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In Conversation with Shaymaa Ismaeel: How to Smile in the Face of Bigotry

Shaymaa Ismaeel is a 24-year-old Muslim woman whose photo in front of a mob of Islamophobic protesters went viral last month. According to various reports, Ismaa’eel was attending a three-day conference of the Islamic Circle of North America when she walked by a group of people protesting against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Instead of getting angry, the young therapist decided on the third day of her conference that she would combat “their hatred with kindness,” About Her reports.

Following is an interview I had the opportunity to do with her.

Huda Z: What was the message you were trying to get across with that photo, and do you think you were successful at it?

Shaymaa Ismaeel: My overall message was to spread positivity. I really wanted my friends to be able to see someone like me— a Muslim hijabi woman — being happy with her religion even at the toughest times. Even in the face of bigotry.

HZ: At what point did you decide ‘that’s it, I’m gonna give them an answer’?

SI: I’ve taken a picture like this before on my college campus in 2017. Back then I wanted my voice heard. Now, it doesn’t matter who hears me. This is just me. When people stare on a daily basis, I smile back. So I’ve always pretty much have been one to give an answer. It might not be the one they want but it’s enough for me to walk away feeling satisfied that I didn’t come out of character, which is very hard to do when a couple of men are directing their hate speech towards you as you’re walking by.

HZ: What was the atmosphere like? Did you feel threatened by the protesters? Were you expecting some sort of a physical attack, maybe?

SI: I personally didn’t feel threatened. There were cops around and I wasn’t too close to the men.

HZ: Where do you derive your inspiration for a non-violent but savage response like this one?

SI: I guess it’s how I was raised. I grew up post-9/11 so I’ve experienced much worse than a few men yelling silly hate speech. My parents raised me and my siblings to be unapologetic, so I guess that’s where I got it from.

HZ: Living in America in the present day, would you say that your wearing the hijab makes your daily life and experiences different than from other Black and Muslim women? If yes, in what ways?

SI: Of course. The hijab can really change the way people see you until they actually know you. I constantly have to remind people I’m African American because saying “I’m black” while wearing hijab raises questions all the time.

HZ: How important is it for you to look visibly Muslim, especially in situations when it is tough to?

SI: It’s super important for me because it truly captures my love for my religion no matter what. This just shows my pride in my religion especially when people are against everything I believe in.

HZ: What advice do you have for teens and women, especially Black Muslim women who face bigotry and Islamophobia on a regular basis?

SI: Stay true to your faith. Don’t let people’s ignorance and negativity get to you. Their opinions are none of our business at the end of the day. Stay positive and keep smiling.

HZ: Affinity is read widely among teens and young adults, just so you know what kind of audience you have. What message would you like to give to those who are reading you right now?

SI: Spread love and positivity. Keep your head up! Times may get tough, but you’re stronger than you think.


Featured image Via Shaymaa Ismaeel.

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