“On April 21st I smiled in the face of bigotry and walked away feeling the greatest form of accomplishment,” Shaymaa Ismaa’eel wrote in a tweetposted Tuesday, April 23. That tweet included photos of Shaymaa, a 24-year-old who works with children on the autism spectrum in schools, posing and smiling in front of a group of protestors with signs attacking Islam and the prophet Muhammad. For an African-American Muslim woman in a hijab, it was a flex of epic proportions.
The tweet blew up; it now has over 230,000 likes, and 65,000 retweets, and people have said it belongs in a museum or could really sauce up a history textbook. On Instagram, one of the photos Shaymaa posted got over 200,000 likes.
Shaymaa told Teen Vogue the photo is from her trip to Washington, D.C., for a convention run by the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to building Muslim communities. Protesters were there with Islamophobic signs targeting the gathering and the viral photo op that Shaymaa seized came as she was participating in the conference.
“They have a bunch of speakers, workshops, lessons, lectures, spoken words. They have really cool competitions, like a cooking competition. They actually didn’t have it this year, which we were really looking forward to,” Shaymaa said. “When you’re in a space with people of our faith, you kind of just get an uplifting positivity.”
Teen Vogue spoke with Shaymaa about her viral moment, how it’s not the first time she’s done something like this, and what that power of positivity and being unapologetic means to her.
Teen Vogue: What was your initial reaction to the protesters?
Shaymaa Ismaa’eel: I didn’t expect that they would be there. My initial reaction was to videotape them and get some footage, just because.
Then it reminded me of two years ago when I took a picture in front of similar people with similar messages on their posters. This is just my personality. I like to make light of a situation that could be heavy. That was my initial thought: I want to take a picture, but we have a lot to do. Toward the end of the day, when the convention died down, I wanted to go back out there. They weren’t there.
I was thinking about them throughout the convention because all the stuff we’re learning inside the convention was 100% positive — positivity, love, reminding ourselves it might be tough here, but we believe in the hereafter. The second day of the convention, they weren’t there in the morning. I don’t know why I was thinking hopefully I’d get to see them again.
Talking to someone like that is talking to a brick wall. You kind of can’t really do anything to combat it.
TV: You might not be able to talk to a brick wall, but you can use it for a photo backdrop?
S.I.: They were nice props.
We were wrapping up the second day of the convention and the first thing I saw was there they are. I showed my friend and she was like, ‘It’s Sunday. It’s Easter. Don’t they have something better to do?’ I was like, ‘Clearly, they need something from us.’
I took my picture while the security guard was blowing his whistle at me.
TV: Did you get in any trouble?
S.I.: I just walked off as they were making fun of what I was doing. They were like, ‘Oh, yeah, you need to cover your face, too.’ And then someone was like, ‘You know it’s a cult when everyone’s walking around in pajamas.’ I was like, ‘Hmm, is he saying that because I’m wearing loose pants?’ I love sarcasm, so I was like, ‘Thank you for that.’
Credit: Teen Vogue