“If the cops had actually googled my name,” says Miru Kim, with a laugh, “they would see how far away I am from fundamentalism. I’m going around nude. I did a shoot with pigs, in a hog farm. Female nudity and pigs! I’ve gotten in trouble for public nudity before, but this time I’m getting in trouble for wearing clothes? You have to laugh.”
Miru Kim is a 34-year-old contemporary American visual artist, photographer, illustrator, and urban explorer. Her work has taken her from the depths of the Hell’s Kitchen subway tunnels to the upper suspension cables of the Manhattan Bridge, all in the name of art and all stark naked. She’s given TED talks, traveled the world, been profiled in Esquire and The New York Times.
Her name is in the headlines now, though, for an entirely different reason. While out walking her dog in her Manhattan neighborhood, Miru was stopped and questioned by New York City police officers who asked for her identification, her apartment information, and her cell phone number. Why? According to Miru, it's because her t-shirt was printed with Arabic writing.
Miru and her dog were about to enter their apartment when, she alleges, two police officers stopped her to ask her some questions.
"My dog was growling at another dog just before, and the cops were behind me when that happened -- I thought they stopped me because of the dog. But that wasn’t the case. They were questioning me about my t-shirt. They were pointing to it, asking what the shirt says. I was really surprised. I tried to process for a second," Miru told MTV News. "I understood at that point it was because of the Arabic writing. I explained that it was from a protest group, which got them going even more. So, I answered, 'It's from a long time ago, it’s from an anti-Iraq War group.' They sort of looked at each other, said, 'Oh, OK. Iraq War. OK.' They asked, 'What do you mean, "We will not be silent?"'"
We Will Not Be Silent is, in fact, an artists’ collective based in New York whose mission is to use art as activism. They create t-shirts as a form of public, political protest. They’ve been around since 2006, and their 50+ designs, with their hallmark black backgrounds, white lettering, and stark, simple language, are used to tackle complex issues ranging from racism, income inequality, climate change, and Islamophobia.
It’s also not the first time that their t-shirts have made national news. In 2006, an Iraqi blogger named Raed Jarrar was stopped by Homeland Security, wearing the exact same t-shirt as Miru Kim, and detained from boarding a JetBlue flight at JFK airport. His story, also posted to social media, spread worldwide, and so, says a spokesperson from the group, “did the demand for the We Will Not Be Silent shirts, soon embodied by thousands and thousands of people who spread the words in a way we could never have imagined when we had produced the first small batches.”
The road to change and awareness is often slow and painful. Recent polls show that 29% of Americans still believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim, and international retail giant H&M only just unveiled a campaign which features a Muslim model wearing a hijab, a first for the brand. For every news article about a remarkable Muslim defying stereotypes -- like Gisele Marie, the niqab-wearing heavy metal guitarist or any number of incredible Muslim beauty bloggers -- there are also far less uplifting headlines: racist remarks made on airplanes, Islamophobic undertones to the arrest of a young Muslim boy whose science project was mistaken for a bomb, and the tragic shooting of three young Muslim students in North Carolina.
"These things really shouldn’t happen," said Miru, speaking on her way to Times Square. Just one day after her post on Instagram garnered the attention of Gothamist, the activists at We Will Not Be Silent arranged a protest in Times Square and invited her to speak. "I think it comes from ignorance. I just see that people are misinformed about the Middle East in general, and Arabic culture, the language. It’s very one-dimensional, what’s shown in the media. I’ve just come back from the Middle East, spent three years there. Now, I’m much more open, having met the people, having lived there. What people know about the religion and the culture is so little. Hopefully that will change. But the understanding still seems very shallow."
As Donna Lieberman, the New York Civil Liberties Union's Executive Director who described the alleged incident over Miru's t-shirt as "inconsistent with free expression," told Gothamist, "No New Yorker should be targeted for a police stop or interrogation because they are wearing a t-shirt with Arabic writing on it." In other words, we all have constitutional rights in this country: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of religion. Those rights allow us to freely move throughout the world without fear of consequences for our choices of clothing -- whether those choices include a hijab, baggy pants, or a t-shirt.