Shades of Gray (MIPSTERZ) by Layla Shaikley

When Rumi recited “what you seek is seeking you”, I was positive that he had been referring to moments like this one. There I was on stage at EMW. I was invited to represent my accidental movement, #mipsterz, in front of an audience. I projected a few words between artists across countries and belief systems, and the artists cumulatively created magic.

When a friend asked me why the night was magical, I struggled to describe it. In layman’s terms there were incredible artists, good energy, and the room was buzzing with creativity. But I failed to describe the intangible element that defined the night for me.

Then I saw this photo.


We tend to look at things in black and white, yet we live in a gradiated world.  We live in shades of gray.

To back it up and tell you a bit about myself, I am Layla. And I am Muslim. As a Muslim woman, my choice to wear hijab often adds a pre constructed narrative to my identity due to the isolating story constructed for me by Islamophobes and terrorists alike.

Throughout the years, I learned that the implications of one piece of fabric could be huge. I could be seen as sadistically oppressed, voicelessly docile, and naïvely desexualized when not forcefully hyper-sexualized. Those descriptions have nothing to do with me, though. I am relentlessly optimistic, painstakingly curious, entertainingly awkward, imprudently adventurous, and irrationally proper when not uncomfortably loud. Above all, I love fashion. And the unapologetic fusion of my identities has always received attention.

I grew sick of telling “my story” as a defensive correction of popularly perpetuated myths related to violence and oppression rather than my own personal narrative. That realization is why I started a national dialogue that advanced the discourse on the representation of Muslim women in America. I co-produced a video cut to Jay Z’s “Somewhere in America” that featured fashionable Muslim women in a group that a few friends and I started – we tongue-in-cheekily refer to this group as #mipsterz (Muslim Hipsters). It’s since evolved into an active listserv. The video went viral and commenced an unprecedented cross-web dialogue amongst Muslims on who gets to represent Islam, why, and how.

Perhaps as a Muslim in the West, as a woman in STEM, as an Iraqi in America, and as the daughter of an Arab Sunni and a Shia Kurd, I have lived in a world that is often defined in binaries. I have never authentically fit into any facets of my identity. How can I embrace American freedoms while identifying as Muslim? How do I unapologetically identify with two Islamic sects? How am I proud of my mixed heritage with a legacy of tension between Arabs and Kurds? The answer manifests itself in shades of gray.

Regardless of ethnicity, race, or belief system, the photo accurately represents every individual (including me) in shades of gray.

And that night was truly an ode to EMW’s shades of gray.

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All photos: David Kong (www.facebook.com/davidkongphotography)