When protesters tried to denigrate Islam at a Muslim convention over the weekend, one Muslim woman decided to respond to their bigotry by flashing a big smile and a peace sign ― creating a moment that has gone viral on social media.
Shaymaa Ismaa’eel told HuffPost that the anti-Muslim protesters were the first thing she spotted when she arrived for the Islamic Circle of North America convention in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. The annual weekend-long gathering draws thousands of American Muslims.
The protesters were standing between the convention center’s buildings, holding signs disparaging her faith and its founder, the Prophet Muhammad, the 24-year-old said.
“Most people were very upset and didn’t know how to embrace their presence,” Ismaa’eel said. “Some teens were getting upset, trying to approach the men. Most people just walked by without giving them any attention.”
Ismaa’eel said the protesters stayed in her mind as she attended the convention’s workshops. She told The Guardian that she went to a session on Sunday in which people discussed the massacre at two New Zealand mosques last month that left 50 worshippers dead. The speaker noted that the first victim had greeted the shooter with words of kindness ― “Hello, brother” ― moments before his death.
The protesters were absent during Sunday morning’s sessions. When Ismaa’eel spotted them again later in the day, her face “lit up,” she said.
“I really wanted to combat their hatred with kindness honestly,” she told HuffPost. “I wanted them to see my face and simply walking by wasn’t enough.”
Ismaa’eel said she asked a friend to take a photo while she crouched in front of the protesters. She grinned widely and held up her hand in a peace sign. She told The Guardian she wanted the protesters to “see my joy.”
“I wanted them to see the smile on my face, and see how happy I was to be me and walk around being a Muslim woman,” she said. “I wanted to show them that we are going to remain kind and unapologetic, and continue to spread love in the face of bigotry.”
The photos that emerged from that moment went viral after Ismaa’eel posted them on Instagram and Twitter.
Ismaa’eel said that while she was taking the picture, one of the men behind her started speaking directly to her, calling her religion a “cult” and saying things like, “Your face should be covered.”
While Ismaa’eel was able to leave the encounter with a smile on her face, she said her friend who took the photo didn’t feel the same way.
“She felt that if she had seen this as a kid, she wouldn’t want to wear hijab,” Ismaa’eel told HuffPost.
She said she and her friends who wear hijabs have experienced other instances of harassment and discrimination based on their religious identity. When her mother realized the social media posts were getting a lot of attention, she sent Ismaa’eel a message urging her to, “Please be aware of your surroundings.”
“She’s definitely nervous because it’s clear people like that typically aren’t the kindest,” Ismaa’eel told CNN. “She’s constantly reminding me to pray over myself.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group, has documented a recent rise in anti-Muslim bias incidents. In 2018, researchers at another Muslim-focused organization, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, found that 61% of Muslims said they’ve personally experienced religious discrimination in the past year.
The ISPU study also found that Muslim women are more likely than the general public to report experiencing racial (75% vs. 40%) and religious discrimination (69% vs. 26%). Still, 87% of Muslim women said they were proud to be identified as a member of their faith community. The same percentage of respondents said they see their faith identity as a source of happiness in their lives.
Ismaa’eel told The Guardian that she has taken similar photos in front of anti-Muslim protesters in the past. But after the New Zealand mosque massacre, the act has taken on a new meaning.
“Today, we are getting more unapologetic ― we aren’t afraid anymore,” she said. “Today more than ever we are aware of our struggles and we want to stand up for ourselves.”