How do you spot a Canadian-Muslim woman? Through 23-year-old Egyptian-Canadian portrait photographer and storyteller Alia Youssef — she’s the person standing confidently next to her motorcycle wearing a purple hijab. She’s seated at the microphone ready to go on air for Canada’s national broadcaster. She’s a police officer, educator, or a smiling food blogger in her kitchen with her children.
Youssef’s ever-expanding photography series, The Sisters Project, responds to negative stereotypes with positive images of Muslim women being themselves, telling their stories in places across Canada where they feel most comfortable.
Since she began this project in December 2016, Youssef has photographed 160 women in eight Canadian provinces, including 85 she profiled during a recent summer-long, cross-country tour.
The women were found through social media searches and enthusiasts sharing among communities. The portraits were taken in places that have meaning to the subjects, and are accompanied by a brief story about “what these women do, what they believe in, what they care about,” the photographer explains.
Each Wednesday, she posts a new photo and story on her Instagram feed (@the.sisters.project), as well as on the blog on her website, aliayoussef.com. She recently held her first exhibition of the project at Ryerson University in Toronto, where she is studying for a master’s degree in documentary media.
Youssef began the project after becoming “fed up with an image that gets repeated over and over again”, one that shows Muslim women as somehow sad, repressed or unable to express themselves. She was disheartened that Google image searches turned up little beyond close-up shots of sad-eyed women in black niqabs.
That’s changed recently, thanks in part to photographers, including Youssef, who contributed to a MuslimGirl.com project to provide diverse, positive and colourful stock photographs of Muslim women for Getty Images.
“In Canada, we grow up knowing what the tropes are, knowing what the stereotypes are,” Youssef says of the experience shared by many Canadian-Muslim women, especially those who choose to wear a hijab.
“I feel like not only myself, but many Muslim women whom I interviewed feel this burden or this pressure to defy the stereotype, and so I think it makes sense I would use photography, that my art would go to this topic. I feel like this is a topic that is long overdue in addressing.”
Youssef, who was born in Britain to an English mother and an Egyptian father, lived in Egypt as a child. At age 8, the family immigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia, on Canada’s west coast.
An avid photographer from the moment she picked up a point-and-shoot camera at age 14, she was soon photographing birthday parties and weddings for family friends. Encouraged by a high-school teacher to enter local youth photography contests, she was soon winning prizes. One of those was for her project on perceptions around the representation of Muslim women: The Way You See Me / The Way I See Me.
“I used two very different pictures of a Muslim woman – one was a seemingly oppressed woman and one was a happy, colourful picture,” explains Youssef. “And that was me at 15, just starting off. I think it was great that I was thinking about it.”
In The Sisters Project, each mini-profile finishes with a Q&A where the subject is asked: “What is your proudest accomplishment” or “What’s your biggest hope?” The answers are revealing, powerful and often charged with emotion. For example, Lila, a 40-year-old police officer specialising in race relations in Ottawa, was asked how she wants to be perceived. She replied: “As a strong Muslim woman who breaks stereotypes and as a role model to the younger generation of girls who want to be police officers.”
While Youssef’s blog has followers in the United Kingdom and United States, she has no plans to go further afield with The Sisters Project, preferring to continue to focus on Canadian women. She sees a universality to the work that goes beyond borders and even religion.
“It’s a project for all women and everyone to learn something from, even if they’re not Muslim,” she says. “It’s a way for us all to get to know each other.”
To see more of the Youssef’s work, visit aliayoussef.com