Munira Ahmed: the woman who became the face of the Trump resistance
Munira Ahmed, a 32-year-old freelancer from Queens, has become the face of resistance to the Trump administration, her image carried by thousands of protesters in Saturday’s massed marches in opposition to the newly elected president.
The image, which shows the Bangladeshi American wearing a striking look of defiance and a hijab made from the Stars and Stripes, is by Shepard Fairey, an artist best known for his portrait of Barack Obama that came to symbolise the 44th president’s original message of hope.
“It’s about saying, ‘I am American just as you are,’” Ahmed told the Guardian after returning to New York from Washington, where she took part in Saturday’s huge protest march. “I am American and I am Muslim, and I am very proud of both.”
Fairey’s work is part of a group project coordinated by the Amplifier Foundation under the title We the People. Work by Ernesto Yerena and Jessica Sabogal also features.
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Munira Ahmed. Photograph: Delphine Diallo
Fairey’s contributions are in the same simple ink block style as his Obama portrait, and include a black boy and a Latina accompanied by slogans: “Women are Perfect” and “Defend Dignity”. The portrait of Ahmed, however, has had the greatest cultural impact.
In marches in many major US cities on Saturday, posters of the image were prominent. Fairey’s portrait also featured in full-page ads in several national newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, on inauguration day itself.
“It’s an honor because of what the picture represents,” Ahmed said. “It’s not anti-anything. It’s about inclusion. It’s about saying, ‘I am American just as you are.’”
At the march in Washington, Ahmed said, “one congresswoman came up to me and said she knew immediately that the woman in the picture was me. I was surprised because I assumed people would think it was someone who covered [with a hijab] and I actually don’t.
“One group of girls asked me when I stopped covering, and I told them I never did.”
The photograph that Fairey used for his portrait is a decade old, Ahmed said. It was taken by Ridwan Adhami, a New York-based photographer who is also from Queens. He and Ahmed traveled to the New York stock exchange to compose the shot, anticipating that proximity to the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks would add symbolic poignancy to their message.
“The photo has had second and third lives,” said Ahmed, a freelance travel photographer. “It went viral before viral was really a thing when it was posted on Muslim blogs by people thinking it was kinda cool. Now it’s getting a third life that’s way bigger than it ever was previously.”
Fairey’s portrait and Adhami’s photograph pose the same question: what does it mean to be Muslim and American when the US is engaged in conflicts in many Muslim countries?
“The intent was to make a strong statement,” Adhami told the Guardian. “So we made it down at Ground Zero to heighten the sense of: ‘We’re here, we’re Muslim, we are New Yorkers and we belong here.’”
As it happens, he added, greater poignancy may lie in the fact that a building owned by Trump – 40 Wall Street – can be seen in the background.
Ahmed grew up in Jamaica, Queens, close to where Trump was raised in the gated Jamaica Estates. Her parents settled in the neighborhood after leaving Bangladesh in the late 1970s. Munira was born there. Family members also settled in Michigan.
Beyond Obama’s Hope: the work of Shepard Fairey
Ahmed and Adhami have both been drawn into the subject of American racial identity and the challenges to it that have surfaced in the years since 9/11.
“There’s so much that’s disappointing about so many people in agreement with the rhetoric that got this person, Donald Trump, elected,” Ahmed said, adding that she deliberately avoided watching Trump’s inauguration on Friday.
“It’s unfortunate that there are still people who feel America is about excluding people of different origin. That to me is not what the core values of America are about.
“A lot of the progress of this nation takes places because of immigrants so the idea [floated by Trump on the campaign trail] of a ban on Muslims or a Muslim registry is absurd. What makes this country great is pluralism. Our diversity is the envy of the world.”
Adhami said he, like his subject, has felt the need to resist the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in the years since 9/11. He has experienced implications that the terror attacks were his fault as a Muslim, he said, and contentious discussion about the Muslim community.
“So I started working with many other Muslim artists who were creating work that represented and spoke to us artists who happen to be Muslim,” he said.
Each time the question of Muslim patriotism resurfaced, Adhami said, he reposted the image of his friend. With each turn, the picture became more deeply embedded, shared and posted again. Late last year, he was approached by the Amplifier Foundation.
Publicising the We the People project, Fairey told Middle East Eye it was important to create images of attacked and excluded communities, especially over positions held by Trump that are “in my opinion, fear-mongering and totally un-American”.
“The image of American flag hijab is very powerful,” Fairey said, “because it reminds people that freedom of religion is a founding principle of the United States and that there is a history of welcoming people to the United States who have faced religious persecution in their homelands.”
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A protester in Sydney, Australia, holds a placard with images from the We The People project designed by Shepard Fairey. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP
For Adhami, his image of Ahmed is linked to some frustration. “I was over the image, and I was over having to make the statement: ‘I’m American,’” he said.
“I was saddened that the conversation kept coming up. But when Donald Trump and this election season came up it was, unfortunately, once again relevant and once again necessary.”
Shepard Fairey: force of urban regeneration or malicious vandal?
Ahmed said the groundswell of racism that accompanied the rise of Trump had not blinded her to far worse conditions elsewhere, for instance the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar.
“As much as I can focus on everything that’s happening here in the US,” she said, “my worldview is a little bit broader. I know that we’re going to get through this.
“We’ve been through tough things before and [the march on Saturday] was testament to the fact that things are not as despondent as they may appear.”
The experience of the march, she said, would stay with her forever. “I felt love. I felt inclusiveness,” she said. “It’s going to take me a while to see what it really means when the dust settles.”
On her return to New York, she found something she had left behind – and not by accident.
“I had a ticket to the inauguration,” she said. “People were like: ‘If you want it you can have it.’ I didn’t.
“It’s sitting on my kitchen counter like a beer coaster.” (the Gurdian)
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