Pakistani-American photojournalist Sadaf Syed was recently recognised by President Barack Obama and officials at the White House for her groundbreaking photo documentary, iCover: A Day in the Life of a Muslim-American COVERed Girl. Capturing the diversity in thought, style, and livelihoods of American Muslims around the nation, Syed’s photographic montage stands to illuminate Muslim women, removing the layers of misconceptions about them through visuals and words.
After obtaining public nominations of participants for her photos, Syed set out to travel across the United States with her two young children and their double strollers, trekking state to state, going through airport scanners, and “random checking,” to photograph and capture the stories of women who wear the hijab across the country.
Q. In your work, iCover: A Day in the Life of a Muslim-American COVERed Girl, who are these individuals that you have photographed? Besides Islam and Muslims, what else and who else do they represent?
A. These women were featured in the book based on public nominations. I sent out a mass email asking people to nominate muhajjabas [a woman who wears the hijab]. People nominated themselves, husbands nominated their wives, and people responded from all over America. And these girls are very empowering … some working and thriving in male- dominated fields … whether a big-rig truck driver or tri-athlete or a member of the United States Army. I realised that these women might be successful in their position, but they are not exposed; their work is not exposed. That made me sad yet very excited because I got a chance to document them.
This book also gives the message of mercy. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), his character won us, and I think that is what we are lacking. So, let’s show some mercy. Let’s make the point of learning about others. Let’s get out and talk to our neighbors. We [Muslims] should be making more of an effort because it is our duty to explain who we are.
And with the uprisings in Egypt and the Middle East, it is a good time for people to actually acknowledge and see – and change their opinions about women; you will see some images of women taking a stand…they are dressed modestly, but at the same time they are leading the chants and are shoulder to shoulder with their men. For me, the message of iCover mirrors these women in different parts of the world. Islam gives Muslim women the right and honour, and now they are asking for their God-given political rights.
Q. The Muslim community in the West is especially concerned with how women are portrayed in the media. I think at seeing this, Muslims were proud of you and happy to see this work promoting positive images of Muslim women. In a sense, there is a communal ownership because these images are so rare. You could say that some might consider this book THE coffee table book in a Muslim home. But what has been the reaction from the greater community, as in non-Muslim or the interfaith community?
A. I have gotten good reactions. I have had ladies who work in the library saying that they want to donate this to the public library. In fact, I have got nothing but good feedback. The fact that people are buying the book shows that they are willing to learn and be exposed and not stay ignorant.
It goes back to having mercy for one another; the world is feeding hatred to the next generation. Our responsibility is getting out of our comfort zone and opening everyone’s eyes.
Q. You have been called a Feminist Photographer. Do you feel that such a label is true? Do you see iCover as a feminist piece?
A. I define feminism as speaking up for the silent voices and giving them an opportunity to be heard – for their stories to be heard – and get to know who they are. Also, being a female photographer who wears a hijab, going out and trying to bring a change by showing the reality, is feminism in action. In my opinion, feminism is not that women are better than men. Basically, it’s giving them the opportunity tell their own stories. I don’t know if that makes it feminist or not.
Q. What was your goal with iCover? Do you think iCover has achieved those goals? Where is the book taking you next?
A. We are talking about iCover Saudi Arabia and iCover Egypt next, making the current book into iCover USA – exciting and important projects to work on. We are discussing a few different ideas. iCover has taken me on a very exciting journey, giving me an opportunity to represent Islam in a different way, and the fact that we are getting to educate those who are not of the faith, and also motivating the people who are contemplating wearing hijab … for example, those who like to play sports and feel like it could be a barrier … but donning the hijab doesn’t have to be a barrier. Slowly but surely, the media exposure and these events that I’ve been invited to – like at the White House, and speaking engagements are all chances to continue that. The most important goal for iCover is to help grow mercy in our hearts for one another because we are just human beings like anyone else.
Q. How have you grown as an artist and an activist through this experience?
A. One thing I have enjoyed is collaborating with different artists. When you team up, you become a stronger voice as well. It is good to know that [there are] other women [who] are involved as well in creating that stronger voice. The community in San Francisco, California has been especially inspiring for me because there are a lot of Muslims who are very artistic and they are very active in their art. They are proactive and I love that and I see that in every age group – whether young or old, spoken word, clothes design, whatever that art is – everyone is actively pursuing it.
In Illinois, there is an organisation called IMAN (Inner-City Muslim Action Network), and they have community cafés, where people participate in the spoken word, singing, and more. So we have fine arts and it is very spiritual for people as well. The people that I have been exposed to are in the performing arts for spirituality purposes and that intrigues me. It’s nice to be in that company being an artist yourself.
Also, I want to meet more people of different faiths – whether going to a synagogue or church – I just want to collaborate [with these individuals]. In the next couple of months, I plan to present at a church. I was invited to a synagogue and it was just an amazing experience. They have very similar customs – I didn’t know they had specific times to pray like we do. They were praying at Maghrib [offering prayers at sunset]. It is education like this that I hope to continue as an artist and activist.