People 29 October 2018
Sobia Ahmad, a 25-year-old Muslim artist, is gaining some recognition in the art world for her nuanced exploration of Muslim-American life. She recently won a fellowship with the Vermont Studio Center and held a solo show at the VisArts Gallery in Rockville, Maryland in late February. Her body of work touches on a myriad of themes that mirror both personal narrative and the adversities Muslims face while living in America.
“There was a time when the headscarf was considered a symbol of oppression. Now it's become a symbol of resistance, of empowerment almost.
“I'm not trying to communicate just one idea of Muslim identity," says Ahmad, who moved to America from a town called Gujranwala with her family at the age of 14. “It's about how identities are in constant flux, and how socio-political ideologies affect it."
For a lot of her work, Ahmad draws from her past, while also channeling immigration, treatment of minority women and muslim identity in the Trump era.
In an ongoing project, “Home is just a Memory Palace" artifacts of her past life in Pakistan, including family photographic, Islamic tiles, hand-written calligraphy, and an oriental rug, are digitally copies onto a white, chiffon scarf.
“When I think of home in Pakistan, I think of the adhan – the Islamic call to prayer on the rooftops. The nostalgic feeling of being in a place where there's this melodious echo in the air. As an immigrant, you begin carrying home within you through memory."
When Ahmad first came to Maryland as a teenager, she found herself caught between two conflicting cultures.
“Nothing was familiar," Ahmad recalled. “Not the language, clothing, or the food. It was interesting because I was labeled as foreign, but, actually, everything was foreign to me. I felt like I didn't belong and people weren't very inclusive."
She believes it was important for her to keep to her religious and cultural values. She stayed away from things teens her age were interested in, like drinking and partying. It was easier for Ahmad to keep herself than push in an unfamiliar society. When she did try to socialize outside of school, she was often not allowed to.
“It was very difficult to convince my parents to let me go out to the movies or hang out. “You go to school and that's one world. And you come home and that's another world."
Ahmad didn't have art classes in Pakistan. She was unaware of the power that art could give her. Once she had discovered the power behind art, she knew this was the way to call attention to her beliefs. She went on to double major in art and behavioral health in college.
“I didn't realize art had potential to raise awareness about issues of social justice or be cathartic."
While much of Ahmad's work is specific and autobiographical, it also represents something larger.
In a series of 40 by 60 black and white paintings, Ahmad cut out images of Muslim women from magazines and laid them on top of each other until past the point of recognition. She then coated the canvas with black and white paint, symbolizing the erasure of Muslim identity in America.
“I've seen identities reduced to symbols and soundbites," she says referring to how Muslim women are represented in the media. “As Muslims, we're not seen as full individuals."
The headscarf is also prominently featured in her paintings. She believes it has many connotations in today's political climate.
“There was a time when the headscarf was considered a symbol of oppression. Now it's become a symbol of resistance, of empowerment almost."
Ahmad used to wear the headscarf herself, but decided to take it off a couple of years ago. She notes that what Muslim women wear is unfairly obsessed over by “both cultures." It wasn't a political statement, but rather a part of her spiritual quest.
Since the 2016 presidential election, Ahmad's art has taken a political bent. Trump's travel ban spurred one of her most evocative installments – “Small Identities," – a collection of real life ID photos of Muslim immigrants transferred onto ceramic tiles, that she plants to grow into a larger series.
“Art is inherently political and using it to raise awareness in issues that are affecting a certain community is a form of activism," Ahmad says. “I deeply believe in the catalytic power of art for social change. It can touch people emotionally."
Susan Main, gallery director and curator of the VisArts Gallery, was impressed with Ahmad's commitment to creating dialogue through her art.
“She's articulate about what she's doing as an artist. Just starting in her career, it's really rare to see that level of maturity. I see her moving forward and developing as an artist who has consequential impact in the field."
While much of Ahmad's work is specific and autobiographical, it also represents something larger.
Her art is an act of defiance in and of itself, as if to say, Muslim identity is fluid, complex and vivid, and doesn't need to fit anyone's expectations of it.
"Steal the mesh underwear you get from the hospital," a friend said upon learning I was pregnant with my first daughter.
It was the single best piece of advice I received before giving birth in December 2013. My best friend delivered her daughter eight months previously, and she was the first to pass along this shared code among new moms: you'll need mesh underwear for your at-home postpartum recovery, and you can't find them anywhere for purchase. End result: steal them. And tell your friends.
My delivery and subsequent recovery were not easy. To my unexpected surprise, after almost 24 hours of labor, I had an emergency C-section. Thankfully, my daughter was healthy; however, my recovery was quite a journey. The shock to my system caused my bloated and swollen body to need weeks of recovery time. Luckily, I had trusted my friend and followed her instructions: I had stolen some mesh underwear from the hospital to bring home with me.
Unfortunately, I needed those disposable underwear for much longer than I anticipated and quickly ran out. As I still wasn't quite mobile, my mother went to the store to find more underwear for me. Unfortunately, she couldn't find them anywhere and ended up buying me oversized granny panties. Sure, they were big enough, but I had to cut the waistband for comfort.
I eventually recovered from my C-section, survived those first few sleepless months, and returned to work. At the time, I was working for a Fortune 100 company and happily contributing to the corporate world. But becoming a new mom brought with it an internal struggle and search for something “more" out of my life--a desire to have a bigger impact. A flashback to my friend's golden piece of advice got me thinking: Why aren't mesh underwear readily available for women in recovery? What if I could make the magical mesh underwear available to new moms everywhere? Did I know much about designing, selling, or marketing clothing? Not really. But I also didn't know much about motherhood when I started that journey, either, and that seemed to be working out well. And so, Brief Transitions was born.
My quest began. With my manufacturing and engineering background I naively thought, It's one product. How hard could it be? While it may not have been “hard," it definitely took a lot of work. I slowly started to do some research on the possibilities. What would it take to start a company and bring these underwear to market? How are they made and what type of manufacturer do I need? With each step forward I learned a little more--I spoke with suppliers, researched materials, and experimented with packaging. I started to really believe that I was meant to bring these underwear to other moms in need.
Then I realized that I needed to learn more about the online business and ecommerce world as well. Google was my new best friend. On my one hour commute (each way), I listened to a lot of podcasts to learn about topics I wasn't familiar with--how to setup a website, social media platforms, email marketing, etc. I worked in the evenings and inbetween business trips to plan what I called Execution Phase. In 2016, I had a website with a Shopify cart up and running. I also delivered my second daughter via C-section (and handily also supplied myself with all the mesh underwear I needed).
They say, “If you build it, they will come." But I've learned that the saying should really go more like this: “If you build it, and tell everyone about it, they might come." I had a 3-month-old, an almost 3 year old and my business was up and running. I had an occasional sale; however, my processes were extremely manual and having a day job while trying to ship product out proved to be challenging. I was manually processing and filling orders and then going to the post office on Saturday mornings to ship to customers. I eventually decided to go where the moms shop...hello, Amazon Prime! I started to research what I needed to do to list products with Amazon and the benefits of Amazon fulfillment (hint: they take care of it for you).
Fast forward to 2018...
While I started to build this side business and saw a potential for it to grow way beyond my expectations, my corporate job became more demanding with respect to travel and time away from home. I was on the road 70% of the time during first quarter 2018. My normally “go with the flow" 4-year-old started to cry every time I left for a trip and asked why I wasn't home for bedtime. That was a low point for me and even though bedtime with young kids has its own challenges, I realized I didn't want to miss out on this time in their lives. My desire for more scheduling flexibility and less corporate travel time pushed me to work the nights and weekends needed to build and scale my side hustle to a full-time business. If anyone tries to tell you it's “easy" to build “passive" income, don't believe them. Starting and building a business takes a lot of grit, hustle and hard work. After months of agonizing, changing my mind, and wondering if I should really leave my job (and a steady paycheck!), I ultimately left my corporate job in April 2018 to pursue Brief Transitions full-time.
In building Brief Transitions, I reached out to like-minded women to see if they were experiencing similar challenges to my own--balancing creating and building a business while raising children--and I realized that many women are on the quest for flexible, meaningful work. I realized that we can advance the movement of female entrepreneurs by leveraging community to inspire, empower, and connect these trailblazers. For that reason, I recently launched a new project, The Transitions Collective, a platform for connecting community-driven women entrepreneurs.
As is the case with many entrepreneurs, I find myself working on multiple projects at a time. I am now working on a members-only community for The Transitions Collective that will provide access to experts and resources for women who want to leave corporate and work in their business full-time. Connecting and supporting women in this movement makes us a force in the future of work. At the same time, I had my most profitable sales quarter to date and best of all, I am able to drop my daughter off at school in the morning.
Mesh underwear started me on a journey much bigger than I ever imagined. They sparked an idea, ignited a passion, and drove me to find fulfillment in a different type of work. That stolen underwear was just the beginning.