Reclaiming the Narrative. My Canada!
There’s only one day left to my very first group art exhibit. I’m not nervous, rather I feel a profound sense of gratitude with a stir of other emotions I can’t quite put into words. I would be driving going about my everyday business when I’d get this energy move through me at the thought of this project–so powerful it would make me shudder, moving me to tears. It’s the magnitude of what I’m doing, like a personal revolution blossoming from within, having a life of its own. Even if it doesn’t matter to anyone else, it does to me. Greatly.
The Power of Intention
Back in February of this year, I started to get this feeling of agitation and unrest from within. I would read exciting articles of empowered Muslim women, but there was something missing in all the stories. Women like me were not there. Don’t get me wrong, I was overjoyed to see Muslim women change-makers and creatives in mainstream media being recognized for their phenomenal work. Having grown up in Toronto in the 80’s this type of exposure never existed, so this was a monumental. And, I acknowledged that.
However, the frustration and disappointment that stemmed from this void wouldn’t go away. There was a lack of representation that needed filling. Moreover, there was this other side of Muslim women which was incredibly under- and/or misrepresented. Wherever I would see niqaabi portraits, it would be rather negative, dark and confining. The women in the photographs had restricted personality, character or even emotions. They were concealed and mysterious, almost trapped in their cloth. They reminded me of Offred from the book, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ – stripped of all dignity, freedom and thought. This type of imagery didn’t represent me and my life as a Canadian-born creative niqaabi. There was so much I wanted to say. Where did my story fit in this narrative, I thought.
The truth was, it didn’t fit. The space wasn’t there.
That’s why I had this tremendous urge to share my story. I felt I could add to the ongoing one-sided dialogue which was in serious need of refreshing. But, I didn’t know how. At the same time I had this passing curiosity of how art exhibits work. Not a field I had ever explored, I let it do just that – pass. However, as the days went on, I realized that if I wasn’t going to take charge of this, someone else would and was already gladly doing it for me with their own interpretation. I had a story I wanted to share and no one else could voice it for me. So, I made a sincere intention to do something about it when the time was right.
Doors of Opportunity
Meanwhile, a photography program opened up in March by Maha Manaf, award-winning photographer and educator based in Toronto. She had received a grant from the government to conduct a class to teach women the art of storytelling though photography. It seemed like it was designed for me. The days, the class timings–everything was working out. I couldn’t find any excuse to not take it. So I closed my eyes, said bismillah and enrolled. What I didn’t know was this class was actually leading up to a final group project at the prestigious Toronto Centre for the Arts. Maha was taking us under her wing and sharing her art exhibit space with our work exploring the theme of ‘Finding Home’. Not just that, but it was going to be a part of the popular CONTACT Photography Festival that curators and art directors enthusiastically attended from abroad and also part of the 18th annual Doors OpenToronto.
Gasp! This was going to be big, I thought. I better make this my best work. So for the next few months, I continued my weekly classes and while driving back home, I would obsess over what my story would be for the installment. How was I going to voice these ideas I’ve had floating around my head for so long. Would it be dark, uplifting or shocking? I knew dark imagery was already oversaturated so I opted for something new that I felt best represented my own personal journey as a creative. It was going to be something positive, uplifting and welcoming. I wanted it to be in a rich visual language that was compelling and intriguing, showing different aspects of my story which people would never have been exposed to otherwise. It meant I needed to become vulnerable and open myself up publicly to the judgement of others. I was going to have to leave the familiarity of comfort to express these personal aspects of my life. Nevertheless, I was ready for that sacrifice to claim this golden opportunity.
My hope from this installment is to open the eyes of the viewers. I want them to start thinking differently. If my work can shake stereotypes and misconceptions around the niqaab, I think I’ve somewhat accomplished what I set out to do. But, I have a strong feeling this is just the beginning. I’m not done yet and new ideas have already begun to stir. I also want this project be a source of inspiration to other niqaabis out there doing awesome things in their communities and to start sharing their stories. I understand the sensitivity around the matter as not everyone wishes to put themselves out there in public but there are many venues and mediums you can choose from to express your ideas. If this could help reclaim the narrative of the already stereotyped and overplayed dark and oppressed one, I don’t see why you should wait.
In this country, women in niqaab is not a thing to fear. I know that in some parts of the world, sadly, it’s a concept that is force upon. Fortunately, that’s not my case, nor is it the case of the many powerful niqaabi women I know and have heard of. Here in Canada, majority choose to wear it to their own accord. No man has ever told them to do it, rather it’s their deeply personal way to express their devotion and sincerity to their faith. There might be scientists, social workers, teachers, engineers, doctors, creative entrepreneurs and so much talent among them. We need to hear about it. Let’s get the conversation going and let’s hear your stories.
About the Exhibit
The ‘Finding Home’ group art exhibit, curated by Maha Manaf, will be on display at the Toronto Centre for the Arts from May 17-27. The opening reception will be on May 18 from 6-8pm. All are welcome to this free event. You will be able to meet the artists, explore an interactive art activity, and enjoy some delicious appetizers.
You can find more information about this event here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1894370027504807/?ti=icl