How Do You Know Who I Am?

The Thought behind This Artwork:

This painting explores one of the most seminal questions plaguing the 21st century Muslima: What does it mean to be a Muslim woman in a society that continues to weigh her worth, trying to choose for her? Trying to save her from a danger she herself doesn’t perceive? Trying to define every step she takes?

This issue is so complicated that I find myself, a modern Muslim woman, wondering if modern and Muslim sounds ironic together. Is it ironic? And if so, that is a travesty. A narrative that simply doesn’t encompass my personal experiences. It seems unfair that in an age where feminism is taking bigger strides every day, the Muslim female existence is still wrapped in a paradox. Is it the piece of cloth around her head that makes people question her agency or is it the extra layer of garment around her body?

The Hijab or veil is universally seen as a symbol of oppression. Admittedly, in many cases that proves to be true: a dictum of a conservative and patriarchal societies. Women are forced to adhere to a uniform that caters to the authoritative aspirations of the men or governments in control there. On the other hand, there are women that choose to dress modestly for various reasons – personal, cultural or ideological.

So for me, the real paradox is this modern society. It claims to be an upholder of personal freedom but asks a Muslim woman to dress according to its pre-determined standards in order to be accepted. While conservative Islamic countries force women to cover up, the ‘empowered’ Western nations force them to remove their hijabs. In this tussle of what exactly constitutes a Muslima’s empowerment, her own voice drowns in the din. Additionally, what participants and spectators fail to realize is that the real problem isn’t the draping of a hijab or the hijab itself, but domineering men dictating what a woman should or should not wear. It begs the question: Why should one religious community’s dress code be up for debate at all? If the debate is based on progressive ideals of female identity, all Muslim women should have the authority to decide what they wish to wear and for what reason, without being judged or called names.

From my own experience, I have seen labels being thrown at Muslim women both from within her community and outside. To fight back, she has to navigate treacherous territory with a double edged sword. The self- proclaimed guardians of religion measure her level of faith and devotion according to how many layers of fabric she covers herself with. If she refrains from wearing a hijab or veil she is deemed astray or faithless even though her connection with God may surpass those who point fingers at her. Such a narrow approach to what womanhood and devotion to God should look like appeases the male ego so as to limit a woman’s potential. It is not so much Islam that is problematic but the purposeful misinterpretation of the same, designed to show women ‘their place’. In denying her a choice, they deny her the rights her religion clearly envisages for all. As the Quran states in verse 2:256 “There is no compulsion in religion”.

On the other hand, if she does cover up, the larger society questions her independence even though she acts with agency and by choice. Many Muslim women choose to dress modestly for reasons that range from personal, cultural to religious or ideological. They are neither oppressed nor intellectually bereft or subservient. Piety, comfort or an effort to avoid objectification also contribute to this choice. Some choose to do so simply to challenge the consumerist, capitalistic fashion norms and expectations.  Others sport it as a style statement. So this notion that she is oppressed and needs to be protected, disregarded or shunned for her choice of attire is completely unfounded. Thus, the western discourse on Muslim women and their external appearance is the result of a superiority complex mixed with Islamophobia rather than a genuine concern for a Muslima’s welfare.

I believe therefore that the conservative side should be careful of their arrogance and high-handedness when handing out Fatwahs denouncing those who don’t wish to wear the hijab. Similarly, the Western World or media should respect a Muslim woman’s freedom to dress modestly if she chooses to do so without trying to define what independence should look like.

Artist’s Note:

I have painted the Muslim woman balancing herself on the scales that the society is always placing her on. She is trying to find a stable footing even as she stands directly under the spotlight. I depicted her in both her avatars: the one that is veiled and the one that isn’t.  But any which way, her worth is measured only on the basis of her attire, her external appearance.  On each side people perched on high chairs, symbolizing their real or perceived authority, are throwing labels at her. The fortress or tower at the top of the scale showcases her true status in modern society: a prisoner of prejudice. Both the high chairs are painted on rough uneven ground to represent the faulty premise their judgment comes from. The bridge in the background represents her struggle to build bridges with others and create pathways towards a society that is fair and recognizes her as an equal.

The act of balancing is not new to me,
I have stood on these scales quite endlessly.
Trying to gain an equal footing in both your worlds,
Judged from the outside and judged from within.
Whatever the verdict passed on me,
I remain a prisoner of prejudice, quite endlessly.
What do you know about the flights my dreams take?
Or of the depths of my emotions,
The laughter, the love, the faith and the aspirations,
The highs, the lows: what do you know about them all…at all?
All of you who hurl your labels at me,
You who continue to judge me quite endlessly…
How do you know who I am?

Haafiza Sayed’s work is a synthesis of contemporary realism, landscape study, and abstract. She uses the subtlety of lines, textures, and symbols to convey complex, often surreal themes through simple imagery. She can be reached here.



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