When Rana Abdelhamid was told by a peer at school that she was “very normal,” she was taken aback.“What does that mean?” Abdelhamid said. “I felt that people have this idea of a woman who wears a veil as someone very different.”
Abdelhamid, a 22-year-old Queens, New York, native and Harvard Kennedy School graduate student, recognized that other Muslim women may have had similar experiences, and so in 2014 she started the social media project, Hijabis of New York.
Through the project, she is attempting to humanize and diversify the public narratives of Muslim women who wear hijabs. Using photos and interviews in the same vein as the popular blog Humans of New York, the social media project’s Facebook page has gained more than 16,000 fans so far.
“It is creating a space that didn’t exist before,” Abdelhamid said.
Abdelhamid works with several different photographers to conduct interviews that range in subject from the benefits of travel — “Don’t ever let anyone convince you that being a woman means staying sheltered in the home” — to why some women wear the hijab. “We chose to wear hijab to try to reclaim our religion and culture that have been incessantly vilified during our lifetimes,” one woman told her.
“You’re going through the pictures and you see how many of these women are really successful, have all these ambitions or have their own stories,” Abdelhamid said. “It seems really simplistic because obviously everyone has their own story … but there is this constant image that is being fed to Western society as a whole as to what it means to be Muslim.”
The process of interviewing subjects and setting the scene for photos fascinated Abdelhamid, who had no prior experience in photography.
“I think it has been so powerful to be able to capture so much with a photo. It’s not just about the words,” Abdelhamid said. “You can tell so much about a young woman just by the way whether or not she wants me to take a picture of her face on the side, or whether she wants me to take a picture 30 times or just once.”
The hijab — and, more broadly, Muslim fashion — is making its mark in Western fashion. In January, popular fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana released images from its first hijab and abaya collection. Last fall, global retailer H&M featured Mariah Idrissi, a hijab-wearing model, in an ad campaign. The Muslim fashion industry is expected to be worth $484 billion by 2019, according to a 2014-15 report by Thomson Reuters and Dinar Standard.
In addition to producing Hijabis of New York, Abdelhamid is the founding president of the Women’s Initiative for Self Empowerment, a leadership and self-defense organization. Abdelhamid, who is a black belt in shotokan karate and teaches classes, founded the organization when she was 16 after surviving an attack by a man who tried to remove her headscarf.
“I remember feeling a tug at the back of my hijab,” she said. “I turned around and there was a broad-shouldered man trying to reach again, trying to physically attack me and take off my hijab. I was able to get away from that, but I was left feeling very vulnerable … Because of that moment, I felt there was something that could be done to bring together Muslim women who are faced with these challenges.”
Abdelhamid said that her projects alone will not change perceptions of Muslim women or decrease violence against them, but they are an important step in the right direction. She plans to expand the social media campaign beyond New York and has already featured photos from Madrid and London.
“There are hijabis everywhere, and their stories are part of the fabric too,” she said.
See more photos from the project below.
The word “parallax” describes the camera error that occurs when an image looks different through a viewfinder than how it is recorded by a sensor; when one camera gives two perspectives. Parallax is a blog where photographers offer the unexpected sides and stories of their work. Tell us yours or share on Instagram at #PBSParallax.