It began as an unpaid modeling gig.
A decade ago, Munira Ahmed met with photographer Ridwan Adhami to shoot photos for the now-out-of-print Illume magazine, a publication focused on the lives of Muslims in America. Now a likeness of her face has become one of the most popular protest images following President Donald Trump’s election.
“The concept was to have me standing in front of where the New York Stock Exchange Building is, and the image was supposed to be more of that, really. There was an American flag that used to hang over it. I was like, ‘All right, sounds like a cool thing,’” Ahmed tells me over lunch, blocks from the photo’s location. “I love Ridwan’s work; he’s a Queens dude, talented visionary.”
Out of all the images, one leaped out at them. It was a close shot on Ahmed, adorned in an American flag hijab, the camera tight on her face and her eyes daring you to question her Americanness or her Muslimness. When I saw that photo of her, we had already been friends for years — since fifth grade, in fact. But there was simply something about it that was striking and clearly special. In the years since, it’s become a symbol for Ahmed, herself; a stand-in as her own answer to the endless questioning of whether Muslim identity conflicts with American patriotism.
In the past decade, that photo has been used all over: in Illume magazine, of course, but also on Muslim blogs, right-wing conspiracy sites, Pinterest boards, and Tumblr accounts. But the photo took on a new life after the election of Donald Trump. Shortly after Election Day, protests were planned — most prominent among them the Women’s March, scheduled for the day after Trump’s inauguration. For it, the Amplifier Foundation, a social justice art organization, commissioned a series of posters by Shepard Fairey, including an adaptation of Ahmed’s image.
The image is a signal of the diversity of American women, but it’s also a response to Trump’s campaign promises to bar Muslim people from entering the country — which turned into the promise to “highly vet” them. The promise has since turned into a ban on people traveling from seven Muslim-majority countries that is being contested in federal courts.
You could say Ahmed, now a freelance travel and food photographer, just happened to model for a photo that just happened to become popular. But if you know her, it almost seems like it was meant to be.
“I’ve always felt that need to speak out because I’m a human being,” she said.
Carrying the weight of an iconic image
After I made the transition from Catholic school to public school, Ahmed was among my first Muslim friends. When I met her, I met a confident 10-year-old girl. She didn’t wear a hijab then, nor does she now, but she taught me a lot about her faith, and today she continues to be unwaveringly proud in her Muslim identity.
Both Ahmed and I were born and raised in the same neighborhood in Queens, New York, that Donald Trump grew up in. She’s a woman of color — and is just as Queens, just as New York, and just as American as Donald Trump. Ironically, in some versions of Adhami’s original photo, you can see the golden signage of 40 Wall Street peeking over Ahmed’s shoulder, announcing to the world that it’s the Trump Building.
Yes, sometimes Ahmed’s selfies get more attention on Facebook than her pro-Bernie Sanders diatribes or the latest articles on atrocities happening around the world. But she says she’s finally noticing that people around her are becoming more politically engaged. People she’s known without any political inclination in the past are now protesting at airports and speaking out against Islamophobia. Of course, that has a lot to do with Trump’s controversial executive order on immigration.
“I’m disappointed,” she said. “But as much as you want to point your finger at this dude, people still supported this. People elected this person into this position. You can’t just continuously keep saying, ‘How could he do this?’ It’s really, ‘How could we do this? How could y’all?’ He had an entire platform that ran on just exactly this — about seeing through to this sort of thing. I know there were a ton of people out there who were like, ‘Well, I did vote for Trump, but I was voting because I think he’s better for the economy, I think he’s better than Hillary, I didn’t want Hillary to win.’ But then why wasn’t racism a deal breaker for you? Why wasn’t the sexism a deal breaker? Why wasn’t the fact that he’s got [sexual assault allegations] against him a deal breaker? Where’s the morality in that?”
She continued, “There was a quote from Desmond Tutu: If you’re neutral in situations of injustice, you’ve chosen the side of the oppressor. So I’m glad that people seem to be having a change of heart, because you can then work to overturn stuff. But how did we get here?”
Still, the image of Ahmed embodies something that Trump’s rhetoric nearly deems impossible. Meanwhile, a friend once described her as being as American as hip-hop.
“What is cool is that I get to be a voice now for a community I think is missing, their voice is missing. Someone who truly is Muslim, and very much American. Both of those things are very much ingrained in me,” Ahmed says.
As we wrapped up our lunch, Ahmed told me about meeting a woman in Morocco while traveling recently. She was a young bride who worried about her future and her life with a husband she was unhappy with. They spoke with each other for hours through Google Translate, and she told Ahmed she felt emboldened just by meeting another Muslim woman confidently traveling alone.
That’s the weight of that image. That image of her doesn’t just show the confidence that Muslim women like Ahmed certainly have. It also conveys the confidence some Muslim women want and need to see.