With the rise of Malala Yousafzai, the global narrative about Islam shifted. There are many like her – young, talented, opinionated Pakistani Muslims – who are bravely changing the conversation.
Mehreen Kasana, 25
Blogger and academic
The media master’s student at The New School, New York, made news in 2012 with her much-discussed Tumblr Pakistanis Against Stereotyping, whose impetus was “the 200 million demographic that is almost always typecast as belligerent, cold-blooded and indoctrinated.” Contrary to her “cherished” years in Pakistan (her family moved back there from the US when she was 10), as a child of liberal Muslims, in New York City her experience with Islamophobia “spans the hilariously bizarre to the downright depressing.” The graduate teaching assistant’s remedy? “Trans-communal activism and change through education.”
On religion: “The most illuminating tenet of the Mu’tazila belief is the synthesis of revelation and reasoning in the interpretation of the Quran. This means that interpretation must be done according to the time within which we reside and the many intricacies of our lives.”
Nadia P Manzoor, 32
Actor and producer
Her one-woman autobiographical show, Burq Off!, opened to sold-out venues across London and the US this year, and will tour New York in January. It's Brooklyn-based Manzoor’s way of “owning” the “cognitive dissonance” she experienced growing up in a conservative Pakistani Muslim family in London where she was told her “white friends were sinners”. It was after graduating in social work from Boston University that her “love for comedy synthesised with [her] love of cultural analysis and storytelling.” Manzoor is currently producing a new comedy web-series, Shugs & Fats, about two hijabis whose cultural mores are out of whack in “liberated” Brooklyn.
On the power of her art: “Burq Off! allowed my father and me to heal our relationship. In spite of the message he gave me about my inherent purpose being that of a wife and mother, he is now a proud feminist.”
Sana Amanat, 32
Editor, Marvel Entertainment
Growing up a Pakistani Muslim in New Jersey, “constantly navigating two different worlds” was fodder for the path-breaking work Amanat would go on to do at Marvel. In her five and a half years at the comics company, she’s been hugely responsible for its increasingly strong multicultural thrust — from the first African-American and Latino Spider-Man, Miles Morales, to co-creating the first solo series featuring a shape-shifting female Muslim superhero, Ms Marvel, which sparked worldwide debate on the Muslim-American struggle. “It’s important to share stories that are representative of what the world actually looks like,” says Amanat.
On prejudice: “It’s hard to live in a country that uses fear to justify racism. There is this sense that being American and being Muslim can’t be the same thing, and that is terrifying.”
Sofia Niazi, 28
London-based Niazi is the creator of Women Of WOT, a poignant series of images and GIFs that “explores the daily routines of women who have lived in limbo for years” because of unduly imprisoned family members and house arrest as a result of the ‘war on terror’. She is concerned most of all with the inner lives of young Muslim believers in the community. “It’s really important that they don’t let people’s ideas about them affect how they see themselves,” she says, and therefore, co-created One Of My Kind (OOMK), a zine “where women, especially those of faith, could share their perspectives without having to feel defensive”.
On blanket generalisations: “We get asked a lot of weird questions, like what our opinion is about ISIS?! As if every Muslim should have a clear, thought-out, well-researched opinion about ISIS ready to recite on demand.”
Komail Aijazuddin, 29
“Offence is easy, art isn’t,” says the Abu Dhabi-born artist who lives and works in Pakistan. Despite the pressure “not to question the Islamic tradition, lest you offend someone,” Aijazuddin’s works allude boldly to his “search for faith”. The art history alum from New York University and Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, combines several visual languages — Islamic geometric patterns, images of devis, Renaissance classicism, Gandhara art — to investigate state theology, blasphemy, freedom of speech, and ultimately, love.
On life post 9/11: “Going to college in the US post 9/11, I only occasionally faced facile questions like ‘Do you ride camels to school?’ to which the only answer can be, ‘Why yes, don’t you?’ But I was made aware of my Muslim background, almost as if I was expected to explain ‘events’. It was bizarre.”
Blogger and illustrator
Best known for the open letter she wrote Ben Affleck this October — who on a TV talk show spoke up for the “more than a billion Muslims who aren’t fanatical” — Canada-based Eiynah remains anonymous due to regular death and rape threats from conservative Muslims (hence her self-illustration below). She writes about sexuality in Pakistan on her blog Nice Mangos and has authored the country’s first children’s book tackling homosexuality, My Chacha Is Gay. “I am seen as someone who airs Pakistan’s dirty laundry, but my critique comes from a place of deep love.”
On equal rights: “It is important to be vocal about the clear violation of human rights, and to hold Muslims to the same standards as the rest of the world.”
Ayesha Siddiqi, 23
Journalist and Twitter activist
Lena Dunham and Conan O’Brien have been on the receiving end of the swift, eloquent take-downs of xenophobia and unwitting bigotry that made the former BuzzFeed Ideas editor a mini-Twitter celeb (Siddiqi was rumouredly fired for critiquing the website’s coverage of terrorism and Sharia Law). “We can shift the standards of ignorance tolerated in public through our resistance to it,” believes the current editor-in-chief of The New Inquiry. “It felt empowering to rediscover a voice and share a perspective that for me, in classrooms especially, America has typically been hostile to,” she says of her tweets that are regularly chronicled by NBC News, The New York Times, Quartz and Salon.
On faith: “Islam’s explicit encouragement of intellectual inquiry, its outlining of women’s rights and advocacy of empathy towards one another guided me as I explored a faith inherited from my parents, and ultimately accepted as my own.”
Saad Haroon, 36
He is the patron saint of Pakistani stand-up comedy, having, over the last decade, created Blackfish, the country’s first improvisational comedy troupe; The Real News, the first English-language comedy show on television; and mentored now-renowned comedians Danish Ali and Ali Gul Pir. His controversial satirising — Burka Woman, a riff on Pretty Woman in 2010, got him serious hate on YouTube — began after 9/11, when Pakistan was pulled into the ‘war on terror’. “It was a really depressing time and I wanted to make people happy,” says Haroon, now based in New York. For the comedian, who placed second in Laugh Factory’s Funniest Person in the World contest last month, the main gripe with the media’s demonisation of Muslims is that it is “boring and unoriginal”.
On his forthcoming projects: “I am working on some very exciting projects for television. They are top secret, so if I told you I would have to kill you. Mandatory Muslim disclaimer: That was a joke. I denounce that joke.”
Shehzad Hameed Ahmad, 29
This former journalist credits Malala as the inspiration for his documentary The Pakistan Four, which has been sparking chatter at its screenings across colleges in America and Pakistan. “There is a dearth of heroes, especially for Pakistani women,” says the Fulbright scholar, whose documentary follows four American-Pakistani Muslim women — a sous-chef, a weightlifter, a saber fencer and a stand-up comic — who are thwarting the media’s “editorialisation” of their demographic. In the end, says Ahmad, who grew up with the constant parental refrain of “Don’t bring shame to the family name,” the process was a personal journey too because “in Pakistan, gender barriers are not only restricted to Pakistani Muslim females, but males as well”.
On stereotypes: “Many gender stereotypes in Muslim countries are based on a very narrow interpretation of Islamic teaching. When we have examples like Prophet Khadija, who was a fine businesswoman 1,400 years ago, why are women barred from even driving in Saudi Arabia? It's definitely not Islam.”
Photographs: Emilio MK, Jacob Pritchard, Keiran Perry, Khaula Jamil, Mohammed Asad Ali