Photographer Kyna Uwaeme captures the defiance, determination and spirit of three American-Muslim teen girls who refuse to let prejudice define them
“I’m an American-Pakistani-Muslim”, says a proud 15-year-old named Alishba, the youngest of three teen girls photographed by 24-year-old Washington DC-based photographer Kyna Uwaeme. Alishba has just been asked what it means to be a Muslim today and answers, “I’m a bomber jacket and skinny jeans wearing girl by day, and a shalwar kameez wearing girl by night. I've broken all of those barriers and my family accepts me.”
Just halfway through her teens it’s a bold and poignant claim that is magnified when she speaks about the judgement that she faces – not from within her religion, but from outside of it. While she’s faced more hate than most of us did at her age, her confidence is unwavering: “I now know that there is nothing wrong with me and that I am just as American as that white boy.”
Today is International Women’s Day and photographer and filmmaker Uwaeme, who also has a BA in Journalism, wants to use her lens to give marginalised communities a platform for their face and their voice. “The theme for International Women's Day, ‘Be Bold for Change’, is very spot on”, she writes over email. “Women need to be encouraged to be bolder in every walk of life. We represent such a diverse group of people but something we have in common is our struggle for equality. Someone reading this that may have had previous preconceptions about Muslims may gain a sense of understanding and acceptance.”
As a Nigerian-American raised in a Catholic-Christian environment in the US, she says she understands the religious tensions that plague Nigeria and America, adding, “I hope to bridge the gap between the western and African understanding of Islam.”
Below she captures the three girls’ defiance and determination, all of which refuse to let discrimination define them.
“Being a Muslim girl means so much to me. In this day and age, many people have misconceptions about Muslims, especially Muslim women. Some people see us as oppressed and closed-minded. However, that is not the case. Being a Muslim girl in America means that I need to represent my religion properly to get rid of the ignorance that plagues many societies today. It means respect, not submission – tolerance, love, selflessness, and much much more.
Muslim women as a whole need more representation in society. At my school, sometimes people slip up and say very ignorant things like ‘stay in your place’ or ‘don't let me pull that scarf off your head’, in addition to some of the looks I get on the street at times. I educate or respond when I can.
As a young Muslim woman, sometimes I am told not to speak on certain topics that are highly debated and controversial in Islam, such as feminism, however, I do not let that stop me from speaking up for what I believe in.”
“It means respect, not submission – tolerance, love, selflessness, and much much more” – Aya
“Being a Muslim girl to me means that my life is centred around my religion. It means that I have sisters anywhere I go who are supportive and understanding, but it also means that I will be tested and will experience discrimination my entire life. As a Muslim girl, I have to be the best person I can be because I have the possibility to change someone's view on my fellow Muslims through just one interaction.
Two years ago while traveling to Senegal with my family, my mum was given a pat down at the airport. I will never forget it because my mum began crying because she felt that she was being discriminated against. My mum always gets chosen for pat downs even though they claim it as ‘random’. There have been times where I’ve sat down next to someone on a bus or train and they immediately sprang up. Once that happened while I was with a friend and she was so shocked that it was such a normal encounter for me. I answer a lot of ignorant questions and respond to many ignorant comments from people my age and even adults.
I think that a lot of people don't understand Muslims and I really wish that there were more ways I could help educate people.”
“It means that I have sisters anywhere I go who are supportive and understanding, but it also means that I will be tested and will experience discrimination my entire life” – Aissatu
“Being a Muslim girl represents my love of Allah and the prophet Muhammad. It means that I am not afraid to express what I believe in and it means that I am strong. Islam gives me my strength and hope. So, really, being a Muslim girl means everything to me.
As a young Muslim girl, I have pushed many cultural barriers and faced struggles along with doing so. From the way that I dress to the way that I talk and overall how I present myself. It's different from how my parents grew up and it's different from my culture’s expectations. I’m an American-Pakistani-Muslim. I’m a bomber jacket and skinny jeans wearing girl by day, and a shalwar kameez wearing girl by night. But one thing that never changes is my hijab. Culture is difficult sometimes; Pakistani girls don't go out, Pakistani girls don't dress like ‘that’, Pakistani girls should be sweet and simple. I've broken all of those barriers and my family accepts me.
There have been many instances of scrutinisation because of the hijab I wear on my head. I have been called a terrorist, an immigrant (what's insulting about that?), Osama Bin Laden’s daughter and many other hateful things. Staring is almost a daily occurrence and quite frankly I'm used to it. It doesn't seem to hurt anymore when I am judged because I know who I am and I know what I stand for. When I was in sixth grade, a white boy in my English class said to me during a class discussion, ‘Shut up terrorist’. He then laughed along with some other classmates. The teacher didn't do much although she did ask him to apologise. I felt like I didn't belong there anymore. I felt like an alien and I just wanted to disappear. It was terribly embarrassing but I now know that there is nothing wrong with me and that I am just as American as that white boy.”
“I’m an American-Pakistani-Muslim. I’m a bomber jacket and skinny jeans wearing girl by day, and a shalwar kameez wearing girl by night” – Alishba