The veil hides, just as it reveals, a deeper side of the woman beneath. It speaks without words, letting us know that she who wears the veil is a Muslimah. In celebration of these women who sparkle across the cityscapes of the world, Sara Shamsavari presents London Veil | Paris Veil | NYC Veil, a series of street portraits that capture the beauty, intimacy, and majesty of the Muslim women today.

As a part of Southbank’s Women of the World (WOW) Festival, Shamsavari will be exhibiting her portraits at Royal Festival Hall, London, through March 30. As Shamsavari observes, “The WOW festival is an incredible platform because it celebrates the achievements of women all over the world, it brings together an array of talents and voices. I think it is important that London Veil | Paris Veil | NYC Veil is shown here and the image and voices of the series participants who are so often misunderstood are also heard. 

“I am neither critic nor an advocate of the veil, I have a worldview that we are all one people and, although not religious, I respect all religions and faiths. I believe that each of us has the right to our choices without having to suffer prejudice, persecution or exclusion.

“I am originally from Iran, a place where women are forced to veil. When I visited Paris, where some of these portraits were made, Muslim women are forced to unveil at their place of work or education. I don't agree with anything by force. A person should not be forced to wear it or take it off. We are all human beings and we all deserve respect and fair treatment regardless of our background and choices. The women I met and photographed in these western cities wear their hijabs out of choice.

“I think that sadly, even in the liberal West, people are still afraid and threatened by the idea of difference as well as change. I believe that differences should be embraced and celebrated. I believe in synergy and that the most incredible things can happen when those who are different come together. I also think these differences are part of the reason why cities like London and New York are so dynamic.  

“I like to work in different mediums however photography has the ability to connect people who are different in an instant and in a way I haven't experienced with other art form. It brings people together.

“I actually began with a background of fine art-mainly painting drawing and also music and still produce work in other mediums. I got in to photography around the age of 16 and experimented with disposable cameras, then SLRs and black and white processing. To me it felt like making a painting or drawing instantly and it still feels that way, I think about color and composition a lot. Moreover I was profoundly impressed with its immediacy and ability to create a bond between myself and the person I was made a portrait of. This inspired me to push forward with photography.

“I am moved by the inclusivity of photography on many levels, it draws diverse audiences to spaces they may not ordinarily feel welcome, it has the ability to elevate and empower individuals and communities from the moment I photograph them to the time I enlarge their image and hang it proudly on gallery and museum walls. It has allowed me to share my vision without words, my vision of beauty beyond what I see celebrated on mass media.

“I chose to photograph women in London, Paris, and New York because they are western cities where Muslim women are not required to wear Islamic dress, therefore those who do, mostly do this out of choice. New York is interesting because it is where 9/11 took place and, in the years that have followed ,I have noticed an increase in young women wearing hijab. The women in New York are strong, no-nonsense entrepreneurs. My dear friend Nailah Lymus (in the orange and leopard print hijab) is a good example- she is an incredible designer and the founder of UNDERWRAPS, the first hijabi modelling agency.

“Paris is interesting because of the governments extreme attitude towards Muslims and the hijab. Parisians are particular and perfectionist and my ladies in London are stylish but often idiosyncratic, a fairly British trait. I think the way that some of the participants of the series express their identity through their hijab style show solidarity with other Muslims, as well as other influences such as western fashion and music that connects them with the environment and people of other cultures they have grown up with. 

“I'm inspired by the idea of transformation and I see style as one example of how we respond to our challenges. Being in the minority is one challenge and the response of the women through their sense of style and expression is beautiful.

“I think it is cruel and unfair that so many Muslims are judged or demonized because of the behaviors of a few extremists and it is amazing how ignorance still exists and thrives. I think it is important to take a visible stand against this real lack of education about Muslims, to take a stand against injustice, inequality, and prejudice. I think that it is really fear of difference that prevents people from truly seeking to understand one another. This is what I have experienced in my lifetime, a fear of difference, otherness.

“This brings me back to photography, it is so amazing how it has the ability to include and bring people together. The photographer, the artist has that opportunity to spark a change in the way people view others and themselves. I see women's rights as exactly that: A woman's right to choose her life and experience whatever that may be. What ever a woman does must be her choice, not something that is imposed upon her.”

Photographs by Sara Shamsavari
Curated by Miss Rosen