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Hannah Habibi
‘I'm a lover, not a fighter’, 2010Courtesy the artist

The Muslim women crashing a boring art world party

Five artists discuss how their art finds its feet in a world that’s more divided than ever

The harsh political climate, teamed with the open and free nature of our internet-first culture, has made it a complicated time to be an artist. While hundreds of doors are being bolted shut by government cuts, a whole new world of DIY creativity is being opened up – offering thousands of opportunities to those who were once left stranded by its strict exclusion.

While this feels like a great new beginning for the art universe, though, there are some getting caught in the middle: and none are feeling it more than muslim women. Forced every day to fend off fetishisation, tokenism and tired media stereotypes, the public perception has never felt more at odds with the actual reality. “We can easily occupy the online sphere, but to show work in a gallery has proven difficult for many,” explains artist Sara Foryame. “The only way Muslim women can really gain visibility within the art sphere is to take control of the gaze, become curators and form collectives in order to exhibit work that narrates their true purpose.” We spoke to five women who are hoping to do exactly that.


From scribbles of sad animals to the problematic nature of the UK’s counter terror measures, Sofia Niazi’s illustrations offer a vast and varied portrait of contemporary living. “If anything, I think my work reflects my life as a post-internet person more than it does a Muslim woman,” the illustrator explains. “There are so many young Muslim women making really interesting work at the moment, initiating their own projects, holding exhibitions, joining collectives, creating engaging content and making their own opportunities.”

Niazi, who studied at London’s University of the Arts, has made efforts to fight against the lack of platforms for “POC artists” by attempting to erase the title altogether – producing her very own zine-shaped platform for young, label-free creatives. The result is OOMK (short for One Of My Kind), a magazine focused on celebrating creativity from women of diverse ethnic and spiritual backgrounds. She is now urging other artists, who are likely to be stifled by recent government cuts, to do the same. “There is fundamentally nothing difficult to understand or comprehend that is particular to Muslim women and the attention around muslim women isn’t created by ‘misunderstanding’,” she says. “I wish more people would understand racism as a technology and turn the heat on racists, anti-black people and Islamaphobes to try and figure out why they’re so trash and garbage instead of trying to understand Muslims and pathologize muslim women.”


“I wish the world, especially the west, would seek more knowledge about the Iranian people and their genuine situation rather than being so utterly blinded by the way the government makes us appear,” says Stockholm-based photographer Maryam Dinar. Her work, which is set apart by its voltaic hues and lavish landscapes, shows a whole other side of her home country – capturing its atmosphere in a way that’s rarely seen outside the Iranian borders. “People are so busy with seeing Iran as this huge global enemy, and its citizens receive the majority of the backlash of that rage. It's unfair. Iranians are such misunderstood people, and they deserve much better that what's been thrown their way.”

It’s this talent for expressing the unexpressed which has made her Instagram account – @uncr8tive – a refreshing jolt of energy amongst all the body hair and breakfast shots. “I want to challenge the widespread notion that muslim women are one-dimensional and talentless,” she professes. “It's an absurd idea, but nonetheless it needs to be fought. The main aim of my art is to change people's false perceptions and ideas, and what better way than to tackle a subject that is so personal to me.” 


Whether she’s ridiculing France’s controversial burqa ban, or mocking the west’s reductive perceptions of muslim women, Hannah Habibi likes to keep things light. Her art, which is both playful and provocative, cooks up a new view on the religious experience –  blending together politics and pop culture with social satire. “I’d say that a lot of my work is about questioning the way we see or are seen, whether that is in relation to gender roles, religious norms or contemporary politics,” she summarises. “Given all the shit that is going on right now, shining a light on these issues is pretty timely.”

Habibi (real name Hopkin) herself converted to Islam ten years ago – though for personal reasons, she has decided against adopting the veil. “I no longer wear a hijab, so I am not easy to pick out in a crowd,” she explains, when asked about her experiences. “I haven't been subject to direct confrontations or attacks like some of my friends have. It just goes to highlight the stupidity of aligning a political or religious view point with a physical appearance or piece of clothing. Both sides need to see that life is not black and white!”


“I always revisit faith, identity and gender throughout my work,” says artist Sara Foryame. “I deal with issues that I and many other Muslim women are going through. I have a passion to share their stories, to share mine in hope it encourages some sort of reflection.” 

Keen to shatter the media’s one-sided portrayal of the muslim experience, Foryame’s work melds many themes and methods – from photography and collage to reappropriation and surrealism. It’s a style that has seen her attract the attention of all-female, all-muslim “Variant Space” – an art collective focused on conquering stereotypes, and building up the POC platform. “(Muslim women) are often seen as one homogenous group,” Foryame writes over email. “I think the one thing we all have in common is the desire that people would just listen to us instead of silencing our voices or speaking on behalf of us. Because we are speaking, some are speaking quietly and some are speaking loudly. We’ve been speaking for a long time.”


Zarina Muhammad’s punchy lo-fi aesthetic is, despite its cute and carefree appearance, burdened with some serious sociolgical weight. “Truthfully, I think some of the work i make would be problematic if I wasn’t muslim,” the artist explains, playfully. “But that’s an exciting place for my work to reside in. I like the kind of cheeky feeling of being scandalous like that. I try not to take art too seriously, so it all fits.”

That cheekiness is splattered shamelessly across all of Muhammad’s work – whether she’s discussing spaciality, tokenism or the internet’s colonialistic dialects. It’s a collection that’s bursting for a new kind of dialogue: and something she carries on with art crib website, The White Pube – a surrealist new space she started with fellow artist Gabrielle De La Puente.  

“I think what I’d wish people would understand is that muslim women are more than just their hijab (or their lack of it),” she muses. “I feel bad every time someone comes at me with ignorance, for them. Because they don’t know and now it’s my job to explain to them what they don’t understand. Why am I being burdened with the responsibility of education? Explaining the same thing over and over gets exhausting. Why is that on me? it’s 2016, google is an accepted teaching tool. Use Google, not me.”