saffiyah khan stands up to EDL protestors

What Saffiyah Khan’s Badass Image Means For The Representation Of Women Of Color

An image of Saffiyah Khan, a badass British woman of color, standing up and smirking in the face of a frothing right wing protester went viral on the internet last week. The image depicts Khan, who is half-Pakistani and half-Bosnian, looking defiant and almost amused, one hand cooly in her pocket, as a right wing white male protester whose face is turned away from the camera aggressively challenges her. The image was taken at a demonstration organized by the English Defense League (EDL), an anti-Muslim organization that has been described as aiming to “deliberately … whip up tensions and violence between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.”

There is nothing about the image that isn’t feisty, badass feminist action, including the story behind it. Khan had stepped in to defend another British Muslim woman, Saira Zafar, who had been surrounded by large, hostile EDL demonstrators who were shouting at her to “go back where she came from.” Khan said she felt compelled to act, especially when the police didn’t seem to be interested in assisting Zafar. She stated “there’s no excuse to be doing nothing.” The two fierce women later met up, hugged, and chatted about their mutual solidarity. The image itself features some fantastic symbolism, with the side of white power looking frothing, irrational, and small in stature, while Khan represents the power, solidarity and activism of women of color with her bravery, nonchalance, and enigmatic smile.

Women of color organized the first Million Women March in Philadelphia. Women of color played a central role in the organization of the Women’s March in D.C, and still play a role in its continuing resistance in the post-Trump era. Women of color were the organizing force behind Black Lives Matter, which is a continuation of the crucial roles that women of color – black women – played in the Civil Rights Movement as well. Trans women of color were at the heart of the Stonewall Riots — the LGBT protest movement that was the predecessor to Pride. Women of color are driving the push for the $15 minimum wage, and played a silent, unacknowledged role in the Occupy Wall Street movement as well.  Women of color play a central role in the ongoing fight for human rights in America – for racial justice and against police brutality, for immigrants’ rights, against Islamophobia, against capitalism and against xenophobia and jingoism.

Khan’s image surfaced into internet popularity on the heels of the fallout from the awful Pepsi advertisement which belittled another powerful image of a women of color protestor, Ieshia L. Evans. The Pepsi advertisment did its best to wipe Evans’s bravery of its potency and politics and to whitewash her image. The ad attempted to dilute the power of a Black woman standing up to police in a climate where law enforcement are murdering Black youth, into a white woman offering a conciliatory can of Pepsi to a cop, and protest being resolved by toxic consumerism.  But it isn’t just Pepsi. The whitewashing of the role of women of color play in all social movements is all too common. Images of women of color are often used and manipulated without our consent, and with our identities and politics stripped. Films are made about the struggles that women of color were central in, only to have their role replaced by that of a white male protagonist. While our victories are celebrated, our faces, our bodies, our labor, our contributions, and our humanity are not.

The relative accessibility of the internet to communities of color and the proliferation of online viral journalism means that we now have an opportunity to counter this erasure through the circulation of images on our own terms, depicting our bravery, and our contributions. We will name Ieshia L. Evans, Saffiyah Khan and Tess Asplund, celebrate their centrality in the struggles for civil rights, and keep them at the heart of the imagery of what activism looks like in the twenty first century. These images matter for far more than their inspirational value. They matter to ensure the labour of women of color is never erased from the imagery of protest again.


Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and politics, intersectional feminism, criminal justice, human rights, freedom of the press, the law and feminism, and the politics of South Asia.

Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and gender, race and criminal justice, human rights, cats, and sports.

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