By Shazlin Rahman
When I was an undergraduate student, I was so addicted to watching hijabi vloggers that I went on to write my Master’s thesis about them. As a visible Muslim woman living in a small, predominantly white northern Ontario town, these vloggers were a lifeline. Their popularity on YouTube — whether it was Amena with her 380,000 subscribers or Dinatokio with 610,000 subscribers — told me I wasn’t alone in my need to see myself reflected in the media I consumed.
Positive representations of Muslim women in media are few and far between; they’re often only shown as silent, oppressed, or are absent from mainstream media altogether. It’s no surprise, then, that Muslim women have taken to YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook and other non-traditional media platforms to tell their stories.
I interviewed three Muslim women artists, Riya Jama, Tendisai Cromwell and Noor Al-Mosawi, who create visual content that not only subverts narrow, dominant representations of Muslim women but reclaims media as a space to document their own unique lived experiences.
“My art is a love letter to Black girls.”
Riya Jama, Toronto, artist, photographer, diasporic visual storyteller
Riya Jama was frustrated by the lack of Black girls in space, so she decided to throw them into space herself. As a diasporic visual storyteller, Riya unapologetically centres Black girls—Black Somali girls in particular—in her work and celebrates their beauty, intelligence, strength, and other traits that stereotypical representations fail to capture.
To be Black, Muslim and a woman means to be subject to misogyny, anti-Black racism and Islamophobia, all at once. “We are always seen as inferior to everyone else,” Riya says. She spends hours scouring the Internet for images of Black girls that she then manipulates into fantastical and dreamlike visuals of a future where Black girls can thrive, even dominate. Her creations have garnered a huge following; her artwork portraying supermodel, actress and entrepreneur Iman, for example, was shared and reposted by many, including Iman herself.
“I don’t know why we’re always talking about hijab.”
Tendisai Cromwell, Edmonton, filmmaker
As a multimedia storyteller, Tendisai Cromwell knows that the person behind the camera wields enormous power over a film and its perspective. According to her, the creator is “essential to how a story is told.” While completing her Masters of Journalism at Ryerson University, Tendisai ventured into documentary filmmaking out of curiosity. She fell in love with the craft and founded New Narrative Films, where she directed and produced Spirit of Social Change, a documentary focusing on how spirituality drives social justice movements.
Tendisai also invests her time and energy supporting aspiring filmmakers from her community. Following a media workshop at an Islamic elementary school, she started mentoring female Muslim students in filmmaking and worked with them on short film projects. “One girl,” Tendisai recalls, “she was so sweet, a little bit shy, but she ended up blossoming in the process, creating a film that was very personal to her but one that she was willing to share with the world.”
“When I walk into a room, I walk in as a matter of fact.”
Noor Al-Mosawi, Toronto, visual artist
Often introduced as a Muslim woman artist, Noor Al-Mosawi has never really identified with that label. “I’m Muslim, and I happen to be an artist as well,” she explains, critical of labels imposed on Muslim women that — while allowing many to navigate the world better — tend to be narrow and exclusionary. That’s why she’s not driven to capture images of Muslim women as forms of novelty. As a visual artist, Noor simply loves telling stories, communicating and expressing emotions through images. “I’m always wary of this idea of reshaping a narrative; for me it’s about contributing,” she says. Given the current political climate, there’s been an uptick in Muslims and Muslim women who are creating media to speak to people at the other end of the political spectrum. “I don’t necessarily have that intention. I do keep in mind that people other than Muslims will be looking at my work. And so I try to create images and approach my work in a way that could appeal to just about anybody.”