Meet the 18-year-old illustrator behind #FiftyShadesOfHijabae

#NATHimpressed is an illustration made in response to commercialisation and appropriation of South Asian culture. (Courtesy of  @aitchzee  / Instagram)

#NATHimpressed is an illustration made in response to commercialisation and appropriation of South Asian culture. (Courtesy of @aitchzee / Instagram)

Picking up her smartphone, 18-year-old Huda Z. prepares to create her next masterpiece. An abaya-clad woman standing next to a car as a response to the end of the driving ban in Saudi Arabia? Or a woman in niqab frowning in front of a sign for a new ban on face coverings in Canada? Huda’s digital art depicts issues that affect Muslim women, notably those who choose to wear hijab. Her illustrated heroines fearlessly navigate the worlds of entertainment, politics and everyday life — Huda pairs each post with punchy commentary on experiences both her own and collective. Malala Fund spoke with Huda on her art, activism and creative inspirations.

Omolara Uthman (OU): When did you start illustrating? What drew you to art as a form of self-expression?

Huda Z. (HZ): I started illustrating digitally upon realising that I had a bunch of views and opinions piled up inside me that I had to express. I made an Instagram and came across a few artists who were doing a really good job at digital art. I was really inspired by them, even more by the fact that most were working for really good causes. I realised that illustrations had become more than mere artistic lines drawn on a digital canvas. I saw it as a medium of communication. It motivated me to also use the medium to do my own share of speaking. I started there and then.

OU: What messages do you want to convey through your illustrations?

HZ: I've always believed in the expression of my beliefs with whatever medium possible, be it words or colours or anything else. Art isn’t just a bunch of colors put together on a canvas. Art is a medium of communication. It’s a weapon at the artist’s sole disposal. I intend to use it as so. I want my art to convey everything I believe in from my views on women's rights to my political and social views.

OU: One series that stood out to me on your Instagram is #FiftyShadesofHijabae. Tell me about that — what inspired the series? What did you hope to accomplish?

HZ: #FiftyShadesofHijabae started back in 2017 when the representation of hijabi women in illustrations was next to nothing. Initially, I just wanted the series to be a collection of drawings of visibly Muslim women, but then I realised that representing Muslim women also meant speaking up for them when it was necessary. And so, it became a series of drawings of hijabi women that talked about the socio-political issues surrounding them.

OU: Tell me about your other series #YourAverageDulhan and #HandsOffHerNiqab.

HZ: #HandsOffHerNiqab was a public collaboration I organised between Instagram artists and creatives and almost 200 such creatives ended up collaborating. It was meant to show support for Niqab-wearing women worldwide, especially in Quebec, where a face-covering ban had forbidden women from covering their faces in public out of religious views and to protest against the ban itself.

#YourAverageDulhan is basically meant to change people’s minds about women in the desi society. In our culture, there is a common thought, especially present in the minds of many of the older women of our society, that marriage marks the end of a woman’s professional life and her career, resulting in a very few women in the sectors of our society they’re badly needed today. I aim to defy that mind-set. Marriage, I believe, is a start, and just a start; a start of a beautiful chapter characterised by responsibilities and fruits of those responsibilities. It’s not the end of anything. It doesn’t have to be.

OU: Where do you find creative inspiration?

HZ: My creative inspiration really comes from a spectrum of different things but mostly it's my religion, Muslim women and books.

OU: What advice do you have for other young illustrators who are just starting their careers?

HZ: I'd say that as cliche as it may sound, everything gets better with practice. You might become a little frustrated by the way your art turns out or by the way people react to it in the beginning, but please don't quit. I've been there, done that. Take a break if you have to, but please keep in mind that growth isn't meant to come all at once. Keep going, and one day when you'll look back, you will realise that you have indeed come a long way.

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About the author

Omolara Uthman is a Malala Fund editorial intern and student at Johns Hopkins University. She loves reading, writing and food photography.