As a multimedia artist, full-time mother and humanitarian, tell us more about your influences and background
I was born in the States, grew up in London (via Saudi Arabia), French educated, speaking five languages, in a Muslim household, to Lebanese parents and later marrying an Irishman.
London is my home and I feel blessed to have been raised in such a diverse melting pot, that I never felt as an outsider. Within my close group of friends at school we counted over 20 different nationalities and over 15 dialects between us. My parents maintained firm Arab Muslim customs at home, where we spoke Arabic, ate typically Lebanese food and adhered to Muslim traditions.
My mother ensured we grew up with an open and balanced view of religion. She was happy to answer any questions we may have had, and encouraged us to attend friend’s Bar/BatMitzvahs as well as midnight mass at our local church every Christmas. Small introductions but important ones nonetheless, as she felt it was important to understand by learning about other religions, as our primary teaching in the Quran.
My late father taught me all I need to know about morality and understanding. I remember once referring to my mum as ‘just a housewife’, he was quick to correct me and explain to me that the role of a mother and housewife is the most noble of jobs. It is the ultimate selfless act to nurture and care for those you love and that my mother works harder and more tirelessly than anyone else he knows. I only got to understand the true meaning of his words when I became a mother myself. He also always made sure my sister and I understood that education should always take first priority. He always told us that you can lose anything in this world, from the clothes on your back to the roof above your head , but nobody can take away your education from you. My father was a very wise man, the ultimate feminist in my eyes.
What are the prospects for Muslim women working in the arts? Do you think more needs to be done to encourage women to work in your line of work?
I think the issue of Women in the arts is a really important one because we are strongly underrepresented. Another layer to this is female artists who are also mothers. As one myself, I am constantly subject to missed opportunities, falling short of commissions or denied residencies because ‘children cannot be accommodated’. The broader system is not supportive of working mothers and less so in the creative fields.
I am mindful of making the distinction of Muslim women in the arts vs women in the arts because, while I identify as Muslim myself, my religion does not feature part of my practice. For me, religion is a personal thing that I practice for myself.
What kind of dialogue do we need to have with non-Muslims and Muslims about perceptions, identity and citizenship?
I think it is so important to have transparency and show the sheer diversity within the Muslim community as a whole. A Moroccan Muslim is very different to a Pakistani Muslim or to a Palestinian Muslim, in practice, appearance, custom. The notion that a woman can be Muslim and empowered is also conflicting in the eyes of the mainstream, which is false. It is really important to put a face to what modern day Islam is because it humanises what most would class as the unknown. By seeing similarities, be it between Muslims themselves or between east and west, then there is space for understanding and empathy, in turn opening up arenas for discussion. That is where any true progress begins -in dialogue.
Can you think of one visual image or story that has been featured in mainstream media of a Muslim woman that you feel was accurately depicted?
I honestly can’t and I think that says more about mainstream media and the exposure of what the true portrayal of Muslim women is, rather than what’s out there!
For me, my greatest source of inspiration as to what I aspire to be as a Muslim woman is my grandmother. She is 98 years old (Mash’Allah), and has lived her whole life as a faithful Muslim. The reason why she is so healthy is, through her own self-admission, down to her faith. She performed her first Hajj before aeroplanes first took flight, so learning about her life and religion and how she sees it progress and shift within societies is always fascinating to me. She is positive and kind, warm and forgiving. She is understanding and tolerant and I have never heard her raise her voice or speak to anyone with disrespect.
My grandmother travelled and has seen the world and raised a family with 5 kids, 12 grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren. And yet, through all the world wars, civil wars, her own displacement, losses and perpetual injustices that she has seen in her 98 years, the one constant that remains for her is her unshakeable faith. She is a beacon of strength, resilience and progress. Through such a long age, she has adapted and flourished. That is how Muslim women should be portrayed.
For more information on Aya Haider visit our bio page or visit www.ayahaidar.com