The Muslim Women Reclaiming Representation
The co-founders of a London-based collective are using the creative space to break down stereotypes of Muslim women.
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At the heart of creative collective Muslim Sisterhood is the mission of co-founders Zeinab Saleh, Lamisa Khan and Sara Gulamali: to redefine and make visible what being a Muslim woman means to them. That means changing the perception both within their own community and in the mainstream.
"[Growing up], if I'd seen images of Muslim women like the ones that we create, I don't think I would have struggled as much with my faith as I did", says Lamisa, 25, a writer and stylist. "We've created a space for Muslim women to claim their faith without feeling that they have to be a certain kind of person to be accepted".
The trio found each other through social media after being inspired by each other's work to progress the identity of Muslim women. They connected through what Sara calls "a mixture of that passion and pain" of struggling to be accepted and seen both in the creative industry and within their own faith and culture. Muslim Sisterhood was formed in 2017, first with a photography series shot by artist and photographer Sara, 23, that pushed back against the traditional depictions they saw and instead celebrated the depth and energy of the Muslim women they knew who love streetwear and have edge.
"We all have this innate drive to create spaces that centre Muslim women, to make things more liveable not only for us, but also for those who come after us", explains Zeinab, a 24-year-old artist. "It's about celebrating ourselves, promoting sisterhood, and just pushing voices who are usually marginalised to the front, but not in a way that is victimising any of our communities".
"We all have this innate drive to create spaces that centre Muslim women".
Their passion project has evolved into a thriving international community spanning inclusive events, work with brands, empowering workshops on self-defence, a published zine, and many more photo shoots that champion Islam creatively.
The women say their online founding has strengthened their ability to continue to collaborate in recent months, and even more so after Sara moved from London to Vancouver. Here, they discuss how they've cemented their own sisterhood alongside their public-facing initiatives, and how they hope to redefine what it means to be a Muslim woman today.
"We bonded over our love and frustration of things, and it's a mixture of that passion and pain that brings us together".
It's clear you three are incredibly thankful to have found each other and discovered that your creative goals align. What was it like when you finally met, and how has your bond developed?
Sara: When we first met, we sat and spoke the whole time. That was a moment of real collective power. We bonded over our love and frustration of things, and it's a mixture of that passion and pain that brings us together as well. Because you need women who don't just have your back, but really understand where you're coming from.
Lamisa: I struggled growing up because it was never cool to be Muslim. It was quite an isolating experience, and there's no reason for anyone to feel that any more in a society that is so interconnected. So when I saw [Zeinab and Sara's] work, I instantly reached out and told them to come and visit me at my office. The rest is history. I only have brothers, and it's just been such a pleasure to explore my creativity, faith, identity and strength with [these women].
Zeinab: I'm my mum's only daughter, so I've always craved an older sister, and Lamisa is that for me. We talk every day, I sleep over at her house, and her mum is like my auntie. With Sara, I don't think I've ever met someone who also had the same experience at art school. It's not the easiest space to be in as a Muslim, so me and Sara really bonded over that. Sara is my younger sister.
I don't think there's anything really like being held by your sisters and your community. It's just a really amazing feeling, knowing that I'm supported by these two. Lamisa and Sara have been such a great source of strength and just …
Lamisa: … confidence and comfort.
Zeinab: And affirmations. Yeah, these girls are my sisters.
"I really found comfort in the fact that Islam provided a shared identity and understanding amongst my peers that I couldn't find anywhere else".
How do the beliefs you share as young Muslim women influence your creative approach as well as your output?
Zeinab: Islam teaches us to be considerate, empathetic and welcoming to everyone. Anybody who comes into the mosque is welcomed with open arms, and my family has always taught me to be inclusive of everyone. In the pillars of Islam, zakat, an obligatory payment to charity, is a way that community care is really embedded in our faith.
Lamisa: I was reading a book about a shared understanding that you have with people from marginalised and ethnic backgrounds because they just understand without explanation. I don't have to explain to you why I don't drink, why my parents want me home before 9pm, why I don't dress a certain way. I really found comfort in the fact that Islam provided a shared identity and understanding amongst my peers that I couldn't find anywhere else.
You three met via Instagram, launched Muslim Sisterhood as an Instagram account first, and have built up a sizeable following unrestrained by location or language. How do you keep your compelling sense of sisterhood going online and amplify voices offline?
Zeinab: Social media has been a tool for us to find our people. The big moment taking our online community into a 'real life' space was our zine launch [back in 2019], which was attended by over 200 people. It was sick—really great mocktails, a place to pray, incredible panellists and Muslim DJs.
Lamisa: The reason we have so much support is because we're coming from such an authentic space. It is literally Muslim women creating images for Muslim women. Instagram has given us a platform where we can look into people's lives and understand that they're similar to us, which gives you that sense of community beyond space and geography.
Three years on, how does Muslim Sisterhood challenge outdated attitudes both inside and outside of the Muslim community?
Zeinab: We are dismantling representation with our work by prioritising Black, Muslim and POC talent. We focus on who's behind the photos and the team behind the shoot, not just who's being plastered on a billboard, creating new opportunities outside of the white gaze and linear or normative structures. Things have naturally blossomed, Alhamdulillah. A really key moment was organising the belly dancing, zine-making and incense-making workshops. It was incredible to commission Muslim women to host their first workshops.
Lamisa: Initially, our images acknowledged our upbringings in inner-city London and reclaimed that aesthetic. So we would shoot in places like Brick Lane and Brixton, places that were hubs of community and culture but were falling victim to gentrification. We would pose inside halal shops, markets and the cash and carry, and the uncles whose shops we walked into were really supportive: "Remember to tag us on Instagram". Last year, when we were doing a brand shoot, we went back to that cash and carry and shot in there again. There was something really full circle and wholesome about that.
Zeinab: We were invited to be on [the UK-based] Islam Channel, which my mum and aunties tune in to. It was amazing because we were able to speak to our community, especially elders, and promote solidarity and the multiplicity of who a Muslim woman and a non-binary person is outside of our Instagram following.
"I don't think there's anything really like being held by your sisters and your community".
As co-founders who are equally passionate and invested in what you're doing, how does collective power come into your work, so you grow both as people and creatives, and so does your community?
Lamisa: I'm the louder, more extroverted person, so I take on the networking role. Zeinab is super-organised and meticulous, so she takes on logistical roles, and we interchange between who checks emails and final drafts. Sara used to be our photographer, but now she takes on accounts and any remote work that we have. I can rely on these two to have the same vision, and if we disagree, we talk it out and come to an agreement.
Without Muslim Sisterhood, we wouldn't be able to call ourselves stylists or creative directors, because those professions are so difficult to access. We've been able to learn these roles ourselves, and our DIY attitude means that these skills are transferable and we can teach other people.
Sara: We have more scope to offer, more opportunities outside of ourselves. We love hiring our friends and other people from our community, considering I'm abroad now as well, and giving them opportunities to grow and succeed with us. When we work collectively, we are able to take ourselves so much further. It also just keeps us sane that we have each other to talk to, vent, say when we want to give up, say when we feel bad or when we're frustrated. One of us can say, "It's okay, I'll take this over".
Zeinab: Sometimes working in collectives can be a bit stressful because you're losing some of your control over things. But actually, it's so amazing to know that I can rely on these two girls for support, to get things done, combine all our skills and really create stuff that's beyond us. I know that the work that we're going to create is going to be beautiful and meaningful for our whole community.
Reported: July 2020