Muslim women role models sought for London art project

Muna Hassan, part of the 'Free to Be' exhibition of Muslim women role models Muna Hassan was chosen for her campaigning work against the use of 'Khat'

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An East London-based charity is seeking women to take part in an art exhibition showcasing the achievements of everyday Muslim women.

Participants will be photographed by award-winning photographer Liz Hingley, sit for portraits and record stories of their lives.

The idea came from conversations between young Muslim women and workers at the charity, Maslaha.

The charity, based in Bethnal Green, aims to improve understanding of Islam through the arts. Originally started as a Young Foundation project, Maslaha also looks at innovative ways to meet social needs such as access to health and education information, within the Muslim community.

The women said they do not hear enough about the contribution of Muslim women to life in the UK and that most portrayals they saw and heard of their faith were very negative.

Correcting the 'distortion'

So far the exhibition has taken in one subject; 27-year-old Muna Hassan from Forest Gate in East London.

Muna was chosen for her work campaigning against the use of Khat, a stimulant drug traditionally popular within the East African community, and now being used by British youth.

"Looking around my community I felt like maybe I shouldn't be so passive, I should take this issue up myself.

Start Quote

At GCSE level, the performance of Muslim girls as a group is better than the national average”

End Quote Raheel Mohammed, quoting Office of National Statistics Director Maslaha

"I didn't even feel like I was campaigning at first - it was just me trying to get opinions, rally support and get my head around the idea of campaigning," says Muna.

She feels there is a real need to dismiss the 'submissive' stereotype of Muslim women.

"It's a very distorted image. Every day when we see negative images in the media it doesn't help.

"There are hundreds, millions of Muslim women doing great things every day but we don't hear about them. Projects like this need to bring them forward."

The images and sounds will form part of an exhibition called 'Free to Be', put together by Maslaha.

"It's very much about empowering Muslim women, changing the way they are perceived, and raising awareness about the inequalities that are faced by Muslim communities," says Raheel Mohammed, director of Maslaha.

"At GCSE level, the performance of Muslim girls as a group is better than the national average, but according to the Office for National Statistics, once they leave education, Muslim women are almost four times as likely to be unemployed as Christian women."

'Only white child'

The charity is looking for women from across the UK in order to get the best cross-section of stories possible. They will be the subject of Liz Hingley, whose photography has featured in publications like The Guardian, The Sunday Times and Le Monde.

An everyday image of hijab-wearing Muna Hassan sipping a drink from a can Muna wants to challenge the 'distorted image' of the 'submissive' Muslim woman

Photographer Hingley has a keen interest in religious communities. One of her most celebrated works is a collection of images documenting Birmingham's diverse communities on the city's Soho Road.

"I'm personally the daughter of two Anglican priests. I grew up in Birmingham and was the only white child in my nursery class.

"It was a very multi-faith background. Growing up with people for whom religion means everything to them gives you a sort of understanding," she says.

"For me, photography is about social interaction and engagement. It's not about pressing the button - it's about meeting people and sharing a bit of their story.

"That's what this project's given me the opportunity to do, to meet young women like myself who are doing amazing things."

She hopes the experience can be enjoyable for both subject and artist. Muna and Hingley got to know one another in advance of taking the photos and then spent a day "having a play", as Hingley calls it.

"It was really fun having a photographer for a day,' says Muna. "I felt like a model!"

The charity says it is not looking for the most influential or the most prominent Muslim women in the UK, but rather those whose stories are yet to be told. Anyone who wants to be involved or knows anyone they think should be involved can contact the charity.

You can hear more on Asian Network Reports on the BBC Asian Network at 12.30 BST and 18.00 BST Monday to Friday and after on BBC iPlayer

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