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What I’m Wearing: The Woman Who “Smiled in the Face of Bigotry” and Went Viral

"They had this preconceived idea that all Muslims want to spread hate, and I wanted them to see something different."
Photo courtesy of Shaymaa Ismaa'eel

Shaymaa Ismaa’eel was at the 44th annual Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) Convention at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, enjoying panels, lectures, and workshops that focused on the theme “healing humanity.” It was the 24-year-old’s second time attending the conference and she had no idea that on April 21, she would become the center of national attention as a photo she posted on Instagram went viral.

“Most of the lectures were about how we can go through this world and help people, spread love, and recover from the situations that we’re dealing with,” Ismaa’eel says. Meanwhile, outside, a group of protesters held up anti-Islam signs and shouted at attendees. So Shaymaa did what she does best—smile and spread positivity. She posed with a peace sign in front of the protesters while her friend Jamilah Abdullah captured the moment.

The post received more than 100,000 likes overnight and shared widely on Twitter. She received follows from Katie Couric, activist and writer Shaun King, and singer SZA. She’s also been followed by a handful of Muslim influencers, inspired by her bravery.

“I’m just that type of person that likes to spread positivity and I take the negative and turn it into something positive,” Ismaa’eel says. “I try my best to take heavy situations and make light of it without harming anyone. It wasn’t to offend the people who I was standing in front of—it was just to make the situation more light. I wanted them to see my face and my smile. They had this preconceived idea that all Muslims want to spread hate, and I wanted them to see something different.”

Ismaa’eel’s fashion sense only compliments her message of positivity. She’s a self-described fan of #hijabifashion and says that there’s been an increase of Muslim women wearing their hijab proudly and embracing the culture. “I salute them for that because it’s really tough sometimes,” she says. Ismaa’eel, who works with children on the autism spectrum, doesn’t live in DC but visits often [she prefers not to share her home state]. She describes her fashion sense as a mix of urban, streetwear, preppy, and even “grandma” attire.

Shaymaa Ismaa'eel
Scarf (Kabayare); kimono and shoes (Marshalls); shirt and pants (Forever 21); Photo courtesy of Danya Suliman
scarf (Heart Hijab); shirt (the Ubuntu Project); jeans (Romwe); shoes (Vans); Photo by Jamilah Abdullah
Jacket (Shein); shirt (Musafir Clothing); skirt (Kabayare); bag (Target); shoes (Marshalls); Photo by Jamilah Abdullah
Scarf (Kabayare); shirt (H&M); skirt (Delicate Hijabi); shoes (Converse); Photo by Naadirah Green

Fashion icon

Zendaya

Interview outfit

“I typically wear black to an interview,” she says. “You can never go wrong with black. A black blouse, pants, or duster.”

Commuter style strategy

“I typically wear Adidas, Converse, or Vans.”

Favorite item of clothing right now

“An oversized jacket from the men’s section.”

Favorite fashion trend

“A dress or skirt with white sneakers.”

Style advice

“Cuffs and layers. A cuff can make a big statement in your outfit.”

Have a unique sense of style you’d like to share with other Washingtonians? Tag a picture of your favorite outfit on Instagram with #WhatImWearingDC, or email me with “What I’m Wearing” in the subject line. You might be featured next! To read past entries, click here.

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Assistant Editor

Elliot joined Washingtonian in January 2018. An alum of Villanova University, he grew up in the Philadelphia area before moving to Syracuse, where he earned a master’s degree in journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, TheAtlantic.com, CatholicNews.com, and Syracuse.com. He lives in Eckington.