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‘iCover’ and everything it represents


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Sadaf Syed at the White House meeting President Barack Obama. - Photo Courtesy: Sadaf Syed

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.

Comments (29) Closed

reem Mar 14, 2011 06:16pm
can muslims please stop justifying themselves and stop bothering what the world thinks of them? sadaf is trying too hard. why? to get approval of west? it's not worth it!!
Seema Athar Mar 14, 2011 07:01pm
This article and interview has made my day!! Finally, work that needed to be done, the way it is meant to be done. All the best to you Sadaf Syed.
Vikram Mar 14, 2011 07:33pm
Why some Muslim women wear burqa and some Hijab and others wearing nothing of that? What was your motivation to write such a book? Are you indirectly trying to promote Islam? Vikram
sana yasin Mar 15, 2011 09:20am
good read.but i would sugest to come to Pakistan.its a different scenario here.
fatima Mar 15, 2011 09:38am
Jazakallah I just love the title, and feel so proud while reading this great effort of my sis... May Allah Bless u always and give u more courage to achieve your goals. I want to ask... whether this book is available in Pak????????? if not is there any other way to get it.
MehdiRaza Mar 15, 2011 10:16am
prophet (PBUH)'s character won us, and that is what we are lacking. lets show some mercy. let’s make the point of learning. let’s get out and talk to our neighbors. we should be making more of an effort because we are muslims. it is part of our faith, to show mercy. the world is feeding hatred and communism. in the name of freedom, it is promoting self-gratification and promoting the pursuits of personal goals, thereby corrupting the generation. islam, to the contrary, promotes mercy and tolerance - willing sacrifice of the self, in order to honor the rights of the fellow human... this is true freedom and true respect of human's rights...
rehan Mar 15, 2011 10:20am
Hi !! I think the 'hijaab' is not a major issue, it is the 'niqaab' that has been subject to severe criticism globally. Of course, once the 'niqaab' is "taken care of" , the 'hijab' would be the next obstacle !!
Radial Mar 15, 2011 11:08am
what is the point of romanticizing a piece of head covering that many consider a symbol of female subjugation? given the pressure that many women in muslim countries face to conform - in dress and behavior, a more apt documentation, at least in saudi arabia, would be to document those women brave enough to go about with their lives without the hijab.
maryam Mar 15, 2011 01:57pm
the reason why we romanticise this peice of cloth is because it makes us distinct that we are not a show item, we are precious and thats why we are covered.
EJAZ Mar 15, 2011 02:11pm
Instead of 'mercy' please use respect for each other. We respect their culture and religion and expect the same from them.
sarwar Mar 15, 2011 02:18pm
it is a nice effort on part of sadaf, as I feel it will help west understand that wearing hijab is not any obstacle.
Mehdi Ali Mar 15, 2011 02:45pm
A wonderful piece. I would suggest my sister for a same issue icover Iran and/or icover Middle East (Instead of only on focussing on Saudi Arabia. Will look forward to have a copy of the book in the next visit. IA.
aftab Mar 15, 2011 05:51pm
Hijab has nothing to do with Islam or Muslim women. There are 150 billion Muslims in the world, half of them women. If a survey is carried out world wide, my feeling is that a small minority of Muslim women wear the hijab, perhaps 10%, if that, and mostly in Arab countries. Moreover, please remember, the majority of Muslims are non-Arab. Islam and Arab are not synonyms! The author may please come, meet, and photograph Indian Muslim women and see for herself how few,if any, are wearing the hijab.
aftab Mar 15, 2011 05:55pm
There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, half of them women. If a survey is carried out world wide, my feeling is that a small minority of Muslim women wear the hijab, perhaps 10%, if that, and mostly in Arab countries. Moreover, please remember, the majority of Muslims are non-Arab. Islam and Arab are not synonyms! The author may please come, meet, and photograph Indian Muslim women and see for herself how few,if any, are wearing the hijab.
Syed Khan Mar 15, 2011 06:47pm
Thank you Sadaf for wearing the hijab - Allah (PBUH) will reward you in heaven
Murtaza Mar 15, 2011 10:58pm
If she wanted to promote Islam, she can do it openly. Promoting Islam is not a crime that she would attempt to do indirectly. As for difference in Muslim womenfolk's attire, it is dependent on the interpretation of Islam in their school of thought and culture and on how much they care for the faith. Why do some Hindu's eat beef, or jews eat pork?
Pakiman Mar 15, 2011 11:43pm
Burqa (hijab with covering the face)is mostly whabi's(saudi or arab) doctrine whereas hijab is acceptable in accordance with islamic shariah. Promoting Islam comes under the basic pillar of islamic law and it is up to other individual to accept or deny it but one cannot and must not use force to convert non muslims, this is the road to hell no matter how pious one is. Extermism is not due to Islamic teaching, there are many human factors involved and top most is lack of education and not having basic neccessities of life. Yes you can blame the government for that.
Nadir Shah Mar 16, 2011 12:50am
I agree with your comments.
Eq8Rhomes Mar 16, 2011 12:58am
Maryam: Your response is glib and tacky. By your argument, only covered people are precious! My uncovered family, friends, and neighbours precious, too! They are great human beings, and we love them. Most covered men and women stay in their own communities--we can't even get to know them. Chauvinism?
kris Mar 16, 2011 01:36am
I understand the religious sentiments it sends out. Modest dressing is always better. Wearing Hijab has nothing to do with modesty, it is a religious symbol no matter how you put it. Now i have seen many ladies wearing a Hijab and then all very revealing jeans and high heals and all make up. do you think it is hypocratic?
Akil Akhtar Mar 16, 2011 02:14am
Why do some hindus wear shalwar and some Pajama and ohters Dhoti. And some hindus wear pants and suit..
Abdul Mar 16, 2011 03:09am
Vikram please grow up its called journalism, go and look it up in a dictionary!
Nadia Naeem Mar 16, 2011 04:22am
Something wrong with anyone promoting/defending one's religion?
Al-Siddi Mar 16, 2011 05:27am
Ejaz, Respect? Are you sure we are respecting other faiths? Is this the perception of non-Muslims about our Faith? Do we even respect the minorities rights in our ouwn country?? Let's be more self-critical in order to gain credibility then we will be respected
Sara Mar 16, 2011 06:07am
Salaams, iCOVER is a photo documentary book on A day in the life of a Muslim-American COVERed Girl available on amazon. iCOVER is a book honoring the Muslim women and celebrating our differences along with the similarities to women all over the world. or
Usman Mar 16, 2011 06:30am
Agree with Reem. You can't fill a cup that's already full. She is just acting as a mascot, nothing fruitful will come of it because Americans are not willing to think beyond their own version of Islam and Muslims. Best thing we can do, lets get on with our lives and stop worrying about our image.
AVB Mar 16, 2011 10:21am
The problem is that Muslims have started bench marking each other and outwitting each other in professing their Islamic rooting. I am sure Sadaf Syed's dress, writings, traveling, meeting other men (including the one in the photograph!)would be un-Islamic for many 'men' who are more Islamic than Sadaf Syed calls herself. So how Islamic she is will depend on with whom she is being compared with or who is comparing her...
MehdiRaza Mar 16, 2011 10:39am
@ rehan... why is either of the 2 an obstacle?
Zhang Mar 17, 2011 01:00pm
"We respect their culture and religion and expect the same from them." Are you sure, especially about all of "we"? Don't say it if you don't mean the words.