04/12/2012 03:06 EDT | Updated 06/12/2012 05:12 EDT

Muslim Woman's Bra Photo Sparks Controversy

Sooraya Graham

KAMLOOPS, B.C. - An art student who wears Muslim headdress is defending her right to freedom of expression after a photo she snapped was removed from public display at a British Columbia university.

The large black and white print depicts a woman in full Islamic scarf and cloak holding a flower-embossed bra while folding laundry.


Sooraya Graham produced the image and presented it earlier this year for a class assignment as part of her fine arts degree at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops.

Not long after it had been hung in the school hallway, she overheard a woman who also wears a head scarf saying she had peeled the artwork off the wall.

That decision inadvertently put the photograph into greater public view, and has now generated debate about cultural misconceptions, community representation and censorship.

"I have a lot to express," Graham said in an interview Thursday, explaining she wanted to remind people that Muslim women wear undergarments too.

"Even though some people want to silence those thoughts or make them go away, we live in Canada where as long as we're not hurting another individual we have that right to express ourselves."

The 24-year-old photographer, who grew up in small town Northern B.C. and has been studying at the B.C. Interior institution for several years, said the reaction was unexpected.

"I found it really intrusive," she said of the unilateral move to censor her work.

"There are things I encounter in the world I don't like or I don't agree with, but I would never take something down."

Graham turned over a business card left by the alleged culprit to the chair of her visual arts program after the mid-March incident. When he asked the woman to return the image, she at first refused to do so without an agreement the photo would not be posted up again, Graham said.

Eventually, administrators retrieved the photo without making any deals. Graham learned the woman had been acting on behalf of several non-fine arts students who had been offended by the image. The university said the woman took the action on her own accord.

Graham said her intention had been to "humanize" women who wear the niqab, which covers a woman's entire head except for her eyes, by showing one doing a simple act that many women can relate to.

"What I really wanted to do with this image was (create a situation where) maybe some students or some faculty members would walk by and have the chance to have some time alone to stare at the veiled woman," she said.

"So that maybe one day, when I walked down the hallways or encountered them around town, it wouldn't be such a shock to see me."

Graham said her own decision to wear Islamic dress is aimed at being modest and garnering respect for her voice over her looks. Her friend, who is pictured in the photo, wears different variations to reflect her own feelings.

Graham could only speculate the people who opposed the image felt it might have been mocking their beliefs.

Since the incident was made public, an education centre in Kamloops funded by the Saudi Arabian Embassy has gone public with its opposition as well, Graham said.

But she has not had her personal character attacked, she said.

Ernie Kroeger, the assistant professor who gave the open-ended photo assignment, said his class appreciated the work when it was presented and some found it humorous, but didn't think much more of it.

"It was mildly provocative, but in a almost a light-hearted way. So no one in the class thought, including me, of it being offensive or controversial," he said.

The silver-lining in the scenario is that it has generated conversation and prompted public participation in the artwork, Kroeger said.

"People with differences of opinion can actually get together and talk about it," he said. "And find out what are the objections? What are the issues that are raised? Let's talk about them."

— By Tamsyn Burgmann in Vancouver