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Founded by 22-year-old Harvard Kennedy School of Government student Rana Abdelhamid, Hijabis of New York captures the stories and images of Muslim women around the city. The nearly 13,000-strong audience of mostly Muslim women is a product of Abdelhamid’s organization WISE – Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment – which she founded five years ago.
We spoke with Abdelhamid about her groundbreaking Facebook page and the reception it’s getting.
What is the Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment?
It’s an organization for young Muslim women and we teach self-defense, social entrepreneurship and empowerment. I started it when I was 17, and I want to run this full-time eventually.
What made you decide to launch Hijabis of New York?
A lot of people at my college had never met a woman wearing a hijab, and I was met with curiosity and questions. And there were a lot of misconceptions – that you’re forced to wear it, that it’s oppression. And I’m from New York! I love to wear it, I think it looks fly. There are so many fashion options [with a hijab]. So I thought it would give people a way to shatter misconceptions of Muslim women and give them their voices. If you Google “Muslim women,” the first image that comes up is of black burkas. I’m really into fashion, I follow these blogs and I think a lot of women find empowerment wearing the hijab.
What has the response been?
It’s been positive overwhelmingly. I started this because my goal was to shatter misconceptions about what it was to be a Muslim woman. And our audience has been overwhelmingly Muslim women. And all these women have been going in and debating what the hijab means to them and if it should be used this way or that. And it’s become an empowered space. That’s how I’d describe it.
Would you say it’s a safe space?
I don’t know if it would be safe because nothing online is safe.
What are you hoping people learn or get out of this?
I think number one would be that people realize that there is a lot of diversity in the Muslim woman narrative. There’s a huge anti-Muslim narrative across the world. There are women whose hijabs have been pulled off. And it’s my goal to humanize Muslim women, and people are being fed one narrative and making assumptions.
Do you go up to people and shoot/interview yourself?
I do some of the photos. It’s actually two of us. I’m not based in New York; I’m based in Massachusetts. Jiniya Azad takes photos, but the way we do it we go up to people in the streets. People are pretty open.
Does it help that you’re wearing a hijab when you approach people?
Yes. There’s automatically a connection, a stronger Muslim-to-Muslim nod. The women open up to me and tell me they’re wary and scared to walk on the streets.
What’s been your most surprising encounter while doing this?
What’s surprised me the most is just the reception, just the openness of people to really connect. It’s actually really meaningful. Two weeks ago I went up to a group of girls by Rockefeller Plaza, who were here on vacation and I said I’m with Hijabis of New York, and one of the girls said she was debating whether or not she should wear a hat instead of hijabi because she was afraid. It was New York and she was scared something would happen to her. And she shared a story of how she was attacked near her home and what happened to her. So I think the meaningfulness of this project, and sharing their stories, is powerful for me.
What’s next for you and the page?
What we’re going to do is continue to try to expand, see what happens from there, increase our viewership and reach a wider demographic because you feel you’re preaching to a choir. But I don’t want to take away from what it’s doing now.
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