self with them.” Faye told me she would feel incomplete without animals. Her favourite hobby is walking in the forest with her dog and she has backyard chickens named Booklah, Sophie, Elsa, Dandelion, and Susan. “They are all beautiful and full of personality. In exchange for food, shelter, and water, they gift us with fresh eggs everyday.” When I asked Faye what’s most important to her she simply responded, “The pursuit of justice.”

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For anyone who grew up in a similar era as Youssef, you will know how Muslim women have largely been portrayed in the media: if they are not ignored entirely, they are pitied as victims.

We all know this is not the case, which is why something like The Sisters Project is so vital. It challenges perceptions, shifts the focus back to reality and, for any young person who may believe her ambitions are limited, represents what Muslim women can achieve.

Keep up with The Sisters Project by following it on Instagram. Be sure to check out Alia’s personal Instagram too.

 

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