Women, Art & Activism, Amna Abdullatif

Amna Abdullatif is a community psychologist who has worked in the voluntary sector for over 15 years, and is currently the assistant director for youth empowerment at The Anne Frank Trust. She is also one of The Three Hijabis who launched a petition last year in the wake of the Euro finals to ban racists from football. Alongside this, she was elected as a local Councillor representing the ward of Ardwick in Central Manchester, UK in 2019, making her the first visibly Muslim and Arab heritage councillor to represent in the city. She is an anti-racist and women's rights campaigner.


What is your background, and what led you to becoming involved in community building?


From as young as I can remember my parents have been active in our community. Particularly supporting refugees and asylum seekers with translation of legal documents, supporting them through various processes that would be daunting and opening up our home to them. Keeping in mind we were also not a well-off family, we lived in a council estate, and I know my dad struggled greatly in the job market when we moved to the UK, but still he knew we all had a role to play in others lives.


I often think about my parents sitting together, long in the night, translating documents that would cost thousands in order for a family to remain in the UK. They understood they had a skill and certain privileges that were invaluable to others, and used it.


This led to me doing a lot of voluntary work teaching conversational English to refugees, supporting people with translation, working with women to develop their confidence through setting up their own social enterprises, amongst other work.


But my parents are essentially the reason I do what I do, whether that’s in my role in the charity sector, or in the work with The Three Hijabis.


Can you tell us more about your role as a Community Psychologist?


Community psychology is actually what I studied as masters level when I was a bit stuck in my life. But I saw this masters and it sounded like everything I was doing in my voluntary capacity and what my family had essentially been involved in for as long as I could remember. What it taught me was the huge importance community activism, solidarity and support were in everyday life. A big part of how community psychologists work is inside communities where the community leads, and your role is essentially to support.


I see it in the work I do daily, when I support residents’ groups to maintain services, to secure and protect community buildings, to ask and speak up for marginalized groups, to listen to residents who speak up powerfully for those more vulnerable than themselves. It’s incredibly powerful.


That action looks different depending on where you go, be it a sit in, or greening local streets or holding art or wellbeing days. There’s so many ways in which we connect as people, and the pandemic really made me recognize just how important that connection was. In some cases it was life saving.


I spent the early part of the pandemic supporting the set up and organization of the local mutual aid group and to this day when I reflect on everything we achieved by groups of different volunteers from varying organisations and groups coming together, it really showcases just how important our communities are.


So, although I studied community psychology, and utilize it in my day to day work, it’s not a job title as such.


How can the creative industries help community cohesion and social understanding?


Creative industries hold a huge level of power in creating a sense of belonging, identity and connection and shaping our thoughts and ideas. I want to celebrate the way in which the arts can bring people together, to teach us something new and I love how it can create a space for representation. I want to see more women of colour, Muslim women, who are often missing from this industry. It’s why I love BaytAl Fann so much, because you are bringing us regularly absolutely phenomenal pieces of art and culture, that’s inspiring, educational and centers Muslim creators.


I truly believe there is immense power in the way we can use the arts to bring voice to those not given a platform. I also do think that art often provides the creation of spaces where we can have much more accessible conversations on very complex and sensitive issues.


One of the first art led event I attended as a guest to speak a few years ago was titled Women hold up half the sky, and it was challenging the celebrations of the centenary when some women got the right to vote, yet we know that not only not all women did, but that actually women of colour didn’t and that there was little to no recognition of women of colour who fought for and won the right to vote well before white women did in the UK and US. It was through sculpture and art walks and providing that space for everyone to engage in art within that setting that we were having these conversations.


You are an advocate for women’s rights, do you think more needs to be done to increase the visibility of women in the arts and women artists?


I really believe in the stories that are told through the arts, and the ability to see through the lens of an artists world. Often for me its to connect, and I’ve found myself searching for Libyan female artists, because I want to celebrate their work and share that connection of similarity.


But often I just want to be absorbed in the female lens, through their art and the voice is portrays even when it’s different to my experience. Art with women present and at center stage is also necessary, that we see ourselves and others in art.


The artists I share below are a representation of the power of art as a political tool, to advocate for women’s rights in spaces where often the rights of women are at the bottom of the pile of priorities.


Has a work of art had an impact on you?


An artist who has impacted me is Shamsia Hassani, whose an Afghan graffiti artist, who creates these incredible murals of art that depict so much power and beauty at the same time with poignant messaging on women’s rights.


Theres a number of things I love about her work, and how so many of her pieces are centering Muslim women often in traditional clothing, with hope and power to create change.


I also love that her work is political and so much of it is based on street art, which by the very nature of her art, means it’s accessible, it’s not in a fancy art gallery, its there for everyone to access, to explore, be challenged by and enjoy. I’ve seen in many interviews with her, that she wants to use the walls of a country known so much for war to be a canvas for her work to bring colour and create peace, which is incredibly poignant when so much of your life has been framed by conflict.

I also started quite recently to follow a young Libyan artist called Hajer Deyaf (https://hajoora.com/) whose work just connects me with Libya. She also uses the female form, often in traditional Libyan wear in the most beautiful way.


I love this piece by her, which she calls Sawthe, referring to be bound to others, in her reference, it’s women being bound together in the silks which is traditionally used to create Libyan women’s dress that’s depicted here. Bound together in relationship generation after generation. ‘Bound to every Sister, Mother, Daughter wrapped in these silks. Those before me and those to come - Each one of them a Queen’


I love the centering of Muslim women in power in art form, and being able to celebrate those female artists in a world where often their work isn’t recognised, and often in our own communities, art isn’t perceived as a womens space to occupy. So it’s important to celebrate and amplify the women who do.

What book changed your outlook on life?


A number of books have had profound impact on me, one of the ones which really sticks out is Mona Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens. Partly because I was made to feel that my identity as a visibly Muslim woman, my faith and my feminism were contradictory to one another. And I struggled with that hugely. I avoided Mona’s books because she always felt so polar opposite to me, in approach and I wasn’t sure I was ready to navigate that.


But I remember buying her book, and once I started reading not being able to put it down and in many chapters being bought to tears or needing to take a break before I could continue further. There was so much pain and anger in it, so many stories of injustice, so many that I recognized in myself, in those women around me. So much that we were silent and silenced over, which made me even more resolute in my own self and my role in the world around me.


It really made me recognise just how similar we all are, because although our experience as women is not universal, there is so much which connects us.


It also really made me reflect and be bolder about my feminism, and frankly not be too concerned by what everyone thought or expected of me as a Muslim woman. Certainly not by perceptions of who a Muslim woman is or should be that we are often boxed off into.


I remember tweeting Mona when I was reading her book, to be able to use a quote in the book for my work devising a strategy on how we work with children impacted by domestic violence, and felt this quote just summarized exactly the work: ‘Home is where the hurt is, and home is where we heal’. We know just that most abuse experienced by women and children is experienced in our own homes and by our own families, and this is something we need to recognise and for those of us who’ve experienced trauma to heal from it.


What are your thoughts on the representation of Islamic art in mainstream cultural institutions?


I would love to see more representation of Islamic art and artists in mainstream cultural institutions. My only reservations is how that art is curated, by who, for what purpose and not create a very orientalist lens of what Islamic art is.


You are a co-founder The Three Hijabis, can you tell us more about who you are and why you setup?


The Three Hijabis is an anti racist platform focused on racism and misogyny in sport.


Last year, a tweet that had a picture of myself, and my two great friends Shaista Aziz and Huda Jawad went viral. The tweet essentially was a play on the three hijabis and three lions, as we met in London to watch the quarter final game between England and Ukraine. The tweet shared by Shaista talked about the inclusive nature and leadership of the team which has excited support for the team who were on a winning streak.


Of course, in the final game England lost after three young black England players missed penalties. Rather than being proud that the team had even made it as far as the finals against a team like Italy, there was a torrent of racist abuse targeting the three players. We decided we needed to do something with the small platform we had created from the tweet going viral and set up a petition calling for racists to be banned from football matches.


In 48 hours, we had over 1 million signatures and became one of the fastest growing campaigns. This launched us into a lot of local, regional, national and international media opening up conversations on racism and what we needed to do to challenge it. It led to Boris Johnson talking about extending banning order, as well as naming our petition, and to meeting with the Football Association to discuss the petition and what its asks. We are still focusing heavily on ensuring that what we asked for gets delivered.


Alongside this campaign and a focus on how we eradicate racism in sports, we also ran a joint campaign with EVAW and Level Up, two women’s rights organisations, calling on the FA and Premier League to implement a range of asks to tackle gender based violence, after a number of high profile cases of footballers who have been abusive towards their partners.


We are focused on challenging discrimination in sports, specifically on racism, Islamophobia and misogyny.


No one expected, or expects visibly Muslim women to be in these spaces, talking about football, because it’s always deemed to be a space that is dominated by men, but we believe that we should be everywhere we choose to be taking up that space and shaking this up a bit!


You campaign for racial equality and equity, can the arts facilitate social change in relation to the work you do around anti racism?


Art is political, and plays a huge role in the spaces and conversations that we have on identity, social issues and tackling racism. I truly believe the way we use the arts can create safe spaces to educate and open up conversation on uncomfortable and sensitive issues.


It’s also important to recognize that who has access to the arts, who produces art, whose art we mainstream and popularize are often very political statements. So the work you’re doing is even more important in ensuring art is accessible and those producing it in our communities are provided a platform to showcase their work.


For me, I’m very conscious about how I choose to work, for instance when we were looking at trying to get a logo together for The Three Hijabis, we wanted something created by an artist, and for us it had to be an artist of colour and a woman. So we commissioned Christo Musinguzi to create The Three Hijabis logo. The image itself of three hijabi women I think also seems to capture people’s attention, and sometimes it feels great that people connect to it, but often it can feel like that it's because their expectations are that women like us are a rarity in many spaces, and rather than question why that is, we become the great exception. That’s something we’re very aware of and want to ensure we’re opening up spaces.

The engagement I’ve had with art of much of my life has been community based artists, working with people in church halls and community centres. It’s places like a small black run vegan café I love called ARMR displaying art from black artists, it’s art created by people to improve their mental wellbeing being displayed in our parks. It’s art that can be engaged with regardless of your skill level and talent, that is facilitated by a brilliant artist.


For more information follow on Twitter: @AmnaAbdul1983 and The Three Hijabis on: @THijabis


The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.