Posted on Dec 22, 2015
Azra Jessa is a wedding and lifestyle photographer who launched her own photography business called AZ Photography & Design when she was 20 years old. She loves being able to capture genuine moments of love and happiness that can be looked back on and cherished forever! Azra is currently studying Photography and Computer Science at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. She hopes to use her Computer Science degree towards creating software that can help improve the lives of individuals with disabilities.
When Azra is not in class or at photoshoots she plays competitive fastpitch softball and she is currently playing on the Ryerson University Women’s Varsity Fastpitch Softball team. She is also passionate about fitness, staying active and healthy eating. You can connect with Azra on her website, Instagram @azphotographydesign, or Facebook!
1) When did you start wearing hijab? Tell us a little about your journey.
I started wearing hijab when I was quite young, I think I was only 7 years old! When I was younger, I couldn’t wait to wear hijab, probably because my mom and older sister wore it, and I wanted to be just like them! I remember the exact day I wore the hijab to school for the first time. It was the day of our elementary school holiday assembly where we would usually sing songs about Christmas and Hanukah on the stage and our parents would come watch. This was the first year that Ramadhan was going to be celebrated at the assembly as well and my sister and I, being the only Muslims in the school, were going to sing a song about Ramadhan together in front of everyone! I remember that I felt so proud to be a Muslim that day and I really wanted to wear a hijab for the assembly. I wore it to school that day and from every day on I just kept wearing it!
2) You authored and illustrated a book about Ramadan and Eid when you were 8 years old! Tell us more about it.
When I would fast during the month of Ramadhan, my classmates in elementary school were very curious about it and always had so many questions. So my mom came in one day to give a presentation to my class about Ramadhan, fasting and Eid-ul-Fitr. The day she was going to present, I prepared a small booklet about our holidays of Ramadhan and Eid-ul-Fitr, drew pictures, colored them and wrote down information about the holidays and asked her if I could read ‘my book’ to the class as well. This, I would say, was the first version of my book. This tradition continued, and the following year, I enhanced my book by adding more words and drawing newer, more colorful pictures. My mom and I bound this version of the book so it actually looked like a book. My teachers were very impressed and told me that I should submit my book to be published. My classmates really enjoyed the book and gave me some great feedback as well. Some of our other Muslim friends who attended other schools asked to borrow my book so they could share it with their classmates while explaining to them the holidays of Ramadhan and Eid-ul-Fitr.
The following year, I edited the book further and made the illustrations on the computer. Now the book looked even more colorful and kid friendly. I got very positive feedback from my teachers, classmates and friends. One of our friends knew a printer in New York and sent a copy of the book to them and they decided to publish the book! I think I was about 12 years old when the book was finally published. This was amazing as I was able to share my holidays with so many people who did not know about the special holidays celebrated by Muslims. The book is called “Ramadhan and Eid-ul-Fitr” and it can be purchased from Amazon.com.
3) You also won the Top Innovator Award by the Eye Opener. Tell us about that accomplishment and what it meant to you.
I received the President’s National Entrance Scholarship when I started at Ryerson University. When I attended the luncheon in honour of the scholarship recipients, I met the Dean of Science of the University, and she brought up my book “Ramadhan and Eid-ul-Fitr”. I was really surprised, as I had not mentioned anything about the book in any of my applications. The Dean told me she was very impressed by this accomplishment and I believe she was the one who nominated me for the Ryerson Top Innovator Award with the Ryerson Eye Opener Newspaper. It was a great surprise to be nominated for the award and I was even more shocked to win it!
4) You are an avid athlete (you won the Top Athlete award in high school!) What would you say to hijab-wearing women who feel discouraged from participating in sports?
Wearing hijab is my identity and playing sports is my passion. I have never let wearing hijab come in the way of my being active and playing sports. I have always been the only hijabi on my teams, and when I would go to tournaments, I would be the only hijabi in the entire tournament. I have played soccer, softball, and basketball since a very young age. I remember the days when it would be so hot, and I would get comments like, ‘aren’t you hot wearing pants and the hijab?’ all the time, but that didn’t dissuade me from continuing my passion while maintaining my identity. I have also moved to many different places with my family. I was born in Toronto, Canada, grew up in Ridgewood, NJ, in the United States, and then moved to Belgium, and then back to Toronto. Of all the places I have been, I have never had to face any sort of discrimination due to my wearing hijab. I always wore long sport tights under shorts and long sleeves under the jerseys. Once in a while, the ref would ask me to tuck my hijab in, sometimes, I would be told to wear an undershirt that would match the color of my jersey, but other than that, I had not been told that I could not wear hijab and participate with my teammates. When in Belgium, I attended an international school, so all our tournaments would be with other international schools, and I would travel to many other cities, such as London, The Hague, Frankfurt etc. Many times, I would get comments like, “I have never seen a Muslim girl wearing hijab play basketball before.” It made me feel like I was representing Islam; like I was telling people, my religion does not forbid me from being active and pursuing my goals!
There was however, some discrimination, when I decided to join a local Belgian Basketball team. The local Belgian teams did not allow me to wear hijab and play in the league. I loved to play, but wearing hijab was more important to me, plus I knew I would not be in Belgium for more than a few years, so I did not pursue this option and did not fight for my rights. I did not think I would get very far with trying to assert my rights, as I was an ex-pat and didn’t speak the local language.
What would I say to girls wanting to play sports while donning the hijab? Hijab should not come in the way of playing sports. There are a lot of hijabs made out of sport material designed to stay in place while you are running! Follow your passion, and also be proud of wearing hijab and letting the world know that Islam is an amazing religion that does not stop women from living an active life!
5) Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
That’s a tough question! I am in my third year of my 5 year Computer Science program so I have a long way to go. I can see a great deal of technology in all aspects of our life. I hope to use my training, education and abilities to develop software and technology that can help make the lives of individuals with disabilities better. I can also see myself coaching sports for young Muslim girls and helping educate Muslim women about living healthy and active lifestyles!
6) If you could give one piece of advice to someone struggling with hijab, what would it be?
I would say be proud of who you are. Be brave, and remember, if you take one step towards Allah, He will take ten steps towards you. Trust me, hijab will give you the confidence you need. Many girls hesitate to wear hijab as they want to blend in. When they try to blend in, they lose their identity. I would say, stand out, as you are following the command of the Almighty. If you have the intention of wearing hijab for the pleasure of Allah, He will definitely help you. Does that mean, you will not be stared at, or you will not have to endure dealing with some sort of discrimination? No. You will have to deal with some difficult situations, but remember that it is only when we face difficulty that we become strong.
Allah says in the Quran, ‘Surely after difficulty there is ease.’ So be strong and embrace your identity. You will be surprised how much confidence you will gain as soon as you put on the hijab. To me hijab is my identity; there is no hiding from anyone who I am and what I believe in. I love my hijab and I am sure you will too!
Do you have someone you'd like to nominate for Hijabi of the Month? E-mail us at email@example.com!