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The Misrepresentation of Muslim Women & Celebrating Authenticity, Muslim Sisterhood

Muslim Sisterhood is an artistic collective working within photography, fashion publishing and events to create an inclusive community that centres Muslims.

The collective is co-founded by Zeinab Saleh, a recent graduate from The Slade School of Fine Art, Sara Gulamali, a graduate from Central Saint Martins and Lamisa Khan, who studied International Relations at LSE and is currently studying her Masters in Gender Studies at SOAS.

Most recently, they've featured in the 26th Photoworks Journal and were included in the 2020 Dazed 100 list in recognition of the collective’s contribution to the creative industry. Their work has been exhibited at V&A Lates, and they have hosted community-based workshops including tile glazing, belly dancing and self-defence. Last year, they launched their self-titled, debut zine.

We talk to Muslim Sisterhood about the misrepresentation of Muslim women in fashion, celebrating authenticity and the challenges of being a Muslim woman today.

Muslim Sisterhood is a collective focusing on the misrepresentation of Muslim women in fashion. When was the idea for Muslim Sisterhood born? And how did you bring the idea to life?

When we began as a photo series, we spent a long time discussing what we wanted our photography to represent and why we were creating it. It was 2017 and positive authentic portrayals of Muslim women in the media were few and far between. We wanted this to change. Initially, we took photos of our friends and styled them out of our wardrobes, it was all very DIY and born out of love. At the time I was at University College London (UCL) and was part of a WhatsApp group of Black Muslim students. I dropped a message in the chat to ask if anyone was up for shooting with us and I shared some of the photographs we had taken. The images got such a great response and with the encouragement of the group we made an Instagram page to share our work. @muslimsisterhood is the handle Lamisa, Sara and I decided on. We realised that if we wanted our ideas to come to fruition, it was up to us to make them happen.

How did the collective begin? How did you all meet?

I first met Sara when she came to an exhibition I curated. Sara was studying Fine Art at Central Saint Martins at the time and I was studying Fine Art at UCL. There is a lack of Muslim women studying fine art so when we met we immediately clicked and a few months after we worked together on a photo series.

Lamisa and I were mutuals on Instagram. She messaged me when she saw the photography Sara and I did and asked about doing photography together. I asked if Sara could come along to our first meet up and the three of us met up on the basis of our shared love for photography and our desire to see something new. We all have different lived experiences of being Muslim women which makes our work all the more richer. We met at Amaliah’s old office where Lamisa was working at the time and made a mood board including things we loved at the time, lots of London culture, stills from a Section Boys music video, local cash and carries in east London, rubicon mango and bootleg designer.

Muslim Sisterhood is a celebration of beauty and authenticity, what do you hope audiences take away when they encounter your work?

We do this work for the younger version of ourselves and the next generation of Muslim women. I’d like women to feel inspired, held and affirmed by the work we do. Not only do we do photography but now we also hold workshops for our community like zine making, incense making, belly dancing and self-defence. We also work on brand campaigns to make sure there is authenticity and diversity in front and behind the cameras. Our zine is a platform for Muslim women and anyone can submit work for publishing.

You have featured in the 26th Photoworks Journal and were included in the 2020 Dazed 100 list in recognition of your contribution to the creative industry. What has been your career highlight to date?

There have been so many highlights but the Nike swim campaign was amazing, we provided the creative direction, casting, styling and directing. In the end, we made a beautiful short film and a series of photos. We commissioned people from our incredible community to put the campaign together. I’ll always remember Rhianna and baby Aadam in the water and how we were behind the scenes in awe and quite teary, it got quite emotional! I think baby fever hit us all that day! We did this campaign during London lockdowns so there was a lot of rescheduling, we were all so happy to see it finally come together. Often older women and mothers with children are excluded from narratives and campaigns around swimwear so we made the project inclusive and community-focused.

You have collaborated with a wide diversity of brands, which was your favourite collaboration and why?

I’ve enjoyed so many of the brand collaborations, if I had to pick one it would be our collaboration with Daily paper which honoured Ramadan and Eid’s spiritual and communal values. Both our teams are so diverse and there was a shared understanding of our identities. In our first meeting over Zoom, it was so lovely to hear a familiar ‘Salaam’ and ‘Ramadan Mubarak’. There aren’t many Muslims in the creative industry so it was definitely a privilege to work with a team who were from similar backgrounds and understood exactly where we were coming from. I remember all the clothing being sent to my house, Lamisa and I styled the outfits virtually as it was during the lockdown. It was a really difficult time because of the pandemic but this project gave me so much energy and joy. The Daily Paper team were a dream to work with and, despite having a tight turnover during Ramadan, we really enjoyed creating such a beautiful and meaningful editorial with them.

Muslim Sisterhood activities have since expanded to include workshops and exhibitions, what has the response been like from women attending?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive, our events have been described as fun, bubbly, social and full of learning”. It’s really important for us to receive feedback to help improve our work and meet the needs of our community. People enjoy the “relaxed and non-judgmental atmosphere” and have said that they’ve felt welcome and are inspired by meeting other Muslim women. The workshops are designed with our community in mind so we make sure that we have prayer spaces and meet dietary requirements which everyone appreciates. Our events are highly oversubscribed which shows the demand for what we do. Accessibility is key so we ensure that our workshops and events are free entry and that the venues we choose have step-free access, as we want to be as inclusive as possible.

Do you think this project is going to help change how the wider society views Muslim women?

We want to provide Muslim women with the space to thrive and that's where our energy goes. Our work is born out of our love for our fellow Muslim sisters, it was never for the outside gaze. If people outside of our community see our work and become better informed that’s great, but it’s not really the priority for us.

What is the hardest thing about being a Muslim woman in this day and age?

There are many difficulties, you just have to look at a newspaper to see. Our work is to create a safe space outside of that to provide the opportunity for rest and radical joy.

What more do you think could be done societally to encourage more inclusion of Muslim and modest women in creative spaces?

Hiring more Muslim women in senior roles within creative companies would be a start, on a wider scale dismantling white supremacy would solve a lot of these issues! Everyone can do their bit and it’s the little things like ensuring there are non-alcoholic drinks at creative events and providing a prayer room.

What issues or causes are you passionate about and why?

I’m passionate about access as it is key if we want to create an inclusive and diverse creative sector. There are things you can do like ensuring an event entry is free, choosing buildings with step-free access, hosting things digitally where you can so that anyone can join.

What are your future plans for Muslim Sisterhood?

We are currently working on our upcoming zine, our new website and merch. We hope to continue collaborations with other brands and push our ideas further. Ultimately we want to make the world a more liveable place for Muslim women Insha Allah.

For more information, follow Muslim Sisterhood on Instagram

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.


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