Shayma Ismaa'eel Champions Religious Diversity

Imagine being face to face with discrimination against your religion, especially when you take such pride in who you are. This became 24-year-old Shaymaa Ismaa’eel’s reality as she discovered a group of protestors with signs attacking Islam and the prophet Muhammad at the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) conference in Washington, DC. Rather than walking away from the bigotry, the African American Muslim young woman took a stand, cheerfully posing for a photo in front of the men and posting it on her Twitter. The image went viral, receiving 318,000 likes and 87,600 retweets. Below, Ismaa’eel explains what, exactly, was going through her mind at that moment, and why it’s particularly crucial in today’s society to stay true to who you are.

What was your initial reaction when you saw the protestors attacking Islam?
My initial reaction was to pull out my phone and film them. I posted a video of them to my story captioned "Welcome to ICNA." Some teens were getting upset and kids were scared. Most people just walked by without giving them any attention. I really wanted to combat their hatred with kindness. I wanted them to see my face—simply walking by wasn’t enough. We were busy Saturday with all the workshops and lectures, and they had left by the time things at the convention slowed down.

Why did you decide to take a picture in front of them?
I took the picture to show that I can remain positive and happy even when people are showing that they are against everything I believe in. I smiled so hard in the picture, and the man started directing his speech toward me, silly things like “your face should be covered” and “you know it’s a cult when you’re walking outside wearing pajamas.” I thought it was the funniest thing while my friend didn’t feel the same. She felt that if she had seen this as a kid, she wouldn’t want to wear a hijab. She hoped the parents that day truly educated their children on the beauty of our religion and how amazing a person our prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) was.

Did you ever expect the image would receive worldwide attention?
Not at all! I figured it would be shared between my friends on social media and that would be it.

Now that the photo has gone viral, what’s your next step in bringing attention to this issue?
I honestly don’t have a plan to spread awareness on this issue. I’m going to continue being myself, and I encourage other Muslim women who wear hijabs to do the same.

If you could go back to that day when you saw the protestors, would you have confronted them?
Absolutely not. I’ve tried speaking to people who protested the same thing on my campus in 2017. I tried getting my voice heard because back then, I felt misunderstood. Now, I don’t need to be heard. I don’t need to say anything because my appearance speaks volumes. Speaking to hateful people at protests is like speaking to a brick wall. You won’t get through to them because their mind is already made up. Not to mention, their goal is to taunt you until you become angry, and it’s never worth it.

How can readers help bring attention to this issue?
Remain positive. Treat others with love and respect even if you don’t agree with their way of life. We need more positivity in the world.

Follow Shaymaa on Social Media:

Instagram: @shaymaadarling

Twitter: @shaymaadarling

YouTube: Shaymaa Darling

Snapchat: @shaymaadarling