Munira Ahmed, a 32-year-old freelancer from Queens, has become the face of resistance to the Trump administration, her image carried by thousands of protesters in Saturday’s massed marches in opposition to the newly elected president.
The image, which shows the Bangladeshi American wearing a striking look of defiance and a hijab made from the Stars and Stripes, is by Shepard Fairey, an artist best known for his portrait of Barack Obama that came to symbolise the 44th president’s original message of hope.
“It’s about saying, ‘I am American just as you are,’” Ahmed told the Guardian after returning to New York from Washington, where she took part in Saturday’s huge protest march. “I am American and I am Muslim, and I am very proud of both.”
Fairey’s work is part of a group project coordinated by the Amplifier Foundation under the title We the People. Work by Ernesto Yerena and Jessica Sabogal also features.
Fairey’s contributions are in the same simple ink block style as his Obama portrait, and include a black boy and a Latina accompanied by slogans: “Women are Perfect” and “Defend Dignity”. The portrait of Ahmed, however, has had the greatest cultural impact.
In marches in many major US cities on Saturday, posters of the image were prominent. Fairey’s portrait also featured in full-page ads in several national newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, on inauguration day itself.
“It’s an honor because of what the picture represents,” Ahmed said. “It’s not anti-anything. It’s about inclusion. It’s about saying, ‘I am American just as you are.’”
At the march in Washington, Ahmed said, “one congresswoman came up to me and said she knew immediately that the woman in the picture was me. I was surprised because I assumed people would think it was someone who covered [with a hijab] and I actually don’t.
“One group of girls asked me when I stopped covering, and I told them I never did.”
The photograph that Fairey used for his portrait is a decade old, Ahmed said. It was taken by Ridwan Adhami, a New York-based photographer who is also from Queens. He and Ahmed traveled to the New York stock exchange to compose the shot, anticipating that proximity to the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks would add symbolic poignancy to their message.
“The photo has had second and third lives,” said Ahmed, a freelance travel photographer. “It went viral before viral was really a thing when it was posted on Muslim blogs by people thinking it was kinda cool. Now it’s getting a third life that’s way bigger than it ever was previously.”
Fairey’s portrait and Adhami’s photograph pose the same question: what does it mean to be Muslim and American when the US is engaged in conflicts in many Muslim countries?
Ahmed grew up in Jamaica, Queens, close to where Trump was raised in the gated Jamaica Estates. Her parents settled in the neighborhood after leaving Bangladesh in the late 1970s. Munira was born there. Family members also settled in Michigan.