Cambridge photo exhibit highlights stories of community's Muslim and Sikh women

The (UN)Covered Project asks Muslim and Sikh women why they choose to cover their heads.

'I just wish people would look at me, and not look at my scarf,' participant says

Abiha Syed, organizer of the (UN)Covered Project: Why We Choose to Cover Our Heads, with her daughter Madiha. They're holding a photo taken by photographer Simrin Dhillon. (Adetayo Bero/ CBC)

A Cambridge YWCA initiative is trying to tackle gender-based Islamophobia by telling the stories of the community's Muslim and Sikh women.

The (UN)Covered Project: Why We Choose to Cover Our Heads, asked the women to share what their head coverings mean to them.

"The root goes back to religion," Abiha Syed, the organizer of the project, told CBC News. "But how they cover, what style they cover, goes to culture."

The exhibit was part of an event at Kitchener City Hall marking the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The exhibit featured women of all ages who left messages like: "As Sikhs, we believe that God is sitting in our mind (our conscience) so we cover our heads to respect God, who is sitting inside us."

For Syed, her head covering is an expression of her Islamic faith.

"Hijab for me [is] my identity," she said. "I cannot imagine stepping out of my home without my hijab."

Madiha Syed, a participant in the (UN)Covered Project. Syed is holding a photo taken by Simrin Dhillon. (Adetayo Bero/ CBC)

'Look at me as a person'

That sentiment was echoed by Syed's teenage daughter Madiha who was also photographed for the exhibit.

At Tuesday's event, she recited a spoken word poem about the stereotypes faced by women in the Muslim community.

I just wish people would look at me, and not look at my scarf.- Madiha Syed

"As a Muslim, my stereotype is being someone who's oppressed, who is a terrorist or who is part of ISIS," she said.

For her, being a part of this project was a way to diminish those prejudices and show people that she is just like everyone else.

"I just wish people would look at me, and not look at my scarf," she said. "Look at me as a person, and not [just] my body type or my skin color or what I wear."

An educational opportunity

Also at the event were Muslim students from the International School of Cambridge.

Faud Gaya, a teacher at the school, pointed out many people in the community don't know or interact with their Muslim neighbours.

"One of the problems that we have is that we're not very aware of each other," he said. "[It's] the fear of what you don't know."

He wants the students to understand they have nothing to fear, and although they are Muslim, they are just the same as everyone else.

Abiha Syed said she hopes the exhibit will be the starting point for more conversations like this in the region and be a tool to help people better understand these communities.