Friday, October 8, 2010

Exclusive Interview with Sadaf Syed

Remember Super Hijabi Sadaf Syed? We had informed you in Ramadan that she was going to be honored for her work at the White House. Here is the interview you all have been waiting for!

Sadaf Syed is an American Muslim professional photographer. She graduated from University of California with a degree in Communications and Photojournalism. Sadaf has made it her goal to change the negative image of Muslim women.

In her photo documentary, iCover, Sadaf captures American Muslim women in their daily lives showing their accomplishments.

Photojournalist and author Sadaf Syed displays pictures from her book at her home in Willowbrook. She published "iCOVER: A Day in the Life of a Muslim-American COVERed Girl" to dispell stereotypes of Muslim women as oppressed and forced to wear the headscarf
Could you define iCover for us in your own words?

iCover: a day in the life of an American Muslim COVERed Girl is a photo documentary celebrating the empowering Muhajjibahs of America. Often, Muslim women are misunderstood in the media due to their Islamic attire but it’s the nature of their modesty, humility, and humbled character that often discriminates them from society. Time is the essence, and we (muhajjibahs) need to get out of our comfort and represent - - like, how our beloved Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) spread Islam - - through loving thy neighbor and spreading knowledge.

How did this idea come about?

I took upon this project as a tool to do da'awah. Photography is all about visual and nowadays living in a fast pace world photography is a great way for quick info and a way to stimulate one’s mind. Post 9/11 there was lots of media coverage generally about Islam and Muslims. In particular lots of curiosity and misguided information about covering. There were many questions about what hijab is, why Muslim woman wear it - - is it forced or by choice, etc. With many ideas I was playing with in my mind I decided to embark this project by sending a mass email to people I knew and asking them to nominate one another. I was looking for Muhajjibahs that everyone can relate too. My goal is to show the similarities between American Muslims and rest of the Americans. We all have the same abilities/disabilities, goals, sorrows, likes/dislikes.

Muhajjibah Boxer, muhajjibah soldier in the American army, muhajjibah judge, muhajjibah doctor, muhajjibah surfer, muhajjibah motorcyclist, muhajjibah drummer - how and where did you find these women?

My goal was to feature women from all across the US. Most of my nominations at first came from San Francisco - - being my first city to visit and photograph... and then I flew south to Los Angeles. And then off to New York, etc...

I went off by email nominations, facebook nominations, phone calls, in person... I wanted to photograph Muhajjibahs in all fields of work... from homeschooling to professional boxers. The point being... we rarely ever see these "normal" photographs of women who cover... unfortunately media brainwashes us with images that are not generally true about Muslim women - - being oppressed, having no voice, haters, etc.

Muslim women were so eager to get the truth out and have their voices heard. I am so humbled that they let me photograph them in their private and professional lives. We all are so proud to be American Muslims. Rather than focusing on the differences we should be united through sisterhood! We are mothers, daughters, wives... that itself says a lot!

What does being an American Muslim mean to you?

Being an American Muslim is all that I am and know. It is the freedom I enjoy in my day to day life as a wife, a mom, daughter, friend, and a professional, etc...

The comfort I have to enjoy my American culture with my religious beliefs. Both America and Islam honors and respects a woman which makes us American Muslims very happy people :o) The ability to have so many choices and options in America with the guidance of Islam makes life that much easier and happier.

You are a mother of 2. How did you manage a busy work schedule?

I traveled with my two children EVERYwhere.... pushing the double strollers (my kids at that time were 4 and 1) through scanning lines at the airport and then being stopped for "random checking" due to my hijab... I saw for myself the security people pointing at my scarf before the female guard checked me. There were times my husband couldn't assist me for the out of state photo shoots due to the fact he works 6 days a week ... so I would count on my parents who live in SoCal for assistance. Once I had to fly my mom over to Michigan from California just so I can do my photo shoots. Often when I flew to the east cost... I had to schedule 4-5 photo shoots back to back just so I can get them all done on a Sunday (my husband’s only day off) and then fly out back to Chicago the same evening.

I had to be very organized and patient to get things done and especially to schedule photo shoots according to EVERYBODY's own schedules. Sometimes I had to go back to that particular State if I couldn't squeeze them into my short visit.

But overall it was amazing to see for yourself of how many empowering Muhajjibahs are out there.... too bad they don't get acknowledged. But iA now they are! :)

 Didn't your husband ever say "this is too stressful for our family, you are getting tired as well, why don’t you just give up photography and be a housewife?"

No! My husband has ALWAYS supported me. I am so blessed to have him as my life partner He gives me his moral support, financial support and emotional.

You were recently invited to the white house iftar dinner. How did this come about? Did someone just call you and say, "the president would like to invite you to a dinner at the white house"? What was your reaction?

My invite to the WH for iftar was a total surprise. I had received a message through my website stating that they are trying to get a hold of me so they (White House) can send an invitation to me for the iftar on August 13, 2010. At first, I was happy yet very confused not knowing if this is a hoax email or legit. I googled the individuals name who sent me the email and realized that it’s a real deal. In the message that I received via my website, he had left me his email address along with his phone number to the WH. I called few days later (as I was traveling to Canada to speak at an event about iCOVER) and confirmed my invite to the White House. Several days later I got the official invite via email and snail. After receiving the hard copy, white house invite is when I TRULY believed that it’s official and therefore decided to share with some friends and family who were extremely excited for me. It’s absolutely honorable to be recognized in this dunya (even though the ultimate reward is from Allah in the akhirah, insha Allah!) because once you get recognized for your good intention and good work it motivates you to continue on with full force and the importance of your work is proven. Also, as a parent of two young children its great to have an opportunity where you can inspire them by meaningful work. And now my 7 year old son tells me that he is gonna be the coolest kid in school because his mommy went to the white house and got him a personalized signature from the president of United States!. That too makes me happy -- seeing the beautiful smile on my children face :) Alhumdullilah -- like the saying goes -- you take a step towards Allah and he runs to you. Subhanallah.

After receiving the news of the invite -- I was completely numb. Not sure if I should get excited in case it back fires on me, LOL. Mostly, I am humbled by the invitation and the recognition as a leader in arts (as what the WH officials had said was the reason of my invite). My biggest accomplishment is my photo documentary book, iCOVER: A Day in the Life of a Muslim-American COVERed Girl. Time is the essence and Allah is the Best of Planners -- I am glad iCOVER's (2nd edition) made its debut now while Muslims are all over the news not always being represented justly.

My goal is to educate and inspire people about women in Islam.

Sadaf inside the White House


How does it feel to be recognized for your hard work as a Muhajjibah?

As a muhajjibah being invited to the WH is an American story! what America is suppose to be all about. Freedom of Religion is what America is based on -- is what President Jefferson stood for over 200 years ago. Besides one of the very first signs of Islam/Muslims in the USA goes as far back as year 1500's. We ARE Americans -- we along with other races, religions make America. That is the beauty of USA. We have been citizens of this country for centuries.

I felt uplifted yet humbled to be invited to the WH as a Muslim-American artist ... just as when Christian - Americans are invited annually to the WH for x-mas, along with Jewish-American, and Hindu-Americans for their religious holidays as well, etc...

How did it feel to meet President Obama in person? What is he like?

President Obama's speech was very realistic and just. He gave equal time to everyone.. approached all of us, shook hands and briefly talk to us all. We took autographs, pictures and shared couple of thoughts with him. He is very approachable and gave us his sincere attention in a short period of time. It felt like a dream that I sure did not want to end or especially depart from the empowering group of people that i met at the iftar --who were leaders in their communities in business, health care, education, arts, ambassadors, and along with WH staff members and interfaith activist from various religious backgrounds.

Sadaf Syed and President Obama

You can order Sadaf’s book online through her website

* Muhajjibah : A Muslim woman who wears hijab.

Elif Kavakci for HijabiTopia


  1. sadaf syed is one of the most amazing people i know! thank you for all of the hard work you do to represent us so well! masha'Allah!