Sadaf Syed: Breaking Stereotypes One Photo at a Time

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“Muslims and non-Muslims should realize that we all are just travelers in this temporary world,” photojournalist Sadaf Syed tells me. She adds that we all should act on this realization “by opening up and getting to learn about each others faith, cultures, tradition.”

Photographer Sadaf Syed pays respect to the victims of 9/11 at Ground Zero in New York City.

Since she was two months old, Syed has traveled throughout the United States with her family, exposed to different cultures, religions, and people, including Muslims of different ethnicities. After picking up on many different customs and traditions, Syed became inspired to tell stories about this diverse group of Muslims.
Syed began her photography career with wedding photography and portraiture. Years later, her career shifted to amplifying the voices of people whose stories are seldom heard, giving them the chance to share their journeys, emotions, hopes, fears, abilities, and disabilities. As a visual storyteller, Syed is always looking for ways to inspire and educate people through her photography.
“You’re not a storyteller in words and writing, but you’re a storyteller visually, so you’re always looking to stimulate people visually,” she says.
In 2010, Syed, a Pakistani-Muslim, self-published iCOVER: A Day in the Life of a Muslim-American COVERed Girl, a book about Muslim women breaking stereotypes across the globe. The book features page after page of everyday Muslim women of different ethnicities and backgrounds, presenting photographs of them alongside captivating captions, quotes, and stories.
As a photojournalist, Syed wants to show society how “covered” women can relate to more secular American women. When readers flip through the book, they will come across an athlete, a judge, a truck driver, and many more who stay true their religion and culture even as they lead average American lives. These are day-to-day images that are not shown in daily mainstream media. Syed wanted to expose readers to these powerful women’s personal lives.
“I want them to see themselves,” says Syed. “These are your regular American women and they’re doing what an average American does – taking care of family, working, [making] their ends meet… we have all these amazing people there.”
The title “iCover” was inspired by Apple with the use of “i.” Syed says “cover” has a double meaning: as a photojournalist, she’s “covering” the story, and the women in the story are “covering” themselves.
After the September 11 terror attacks, fear, hatred, and false assumptions increased regarding Islam and Muslims. Some news outlets, however, were no help when they began targeting Muslims as terrorists, or part of terrorist group. Muslim women, especially those who cover themselves, were seen as oppressed and uneducated. Syed says people should not shy away from the media, but instead become the media.
Syed adds that many people think that Muslim women who cover are outdated and are completely “old school,” when in fact, they are “beautifully balancing their life with the religion and with their worldly responsibility.”
While travelling after September 11, Syed began wearing bandanas, including one of the American flag, instead of her hijab because she was afraid of racist behavior. She eventually overcame her fear and realized how important a headscarf is to her. She did not want to let go of the style that shapes who she is, what her culture is, and what her religion is.
The hijab, a sacred piece of attire, is often misunderstood in the eyes of society. Syed says she wears a hijab because it symbolizes her religion and it’s a constant reminder of God.
“We say we are doing this because God respects a Muslim woman and this is to honor God as well and ourselves, by respecting our body which are private to ourselves,” she says. “So we are doing this for God, we love ourselves, and we respect ourselves.”
Following the success of iCover, Syed visited the White House during the holy month of Ramadan in August 2010 and says it was an exciting and successful night. According to Syed, that same night, President Barack Obama announced and gave his permission to continue to have the Islamic Center near Ground Zero.
“For me to be able to put my forehead on the ground praying to God even in The White House was something I never expected,” she says. “That feeling and that moment I will cherish forever – to be able to remember my God and show my gratitude to Him … even in the White House.”
To see more of Sadaf Syed’s art, visit the Tikkun Daily Art Gallery and go to the artist’s website.