Minneapolis artist Heba Amin didn't have to be asked twice if she wanted to illustrate a book on female Muslim heroes. Not only was it a chance to get a paycheck from her art after a decade spent earning three college degrees, but it was a project she wholeheartedly embraced.
"I'm very aware of cultural stereotypes," she said. "The image of Muslim women in the United States is of veiled, oppressed people who have no voice. But in fact, Muslim women have a long history of remarkable achievements."
"Extraordinary Women From the Muslim World" profiles 13 of them, including the world's first female military pilot and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Amin was hired to paint portraits of the subjects, but she's just as excited about the women's stories.
"They are such wonderful role models -- not just for Muslim girls, for all girls," she said.
It was her enthusiasm that got her the job, said author/publisher Sep Riahi. He runs a business that produces films and interactive video games with positive messages aimed at youngsters. He was having a hard time finding an illustrator for his company's first book.
"We looked for several months," he said. "We were going to art fairs and book fairs. And not just us; we hired agents. But we couldn't find what we were looking for."
He was looking for a young, female artist, preferably with a Muslim background, who could relate to the women in the book. While noodling around on the Internet, he stumbled on Amin's blog, which she was using to muse about the thesis she was writing as part of her master of fine arts program at the University of Minnesota.
"So we called, came to Minneapolis and had dinner with her," he said. "At that point, we hadn't even seen her art. We were impressed by her paintings, but we also were impressed by the way she believed in the ethos of the project. That was the main reason we hired her: She really believed in it."
Amin joked about the way the job came about: "Thank goodness for the Internet," she said. "I wonder how artists survived before."
Art trumped math
Amin, 29, is a native of Egypt, where she attended an American high school. She came to the Twin Cities to enroll at Macalester College, although as a math major.
"I'd been interested in art all my life, but at that point, I didn't think there was any way I could make a living from it," she said. An art class rekindled the passion, and she ended up getting a degree in studio art. She followed that with a postbaccalaureate program in painting at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and then her MFA.
She started working on the book while she was still finishing her thesis.
"I think she thought it was going to be a lot easier than it was," Riahi said. Originally slated to be done in four months, the work ultimately needed nine.
Riahi didn't try to rush her because he knew that it was her passion that was slowing things down.
"We could have gone to India for the illustrations and gotten them in six weeks," he said. "But that's not what we wanted."
Because the book spans 14 centuries, photographs exist of only five of the subjects. For the rest, Amin learned as much as she could about them, research that went well beyond finding just physical descriptions of them.
"I wanted to do as much visual research as possible," she said. "I wanted to know what textiles they wore, what their dwellings looked like and what their ethnic backgrounds were. The fact that I was working in oil paint slowed things down, too" because it takes much longer to dry than acrylic or water paints.
Although the book is aimed at preteens, Riahi liked the idea of oil paintings because they give the book "a richer, more permanent feel." Now that the book is out, he likes them even more. "We're discovering that a lot of adults are getting into the book. We're hearing from women in their 20s, 30s and 40s."
Although she found all the profiles inspiring, including the one for Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for confronting government-supported vigilante groups that were attacking political dissidents, Amin was drawn to two subjects in particular.
One was Sabiha Gökçen, a Turkish pilot who flew bombers and fighters and, after World War II, became part of a military aerobatic team. In 1996, she was the only female on a U.S. Air Force poster saluting "The 20 Greatest Aviators in History," which miffed Amelia Earhart fans, but was a clear indication of the esteem for Gökçen in military circles.
"I was really touched by her courage," Amin said.
The other story she particularly enjoyed had a completely different tone. It's about Umm Kulthum, an iconic Egyptian singer from a poor family who became so popular that her funeral procession through Cairo in 1975 drew an estimated 4 million mourners, a bigger turnout than for the funeral of President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
"This was strictly a personal attachment," Amin said. "I discovered that she sang at my grandparents' engagement party."
The book is on its way to bookstores; in the meantime, it is available for $14.95 from www.extraordinarywomen.tv. Riahi decided to initially publish a limited number and enter them in contests, a strategy that has worked out well. The book has collected honors, including the Moonbeam Peacemaker Award for "the best book for promoting world peace and human tolerance."
In terms of challenging stereotypes about Muslim women, "there's no other book like this," Amin said.
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392