Disrupting Narratives With #TrailblazingMuslimWomen

Zainab Khan, alongside photographer Maaria Lohiya created a visual series, celebrating incredible Muslim women in London. The photo series features women from diverse industries, with a desire to transform and disrupt the restrictive narratives of the Muslim woman. I speak to Zainab about the project and why she did it.

Zainab, tell me a bit about yourself - what you did leading up to this moment.

I'm a creative based in rainy old London - I graduated with a BA in Archaeology and Anthropology, with the short-lived ambition to be the desi Indiana Jones. Instead, I went in to tech and gained experience at an e-commerce brand and a fin-tech startup. I always wore multiple metaphorical hats as real ones never quite suited me - another reason I couldn't live out my previous ambition.

At the moment I'm working as a freelance digital creative, specialising in Social Media and Community. The projects such as this one is first in many visual series that I’ll be curating this year around the topic of culture. 

Maaria is 23, a creative based in London, who has been purusing her talent and passion for Photography and Videography after graduating from university. You can check out her videos on her youtube. She's created an amazing video for her journey during HAJJ. 

Do you remember the moment you came up with the idea for Trailblazing Muslim Women? What inspired you?

Back in January I had been taking in the newly released Forbes 30 under 30 list and I was curious to see how many people of colour, women of colour and Muslims were on the list. Then I thought back to all those times I looked up to these squad images from award seasons, to powerful business women shoots to fashion shoots and I hadn't seen enough representation - enough women like me. 

That was it. I had to do it. Everything I had done so far: my dissertation on aspirations of South Asian women, my project @coffeeandhenna and more had led to this in some weird way. It was time to share the badassery of Muslim Women. It was an Identity that took me a long time to accept. 

The key concept I had when walking into this was the idea of being unapologetic. Unapologetic in your identity, and your choices and your passion. It’s a way to make people accept you for who you are, rather than trying to fit yourself in their own box. That’s why we really tried to make the shoot our own, a bit more lively, a bit more colourful, a bit more candid. It wasn’t all about perfect outfit and makeup and posing, it was simply gathering these amazing personalities and celebrating them for who they are rather than trying to make them something they’re not. - MAARIA

How did you put it all together and select the women? Did you have any difficulties with it, if you did how did you overcome them?

Thinking back to end of January, it felt like a wacky idea. We had no funding and I wasn’t even sure where to start but I had an image in my head and that was all I needed. We just needed to bring that to life. There were half a dozen women I knew personally who I could reach out to without a plan and be like "what do you think?". Then people started asking for a brief and I panicked. So I put together a well thought out deck and realised this could be more than my social network, I did my research, I had a few people in this space advise me and the women themselves recommended others. Several phone calls, meetings, long emails, call sheets and decks later, everything was in place. I reached out to women every single day until the day of the shoot, all of these amazing women popped up on my radar. This shoot is by no means an extensive picture of the amazing women in London but we did the best we could in the time we had and with the resources we had. 

The biggest difficulty was scheduling, we started working on this end of January and we had to decide on a shoot date that would be withing 2-3 weeks. Which was short notice for many, so there were so many women who I would have loved to be there who couldn't be! 

Should we expect more from you on this?

This is the second of my collaborations with Maaria. In regards to this concept, yes, we hope to make it annual. We learnt a lot along the way and we already have plans for next year - bigger, better, more representation, more inclusion. I already have ideas flowing in my head, I should really write it down! 

I’m also working on various other ideas which will all be about culture and will take the format of a visual series or an offline experience - a dinner club. If you’re interested, follow along on Instagram — I share most of things there and do call outs for collaboration. because what is our community without collaboration?

Are you looking to go global with the next one? What are your thoughts on international and regional representation?

Because of the time limit and the lack of funding, we weren't able to make it global. There were many women on my radar and many women I was in contact with outside of London but I couldn't ask them to spend money to come down. Next year we'll start with the rest of Britain and then who knows what else? 

I know this focus has been on London's women but the story here is a global one - it's for the Muslim women everywhere. If I could do a global representation, well I will one day.


Anything else you want to add?

If you'd like to follow the project, follow #trailblazingmuslimwomen or see the full series on zainabk.com.

Follow our work on @_zaikhan & @justmbreathing