Asalah in The Sisters Project. She is a 15-year-old student at a fine art high school, a public speaker, and an advocate for the Real Acts of the Caring organization. (Alia Youssef)

The project captures a range of narratives far beyond the media’s usual limited portrayals

Last year, Alia Youssef teamed up with the New York blog Muslim Girl to flood Getty Images, a popular image-sharing platform, with photos that positively represent Muslim girls and women. The photos show Muslim girls shopping, working out, sewing and relaxing in a park. They’re bright and fun, featuring the women laughing and smiling — all working to negate the stereotypical images that are often found of Muslim women, which Youssef refers to as “invisible representation, meaning there were none except for negative ones.”

The intention of creating a database of images of Muslim women to counter the prevalent negative stereotypes that pervade society is a driving force behind Youssef’s most recent venture: The Sisters Project. The project consists of 160 photographs of Muslim women taken across Canada, 16 of which are up until October 14th at Ryerson Image Centre.

Youssef began the series as part of her thesis project for her BFA in Photography at Ryerson University. She cites a lack of representation of Muslim women when she was growing up as inspiration for the project. “I grew up being ashamed of my identity, my background and my religion, all because of the connotations that came with it,” Youssef writes in her online artist statement. “From before I was born to the haunting reality of Trump’s Muslim ban, certain perpetual representations circulate in media and literature time and time again. These representations depict a voiceless, oppressed, demure, helpless woman who is a victim to her patriarchal religion. This image always portrays a sad-looking veiled woman who is deemed in need of ‘saving.'”

When Youssef realized that the project was only focusing on women from Toronto and her hometown of Vancouver, she decided to travel across Canada to shoot more photos with the help from funding from the Inspirit Foundation. On the 12-city tour, Youssef met and photographed more than 85 Muslim women.

Youssef errs toward shooting her subjects in the landscape — horizontally as opposed to vertically. She explains to me that this is because she likes to encompass the surroundings, which she and the women choose collaboratively, into the photo. That being said, the two portrait photographs in the show stand out and offer a nuanced portrayal of the subject’s surroundings, nicely breaking up some of the more literal photographs, such as the lawyer, Haniya, standing in a library, the colours in her outfit mirroring the surrounding books.

While the women range in age and occupation, there is a repetition within the composition of the photographs. This can work nicely as an analogy for the similarities between the women. In a recent interview with Vice, Youssef noted that all the women were on the same page, believing in the message of the project and feeling “the weight of the stereotype in their own cities one way or another.” The photographs in the series that shine through are those that are surprising compositionally: the mirrored image of Rayah practising Taekwondo, the projection of Arabic on the face of Seemi or Youssef’s sister Asalah crouched down on horseback.

I was drawn to searching the facial expressions of the women in the series, which ranged from stoic to a knowing smile to pleased to perhaps slightly uncomfortable. In a culture where women — and Muslim women especially — are portrayed as either simply angry or happy, the range of emotions captured by Youssef is powerful. It builds on her goal of a wider range of representation by subtly, through the variations of facial expressions, allowing Muslim women to be portrayed as they wish, without forcing any preexisting narrative on them.

Each of the photographs has a corresponding text piece where the woman pictured shares her story. “People get shy about their story, but I like to reiterate that the project isn’t about sharing only success stories — it’s about showing everyday stories and authentic storytelling because the whole point is to fill this gap,” Youssef says. “It doesn’t have to always be a story of success but it’s positive [because] we’re learning something that’s not negative, not victim-driven. It’s a sharing of their everyday life.”

There has been some progress in recent years in how Muslim women are portrayed in the mainstream. A Muslim model wearing a hijab was recently on the cover of Teen Vogue; the photos that Youssef took for Getty Images are used in articles that aren’t solely about Muslim identity. In this way, projects such as The Sisters Project can offer another significant step forward in influencing how Muslim women are seen in the media — a necessary change that Youssef is enthusiastically championing.

By Tatum Dooley

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