You have to walk a mile in someone’s shoes to really understand them, the saying goes. In a twist on that idea, Pakistani-American artists Qinza Najm and Saks Afridi are inviting people to wear the traditional hijab veil to understand what it's like to be a Muslim. During a recent Brooklyn arts festival, reported the NY Daily News, they invited passersby to don a hijab, take a selfie and post the picture on social media with the hashtag #DamnILookGood. Their aim: to fight Islamophobia, to educate people on the various meanings of the hijab, and to promote tolerance for those who choose to wear a garment with multiple cultural meanings.
The hijab, a veil traditionally worn by some Muslim women for modesty, can be a polarizing garment in the West, evoking stereotypical visions of Islamic extremism and the repression of women.
The project started for 30-something artist Qinza Najm, who conceived of it with conceptual artist Afridi, when her friends who wear the hijab by choice invited her to try it out. For Najm, who left Pakistan with her family as a child and now lives on New York City’s Upper West Side, the hijab was a bit mysterious. Even when she and her family lived in Lahore, Pakistan, she told International Business Times, they were liberal and most of the women in her family didn’t wear the veil that's worn by some Muslim women in the presence of men outside their immediate family. They even looked askance at the few female family members who wore hijabs.
To educate herself on hijabs, she did what many people do. “I wore the hijab for the first time after watching YouTube videos,” she said. Her experience shocked her. During her first foray out in the world in a hijab, in downtown New York City, a man screamed at her “Go home, you f---ing Muslim!” “I was surprised by the reaction,” she said, “because I considered NYC the most global of cities.” (At different times during her experiment, Najm wore either a niqab, for the face, or the hijab, for the body and head.)
Another time when she was wearing the hijab on the subway going toward her neighborhood on the Upper West Side, a male passenger tried to choke her while screaming racial slurs. She was able to run when the subway doors opened, and when she got onto the platform, she said she "had to sit down because my whole body was shaking. This set the tone for the project.”
Najm, who is a visual artist, partnered with conceptual artist Afridi whose mediums are sculpture and installations, and #DamnILookGood was born. The topic for the Dumbo Arts Festival curated by the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, was beauty. Najm and Afridi chose to focus on the empowering aspects for women who choose to wear the veil. “With this empowering fabric as her barrier and superpower,” they wrote in the description, “she can’t be judged on attractiveness and retains complete control of her sexuality, which ultimately is what makes her beautiful.” Afridi stressed wearing the veil also can be a way for some women to maintain a connection to their cultural heritage.
Ultimately, Najm and Afridi say that their project is not pro or con the hijab, but rather pro tolerance. “The point of the project is to at least have the audience see there’s more than meets the eye,” Najm said. “There are other layers besides the repression of women. Some women wear the garments to avoid being oversexualized, and some carry on the family tradition of wearing it.” For Afridi, the project felt like a duty. “As moderate Muslims,” he said, “it’s our job to change the perception of Islam that extremists are falsely promoting. As much as I dislike what Bill Maher said recently, he makes a point that moderate Muslims need to stand up against extremists."
I had so much fun shooting at the 2014 New York Comic Con with Qinza Najm and adding photos to her #DamnILookGood project! Here she is posing with Referee Mario and King Hippo from Nintendo Punch-Out! #punchout #nintendo #damnilookgood #kinghippo #supermario #mario #videogame #comicon #comiccon #nycomiccon #nycc #newyorkcomiccon #javits #javitscenter #javitsconventioncenter #nyc #newyorkcity