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In Generations, Alia Youssef aims to break stereotypes and share the stories of ‘the many, many women who have built up communities’

Generations is a follow-up to her project The Sisters Project, a celebration of diverse Muslim women that was launched on Instagram in 2016 and was later featured in an exhibition at the Ryerson Image Centre. (The project caught the eye of Getty Images, which commissioned Youssef to help diversify its archive of stock photography.)

The purpose of Generations, Youssef says, is to “shine a light on the many, many women who have built up communities,” and to highlight both the similarities and differences between each generation, allowing the women to tell you their own stories. In each image, the mother is the carrier of wisdom, keeper of the family narratives.

Over the past year and a half, Youssef photographed 30 families in seven cities across Canada – families such as the Badawis, who arrived in Halifax 50 years ago and helped establish the first Muslim school in the city, and the Habib family, who left India in 1973 and landed in Saskatoon.

She shot the entire project on film – a skill she had to teach herself – hoping to lend a timeless quality to the photos and to slow down the pace of digital. “I just wasn’t seeing any photos from the Muslim community up until the past 15 to 20 years, when digital photography has been around,” she says. “So, I wanted to kind of reimagine what the photographs would look like.”

During her interviews, she noticed a thread running through each story: an increase in Islamophobia, from east coast to west. “What I found interesting was that they kind of unanimously agreed that it’s gotten a lot worse,” Youssef says.

But as the images show, they also see a better future to come.

You can see the entire project on the Generations website, including portraits and biographies written by Youssef herself.

The Ali family arrived in Canada as refugees from Somalia in 1990, as the start of that country’s long civil war. Habiba was 5 at the time and says they found a welcoming Muslim community in Ottawa. She’s now a playwright. “I’m from the nation of poets,” she told Youssef. “I’m not a pirate. I’m not a terrorist. I’m a talented, artistic Black Muslim woman.”

The photo of the Ali family features Habiba with her daughters, Ishtaahil and Aisha. Youssef sees her as a stand-in for all mothers, with Habiba looking toward the future for her children.

“Hopefully it’s a better, more equitable future, where they won’t have to put in the fight their mother did,” Youssef says. “As a Black woman, she’s had to go through so many barriers that many people don’t even understand. And I feel like the children are really a symbol for looking out for what’s to come.”

When the Badawis first arrived in Halifax in 1970, there were just four of them: Azza, her husband, Jamal, and their two eldest daughters. They were originally from Egypt but had spent seven years in the United States doing graduate work (Azza has a master’s in education) before moving to Halifax, where her husband got a job at Saint Mary’s University. At the time, they knew no other women who wore the hijab and there were no mosques in the city; instead, local Muslims met in a church basement.

A lot has changed since then: The Badawis helped establish Islamic schools in Halifax and watched the local community grow to include six mosques. The family grew, too. “We arrived as a family of four,” Azza says. “Now, we have five children, five children-in-law, 23 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.”

The challenge of photographing the women of the Badawi family was finding a way to represent the power of the individual while still telegraphing connectivity. (She also challenged herself to do it on two rolls of film – only about 20 photographs.) She chose to photograph them as a unit, but not physically close together, like the others in the series. The result is a powerful image of women standing steadfast, side by side.

The Jahangeers moved to Toronto from Mauritius, hoping to find better opportunities for their two daughters. There were all sorts of surprises in their new home: the fact that it wasn’t snowy year-round; how the Muslim community stuck to itself rather than celebrating all sorts of religious holidays – Diwali, Christmas, Chinese New Year – like they had back in Mauritius; how clean and fun school could be. “They didn’t hit you with a ruler when you did something wrong – I think that’s what I liked the most,” says Roshan, the younger of the two sisters. That might have influenced her lifelong love of learning: She’s now a PhD candidate studying veiling bans in Quebec and France, along with related issues of secularism, feminism and Islamophobia.

The portrait of Roshan and her mother, Ounesha, is one of Youssef’s favourites.

“You can see the bond between mother and daughter so clearly,” she says. The mother supports her gently leaning daughter, “but the daughter’s gaze toward the camera also carries a protectiveness that gives the photo emotional balance.”

The opening of Youssef’s biography for the Aldosky/Albarzanjy family reads: “We are born with someone attempting to erase us.”

The Kurdish family fled Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 1997 and spent seven months in a Turkish refugee camp. “Everyone kept saying we were lucky,” says Veen, who has two brothers. “I didn’t feel lucky at the time. It felt like we were losing everything and leaving everyone behind.” Their plan was to emigrate to Australia; instead, they ended up in Canada – which she admits they thought of as “the land of ice and snow, igloos and snowshoes.”

She didn’t know a word of English, and she recalls her fifth-grade teacher calling her parents to ask whether young Veen was incapable of speech. Now, Youssef says, she uses her voice to advocate for others as a criminal defence lawyer.

For Veen’s mother, Nazdar – who struggled with depression in those early years and the pain of losing her entire world – it was all worth it. “It is the reason we left our home and everything we love,” she says. “It was for a chance to give them a safe life and a chance at a future. She makes it worth the pain.”

Youssef considers it an honour to tell these kinds of stories on film. “Veen is holding her mother almost in a protective way, because of what her mother has gone through for their life in Canada,” Youssef says. She’s also looking away from the camera, she adds – “it almost feels like she’s like putting her mom in the spotlight because of her struggles.”

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