We rarely see non-stereotypical depictions of Muslim women in film, TV and the media: they’re either presented as terrorist wives, oppressed stay-at home mothers, or exotic but one-dimensional beauties. That’s where collective Muslim Sisterhood decided to step in.
Muslim Sisterhood was co-founded by 23-year-old photographer Lamisa Khan, along with artists Zeinab Saleh, also 23, and 21-year-old Sara Gulamali. They wanted to break away from the narrow images of Muslim women we see in mainstream media, and “represent ‘normal’ Muslim girls who aren’t bloggers, fashionistas or Bake Off winners,” Khan told me.
Like so many friendships today, Khan, Saleh and Gulamali met on Instagram. In 2017, Khan was working at Amaliah, a publishing platform for Muslim women. She’d been following Saleh on Instagram for a while, and “really liked the way her art incorporated her faith and culture.” They began collaborating, and after Khan saw photos of their work on online Muslim art archive Variant Space, she reached out to them. The three met up and shared their frustrations with “the lack of authentic representation of Muslim women and the feelings of missing a sense of sisterhood,” Gulamali explains. “We envisioned a space that would encompass a range of different Muslim women all together.” After that meeting, Muslim Sisterhood was formed.
Growing up, Khan struggled to see images of any women she could relate to growing up – let alone Muslim women. “The UK is so diverse and it’s a shame that the same Eurocentric values and features are constantly pushed in the media,” she tells me. “Even amongst my own, I didn’t always feel at ease because I was going through my own personal 'clash of civilisations'. That’s a feeling that a lot of young Muslims feel, and it’s just unacceptable.”
As a British-born, Muslim woman, Khan didn’t feel fully at home in either white or Muslim spaces, but caught between two different cultures and communities. Through her work with Muslim Sisterhood, Khan has realised there are people like her “who are experiencing the same things and believe the same things. It validated my experiences and struggles and made me feel less alone.” Over time, the collective has evolved into a “really beautiful community of the girls that we’ve worked with both online and offline,” Khan explains.
At first, the collective didn’t plan on using Instagram to promote their work. But after they posted some of their photos from a previous photoshoot on a WhatsApp group for Black Muslim women, they were overwhelmed with the positive feedback they got from their friends and peers. “I think it’s especially important for younger girls to see themselves in a positive way by seeing images that are relatable and authentically produced,” Saleh tells me.
Muslim Sisterhood also wants to challenge deeper issues facing Muslims today, such as the anti-Black attitudes that still linger in some sections of the ummah (Arabic for "community"). “It’s a matter of ignorance,” Saleh says, “and it’s important for us to help our communities unlearn these views that were passed onto them. It’s up to our generation to do the work, because otherwise who else will?”
For now, Muslim Sisterhood have their hands full: they recently programmed a V&A Friday Late, and their photographs were used in Mariam Khan’s recent book It's Not About the Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality and Race. They’re also in the process of creating a zine with Between Borders, a platform that creates conversations around young people and identity politics in the UK. Khan never imagined that the Muslim Sisterhood community would grow so fast. “Every opportunity we’ve had has been absolutely incredible and we’re so honoured and humbled... I’m not sure what will happen in the future, but inshAllah [Arabic for "God willing"], it’s bright.”