They talk about barriers in hopes of changing my mind about what the niqab or being Muslim “actually” entails. So I create images of Muslim women who are loud and proud and have zero tolerance for bullshit.
When most people think of Muslim women as a whole, they either imagine oppressed women cowering behind aggressive men or overly exotic, hypersexualized vixens. Few people consider what it means to exist as a "regular, schmegular, degular" Muslim femme. Women who wear the hijab find themselves ostracized. Even so, the awkwardness is heightened for niqabis, which a term that refers to women who wear niqabs (a niqab is a covering of the face that leaves the eyes exposed).
In spite of all the microaggressions and discrimination, there are still those who prevail. Aima Niqabae is a graphic artist and college student. Her style combines seapunk and traditional Muslim motifs to re-imagine what it means to be a niqabi living in the modern age.
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Aima Niqabae; it’s what most people refer to me as. I was born in Pakistan and immigrated to Canada when I was just a babe. I’m currently studying at Ryerson to pursue a degree in arts and contemporary sciences. I identify as a Muslimah.
How did you into graphic design, particularly computer graphics?
When I enter a space, there’s an awkward silence. No one wants to talk about how I dress--more specifically the thing on my face, which is known as a niqab. When the media is saturated with articles about banning the niqab or hijab, it’s used to further the narrative about Islam being extreme. However, that's the obvious reaction to something not usually associated with beauty or normality. Both the niqab and hijab are articles of faith, yet they're only exaggerated on the runway or banned from the workplace.
Portraying Muslim women the way they want to be represented will change the game and people's reaction to it. My inspiration comes from other Muslim women. I am part of a group that welcomes all Muslimahs from queer to Shia to Ahmadis to allies. It is an inclusive space that doesn't censor the truth surrounding taboo subjects. I got tired of hearing non-Muslims talk about issues surrounding Muslimahs without our representation. Why should people who don’t identify as Muslims be the ones to control our narrative? We need to take our rightful space in the conversation and in art.
Art has always been a reflection of the climate that we live in. I don’t want history to only label Muslimahs as oppressed, deprived of their agency, sheltered or submissive. We are actively showcasing one side of the issue when the other side is clearly contradicting that.
Tell us about your ongoing project, Niqabae Chronicles.
Niqabae Chronicles is about documenting my life as a niqabi. It was just a way to express myself to a larger audience outside of my friend circle. I love anime and anything Korean. I enjoy reading manga and I love to explore. However, few take the time to understand a niqabi. They rather impose their ideas and biases on me. They talk about barriers in hopes of changing my mind about what the niqab or being Muslim “actually” entails. So I create images of Muslim women who are loud and proud and have zero tolerance for bullshit.
What inspired the project?
The project was inspired by online Muslim women who have motivated me to accept the fact that there are going to be haters. But that doesn’t mean you should dim your aspirations and dreams for them, because they can’t appreciate nor comprehend your existence.
What do you think about Muslim women in art?
I believe that we, as artists, have a burden to justify our artistic narrative as truly representing Muslim women. This makes our work emotionally exhausting. Even though I can only speak for myself, our art is going to open dialogues, not only in the political spectrum but also within our communities as well. Often, I find that most immigrant Muslimahs shy away from honing their talents, because it isn’t a convenient mode of income or seen as an actual career. Family support is a key indicator for some if they will continue with their passion. I wonder how many Muslim youth had to bicker with their families to say "hey, I don’t want to be a doctor. I want to be an actor, a filmmaker or a poet." Many Muslim women take off their hijab so they won’t be smited by the community for engaging in art--even though Islam promotes art. Muslim women will have our art ripped apart because people are uncomfortable with the idea that a Muslim woman can imagine and fantasize realities outside of oppression, war and trauma.
Why is it important for niqabis to be visible in art?
When people see the niqab used to make a fashion statement by a model who will take it off she is liberated or when Lady Gaga adorns it, this makes it okay to fetishize the niqab. In that context, niqab is used literally as a muzzle by non-Muslims, who have no clue about its history. It limits the conversation as a means to justify the war on terror or the hijab/niqab bans. Showing niqab in art gives me that control back.
My agency wasn’t the aim of these discussions rather you have so-called experts manipulating situations in areas around the world that don’t apply to me. For example, when women living under ISIS rule are freed, the first thing they tend to do is take off the burka. They're taking their control back. No human in their right mind wants to live their life dictated by scumbags. I would do the same in that situation; however, my agency at this current moment isn’t threatened by that. I choose to wear niqab because that’s my choice. I can’t be oppressed by my choice when i’m consciously trying to wear it.
As a niqabi, my narrative is always used to promote hysteria and malice towards women who want to seclude themselves in a realm that doesn't focus on the norms that her body needs to conform to instead she wants to emphasize the aspects such as her soul and mind being that it is her choice to dress that way. Many try to shame me, saying that I add to oppressive traditions. But people would never shame a woman for orgasming in consensual sex just because another woman halfway across the world unfortunately became a victim because of rape or sexual assault.
So you're from Canada. In the U.S., we see your country as the pinnacle of progressivism, especially for Muslim women and in particular, hijabi women. Do you agree with that mentality?
In Canada, we have our fair share of grievances and the alt-right. In the previous election, Stephen Harper tried to ban the niqab, stating that he would never let his daughter do such a thing. A man can never tell you to wear or not to wear your hijab or niqab. It should be a personal decision. The state should not intervene in religious matters, unless there is a serious consequence, such as public safety. For example, wearing Klansman costumes should be banned. Why does a women have to compromise her beliefs so that politicians have a reason to garner votes and stereotype Muslims?
In Canada, there are also legislative bills about to be passed, which will allow surveillance and continued marginalization of Muslim communities. We have the alt-right going into Nathan Phillips Square and shouting hate speech. We also have them standing outside of schools, taunting students. In short, I seriously disagree with that mentality. Canada has a long way to go as well.
When people from the past look back on your project, what do you want Niqabae Chronicles to convey?
I want it to show badass Muslim women living their truth and reclaiming their history--using their image to cancel the rhetoric that we need saving. Let's be honest, testern saviors could care less about what we need; they just need a reason to continue their colonization of our rich traditions, cultures and land. In conversations about women, western intellectuals try to deflect their oppression against their own women by saying that Muslim women have it way worse. They say that Muslim women need to be the ones listed as the priority for saving, not the other women in our country who are being murdered by their domestic partners.
This interview has been edited for clarity and grammar.
All images were created by Aima.
Marina Ali is a student, writer, poet, and blue lipstick enthusiast. She is a staff writer for Brown Girl Magazine, the features editor for Drunk Magazine, and the social media manager for TMO Media. When she’s not writing or studying for classes, you can find her picnicking in pastoral East Texas, crafting for her sorority sisters, or making food.