Aside from likenesses of Donald Trump constructed from cheese puffs, Munira Ahmed may have been the most visible face at last weekend’s inauguration protests and Women’s March on Washington. A photo of Ahmed, a 32-year-old Muslim woman and freelance interpreter from Queens, was the inspiration for one of the most popular images of the Trump resistance: a woman wearing an American flag as a hijab.
Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the iconic “Hope” image of Barack Obama’s candidacy, turned photographer Ridwan Adhami’s picture of Ahmed into a portrait of Muslim resilience and female defiance, rendered in red, white, and blue. Fairey is on the advisory board of the Amplifier Foundation, an artist-activist group that made several of Fairey’s and others’ images available for free download and printing in the weeks before Trump’s inauguration. Ahmed’s picture was one of the most common signs held at the protests and march.
Ahmed took part in the protests in McPherson Square in Washington on Inauguration Day and attended the Women’s March on the National Mall the following day. She spoke with me over the phone about the meaning of the original image, what it meant to pose in a hijab as a woman who doesn’t normally wear one, and how it felt to see her face used as a symbol of resistance to the Trump agenda. (Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
When was the original photo of you in the flag hijab taken?
It was taken in 2007 during a photo shoot for the magazine Illume. At the time, it was a small publication targeted at Muslim American issues, and the covers were very visually captivating. [Photographer Ridwan Adhami] had the idea to have the picture shot in front of where the New York Stock Exchange building is—at the time, there was a large American flag draped over the front. The proximity to Ground Zero gave it an impactful meaning, locationwise. Since then, it’s been used quite often with online thinkpieces and editorials. Quite often, I’ll get tagged in comments of some post on Facebook saying, “Hey this is you, right?”
There was one time, actually, when my friend tagged me and said, “Hey, I wanted you to know that this Zionist pro-Israel thing that’s online has used that image and sort of had an editorial about how Muslims that are American are wolves in sheep’s clothing and they can’t be trusted.” So this was the image for that. I was like, “Fabulous, wow.” [Laughs.]
Did you expect the picture to have the kind of shelf life it’s had?
I could see that there was a timeless aspect of it, but I didn’t expect it to make the waves that it made. I know it’s a beautifully, technically well-lit shot, but I didn’t know so many people were going to be like, “The look in your eyes in that picture, oh my God!” I just thought, honestly, it was just gonna look like a random Muslim woman wearing a flag in the style of hijab. I didn’t really see the me aspect in there. I have family members, none of whom I’m friends with on Facebook, ask me to this day, “So, what’s the story with that picture that I saw of you wearing a flag hijab? It’s a really nice picture, but I never heard you talk about it.”
What was going through your mind when Ridwan took that image near Ground Zero?
There was a lot of emotions I was experiencing. I’m a New York native. I saw the second plane [on 9/11] from my classroom window when I was in high school. My high school was Brooklyn Tech. I didn’t know until that day, to be perfectly honest, that downtown Brooklyn was so close geographically to downtown Manhattan. I was a Queens kid taking the G train, avoiding Manhattan to get to school. So it didn’t make sense to me when the sky was filling up with black smoke. We thought there was a fire—was a house or building on fire? We were on the fifth or sixth floor of the building. There was an announcement on the loudspeaker a few minutes later telling us what was going on, and then we looked out the window, and everyone was like, “Oh my God, that’s it, right there, the World Trade Center.” And we literally saw the second plane fly by.
Everyone was an emotional wreck that day. For years after, if I thought about it, I would have to stop what I’m doing and sit down and kind of, like, just bawl. And [the hijab photo] was, what, 2007? So it was six years later, and it was in this place, and [I was thinking] this is so somber to be here. To be really close to such an attack as a New Yorker.
I knew that there was a lot happening that was making Muslims out to be to blame. Even those of us who were just Muslim neighbors of yours, were being told, “You don’t stand up enough. You don’t say enough against these terrorists.” And they have no idea that we are constantly doing that—saying that they’re nothing like us, that they’re people who commit sins against Islam. When we say those things, America doesn’t listen. There were a lot of emotions of just feeling fed up, but also feeling really overtaken with the emotion of where I was.
How did the photo end up getting to Shepard Fairey for the resistance poster?
My understanding is [the Amplifier Foundation] had images in mind for recreating for this campaign. And Mark Gonzales, their director of strategic partnerships, said he pushed forward this image to say it should probably be considered. Shepard told me himself that he was presented with many images of many women who are wearing an American flag hijab. He told me, “Munira, I don’t know if you know this, but there’s a lot of pictures that have a Muslim woman wearing an American flag as her hijab.” He said, “When I saw yours, that was it right there.” And he made a remark about the resilience in my eyes or something. And he just said, “It looked like you’re a normal person—a lot of the other pictures look like models posing, and your picture spoke to what was happening a lot more than the others did.”
Did you know before the photo was chosen that it might be made into the center of a huge campaign?
No! I didn’t know anything until the photographer reached out to me about a month ago, to tell me, “This is what’s going on, and I want you to be the first to know ... and I kind of need you to approve and give permission to do this.”
Did you hesitate at all, before saying yes?
Yeah. I’m one of those people, I need to know every kind of detail that is available before I feel comfortable proceeding with anything. I’m just kind of always guarded like that. I just needed to be more aware of what was really happening with this picture. When I got more information filled in for me was when I emailed back and forth with Mark Gonzales. Then I began to feel more comfortable and came on board.
What does the image symbolize to you? And what do you think people are taking away from it when they see it on a poster?
What’s most apparent and symbolic in the image no matter who’s looking at it is that this is a Muslim woman and an American woman and she is both of these things and she is not compromising either.
How does that intersection of identities play out in your life?
I am a Muslim woman—I’ve been a Muslim person my entire life, and I’ve also been American from the moment I was born. So I can’t separate the two. I couldn’t if I tried. Even if one day I ever thought about leaving my faith—which I’m not going to do—being Muslim is very much ingrained in who I am.
I’ve had some racist encounters before, even from random strangers. There was one in particular—I was sitting on a bus, and a woman basically started making her voice louder and making it known that she was talking about me. And she was saying, “This one here, I don’t know where the fuck she’s from,” to her friend. And so people were either ignoring what was going on or pointing and laughing, just being entertained by the scene. When I realized what was going on, I said, “Excuse you,” just to let her know that I’m listening. And she said, “Go back to your fucking country.” I was like, “I was born here, you bitch,” because I couldn’t hold in all the rage I was feeling. I don’t think it’s appropriate to call someone a bitch that you don’t know, but I also don’t think that I should not be standing up for myself. I’ve definitely been made to feel that this is not my country because I don’t look like you.
I read that you don’t normally wear a hijab. What was your thinking, going through this photo shoot and becoming a symbol of a hijabi woman?
When Ridwan first presented the concept to me, I remember thinking, “Is this something appropriate for someone who is not hijabi to pose with a hijab?” Because I don’t think of it as just a cloth. I know that it symbolizes so much more. But I also know I’m just as much of a Muslim as a hijabi woman is. And I want hijabis to know I respect that they choose to do that. It’s beautiful. So many women actually become more empowered and radiant when they wear it, as opposed to what people think, which is oppressed or patriarchal.
What made me feel like I could and should do this is when I read something around that time that said Dave Chappelle was Muslim. And when someone asked him about his Islamic identity, he said, “I don’t really like to put that out there because I don’t want anyone to associate the things that are bad about me with something that’s so beautiful.” And when I read that, I was thinking, “Wow, wouldn’t it be so cool if he didn’t care and just was Muslim, and everyone in this country would find out one of most popular pop culture figures in this country was Muslim, that it was just general knowledge.” I want people to see that you can be someone who isn’t perfect, has vices, maybe swears sometimes, maybe stars in a movie called Half Baked, and you can still be Muslim. We’re not just these caricatures; we’re real people.
What did it feel like to see your face everywhere at the inauguration protests and the Women’s March?
It was really surreal. I didn’t know that it was going to be everywhere that way. I knew that a lot of people downloaded it from the free downloads that Amplifier was posting. I just wasn’t sure if it was gonna be mainly in the cities that Amplifier is based in, or in New York. I didn’t know in D.C. itself that it would be everywhere, at the main march. It was really rad! I’ll say that much, it was so rad. But also what’s interesting is that no one really recognized me from it. It’s not an exact replica of the photo. It’s sort of like a superhero comic book version of that picture, which was cool, because I got to just go up to random people holding it and say, “Hey, can I take a picture of you and your sign?” There was one woman wearing it as a button! She’d made buttons. I just kind of motioned to her, “Oh, I like your button,” just to be kind of cheeky. She was like, “This button? This button?” She was pointing at it. I just said, “It’s nice!” I just wanted to see what she’d say, why she liked the image. She ended up taking it off, and she starts handing it to me. That’s when I realized she was deaf. When I tried giving it back, she insisted I keep it, and she communicated to me that “I have so many more of these.”
It was a beautiful day. I honestly think what we did was definitely something that’s gonna go down in history. All the sister marches all over the world, I just—it kind of made me feel like I was part of something obviously way bigger than me, but also inclusive of me.