Standing on Ground Zero, six years after 9/11, New Yorker Munira Ahmed wrapped an American flag around her head as a hijab and posed for a photographer. Bystanders stood and stared, making comments like, “What are they doing?” or “You can’t use a flag like that.”
Nearly 10 years later, thanks to that photo, Ahmed has become the face of Women’s Marches all over the world.
“I definitely didn’t see it coming,” says the 32-year-old, who admits she’s still adjusting to seeing her face everywhere—from posters to t-shirts to cars. “It is pleasantly surprising to see how far it has come.”
The photograph was originally taken by Muslim-American photographer Ridwan Adhami in an effort to make a statement about the post-9/11 world. His image was recently reimagined for the Trump era by Shepard Fairey—the illustrator behind Obama’s iconic “Hope” poster—as part of a “We, the People” series of free, downloadable posters created for The Amplifier Foundation to show what truly makes America great. The poster quickly went viral, appearing on full-page ads in the New York Post, USA Today and the Washington Post.
It was also held up by countless marchers on Saturday in Washington and around the world. But what many of those marchers might not have noticed was that the woman on the poster was also marching in real life alongside them.
FLARE caught up with Ahmed, who works as a digital media freelancer, after she returned to New York City from the Washington march to find out what it’s really like to be the face of the resistance—and whether her message has changed since that original photo was taken.
What is your family background?
I was born and bred here in Queens, New York. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Bangladesh in the late ’70s.
So when people ask you the classic, “Where are you from” question, what do you say?
If the person asking is a fellow New Yorker, I say Jamaica, Queens. When I’m abroad in another country or in a different state, I say New York City.
As a Muslim-American woman, what has your experience been like in the U.S.?
It’s been a mix of positive and negative. For the most part, I’m more identifiable as a person of South Asian descent than as a Muslim. Some of the rude taunts that came from other students during grade school would target me as an “Indian” or “Hindu,” neither of which I am, but so what if I was? It’s nothing anyone should be ashamed of.
In the original photo, you are wearing a hijab. Do you wear one on a regular basis?
I actually do not cover and I’ve not covered in the past, outside of when I pray, or attend special prayers at the mosque during holy nights, or when we get together at someone’s house to hold communal prayer for someone near to us who has passed. I did wear full burqa when I was 15 and visiting Saudi Arabia for one week. Also, when I went to Morocco, I wore something light over my head on some days. They don’t require it as a society, but when it feels right, I do it.
You were originally photographed for the six year anniversary of 9/11. What message did you want to send with that image?
I wanted to represent that I am both proudly Muslimah [i.e. a Muslim woman] and proudly American. I felt resilient and unapologetic, but also somber and reflective. As a New Yorker who was in her first-period class during her senior year of high school when the second plane impacted and filled the sky around us with black smoke, it is still profoundly sad for me, even to this day, to be in proximity to Ground Zero.
How did things change for you during this election? Did you notice a difference in how you were treated or how you felt?
Things went from extremely hopeful and promising to quite dismal. I was really invested in Bernie Sanders becoming the Democratic nominee. When that didn’t happen, I felt deflated. However, I tried to keep hope that the American people would vote correctly. As for a difference in how I’ve been treated, nothing is really different for me personally. As of yet. I still deal with micro-aggressions towards my being brown—like “Where are you from?” followed by, “No, like actually from?” and “Wow. You’re so cool for an Indian (or Muslim) person”—to the same degree as before. The few serious racist encounters I’ve had with strangers very much pre-date this election. However, there’s been a severe uptick in hate crimes against Muslims, that I feel the NYPD chooses not to acknowledge as such. It is troubling, to say the least. My mother recently started covering. One of my best friends covers. I can’t not worry for their safety.
You mentioned having some experienced serious racist encounters—what happened and how did you respond?
In 2005, I was on a packed crosstown bus heading to a gig. Where I was standing on the bus, two women were seated. Nothing felt out of the ordinary, until suddenly one of the women start speaking in a louder tone than before. She said, “…and this one here? Who knows where the f-ck she’s from.” I was really caught off-guard. The more I listened, the more it became obvious she was talking about me. I saw other passengers either ignoring what was happening or smiling, almost like they were being entertained by the scene.
I said “Excuse you? Watch your mouth,” to which she replied “Go back to your country!” All I could say at that point was, “I was born here, you stupid bitch.”
I think people expect a five-foot-tall brown girl to cower in shame. They don’t expect someone who looks like me to actually call them out. You want to be disgusting and disrespectful? Expect fire from me.
Your photo has been revamped into posters for the Women’s March. Why do you think the same image resonates now?
It’s quite amazing how much one photo can say without words. It can be interpreted in so many ways, but the overarching sentiment is this: I am American and I am Muslim. People are long overdue in recognizing that someone can be proudly both without compromise. The vast majority of Muslim-Americans love their chosen faith and accept the core values of their American identity. It should not be as controversial as its being made to be, but for reasons, it is. The image resonates so much now because, as The Amplifier Foundation worded it, “We, the People Are Greater Than Fear.”
Why was it important for you to march in Washington?
It was important for me, and for millions of women around the world, to get out and exercise our freedom of speech. We won the popular vote, yet the electoral college votes presented a different outcome. We needed to show how strong we are in numbers, and how far we’ll go to make the prior day’s events irrelevant.
How did it feel to be surrounded by more than 500,000 people fighting for equality?
I felt so empowered, and so in awe of everyone involved. It felt like we had our own victory. I loved seeing all the women (and men) of colour who came together to support.
What did it feel like to see your face everywhere?
That’s something I’ve still yet to fully process. Overall, I’m just immensely humbled by the whole experience.
You’ve essentially become the face of the resistance. Do you ever get recognized?
Since the poster is based on a 10-year-old photograph, and I generally wear my hair out, no, people do not recognize that it’s me unless they are told so. Tons of my friends texted me saying, “There’s this Shepard Fairey pic going around that looks just like you, except in a hijab, have you seen it?” which leads to a fun exchange every time.
You also ended up with a ticket to the inauguration. Why did you choose not to attend?
I chose not to attend, even though where I stayed in Washington was four blocks from where the inauguration took place, because as Linda Sarsour (one of the organizers of Women’s March) said to us when she took the stage: “I will not accept an administration that won an election on the backs of Muslims, and black people, and undocumented people, and Mexican, and people with disabilities, and on the backs of women.” To attend the inauguration, I think, would be to support and celebrate this new administration. It is unconscionable for me to do either.
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