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How The Sisters Project is changing representations of Muslim Women

Brazenly exhibited through the broad stroke of bigotry of President 45’s Muslim Ban last year, the political climate post 9/11 continues to complicate the lives of Muslim people.

Islamophobia, however, is not only evident in such dehumanizing policies but is also rendered through Western media representations of Muslim people.


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“Our proudest accomplishment is finally getting the girls in our village [in Pakistan] to go to high school in 2015 after working with them over the course of 5 years. This was the first time we set out to make a difference, and whatever small impact we may have had on their decision, we felt like we accomplished that, making that very special to us.” ▫️ Maryam and Nivaal are 17-year-old twin activists, journalists, and high schoolers. They are making a name for themselves as social justice advocates working with many organizations, most recently the MalalaFund, the UN Foundation’s Girl Up Campaign, and Disney’s Dream Big Princess Project as filmmakers. They are also building a youth activism program that aims to inspire and engage youth around the world to join their efforts in making a difference. They have recruited young folks from Mexico, England, Pakistan, India, the US, and more to contribute to their media platform, The World with MNR. The one thing they know for sure is that “it will take a lot of hard work to create a world in which all girls have access to education and the environment is sustainable, but we won’t stop until we have achieved these goals of ours for the world.” Their favourite quality about themselves is that they are both so passionate and dedicated. Maryam and Nivaal told me what’s most important to them is “our parents, they are our heroes and role models. Their perseverance, their experience and their lifestyle are so inspiring for both of us. Also, they have done so much for us and without their support we would not be able to achieve what we have in our lives.” They told me they would like to be perceived as “girls with a passion to make a difference in the world and who will stop at nothing to stand up for the causes they care about.” ▫️ #thesistersprojectgoesacrosscanada

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Whether in film or television, both Islam and Muslim people are represented as culturally backward, unable to be integrated into the modern era due to these supposed cultural differences, and ultimately are discursively positioned in opposition to the West.

The discourse on Islam, however, figures differently in Europe and in the United States as a result of different church-state relations. In the United States, the discourse on Islam is framed by citing a difference between Islam and Christian-Judeo values.


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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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In contrast, European nations like Germany and France advance the idea of secularism as a means of critiquing Islam and life for Muslims in nations under Islamic rule.

Nonetheless, both Western regions essentialize Muslim people as violent, intolerant and antagonistic to other religions and cultures.

It’s an ideological position upheld across the political spectrum, in which both the left and right, claim that Islam presents as a serious threat to the Western way of life and liberal democracy.


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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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It is a worldview that has to an extent even been absorbed by the feminist movement, in which Western feminists adopt a level of paternalism when it comes to discussing the lives of Muslim women.

Muslim women are repeatedly represented as victims, submissive and powerless and are thus figured in Western thinking as always in need of saving from their patriarchal religious oppressors.

The Sisters Project

In response to Muslim women’s identities and experiences being perpetually co-opted in media representations, Egyptian-Canadian artist Alia Youssef created and founded The Sisters Project; a photo series that aims to challenge negative stereotypes of Muslim women and demystify the narratives of their everyday lives.

Youssef employs portraiture and storytelling as a mode to spotlight and celebrate the underrepresented stories and experiences of Muslim women across Canada.

Since beginning the project a year and a half ago, Youssef has encountered Muslim women who are engineers, scientists, artists, Ph.D. researchers, doctors, and more. The Sisters Project shows the diversity of fields and professions Muslim women participate in.


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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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The project highlights the important work Muslim women do in their local community and wider society. In doing so, these challenge dominant representations in film and TV of Muslim women as devoid of agency, voiceless and submissive to their dominating male counterparts.

In speaking to CBC News, Youseff notes how the project has reaffirmed to her that there are so many ways in which Muslim women express and interpret their faith and live their lives.

There are women who choose to wear a hijab and others who don’t. There are Muslim women who are queer and some who identify as heterosexual.

The Sisters Project returns autonomy back to Muslim women to tell their story and foregrounds that Muslim women are not a monolithic group, for there is not just one way to be a Muslim woman.