Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Muslima - Muslim women's Art and Voices

"Genitilla al Wilada" by Italian artist Maimouna Guerressi/credit:Maimouna Guerressi
I recently wrote a piece on the wonderful Muslima exhibition for the Guardian, but it got cut in half to fit the allocated space.  This is frustrating as the artists and activists I've interviewed had so much to say.  So here is the whole story with the women's quotes and ideas in their entirety. I am also including links to some of their artwork. I hope you'll like it!

 "The only woman it seems permissible to judge today and even at times ridicule, is the Muslim woman. What other woman faces as much scrutiny or is the target of random violence from both her own community and others?" asks Samina Ali.   An Indian-born Muslim who lives in San Francisco, Ali is the curator of  "Muslima: Muslim Women’s Art & Voices", a new global, online exhibition exploring what it means to be a Muslim woman today, and in the process, trying to shatter prejudice and build understanding.

"The impression many have of Muslim women is that they have no voice, no freedom -- not even a face because they move around behind burkhas! Even if a woman chooses just a head scarf, there's fear and misunderstanding about the veil and what it means to individual Muslim women to wear or not to wear the veil," says Ali, also a novelist and co-founder of Daughters of Hajar, an American-Muslim feminist organization.  "We wanted to help reverse the stereotypes and the best way to do that seemed to present Muslim women speaking to the complex realities of their own lives, through interviews and art."

The exhibition, recently launched by the International Museum of Women (IMOW) - an online social action museum promoting women's issues globally - brings together under one platform the voices, stories and work of hundreds of very different Muslim women from all over the world.

 The name "Muslima", which can refer to an ultra-religious woman as well as anyone who advances good in the world, was chosen to reflect the wide breath of views, attitudes, values and realities represented in the exhibition.  "There's a great diversity in the way Muslim women express themselves, whether through their art, clothing, values, attitudes or their understanding of their faith. It was important to capture that diversity in this exhibition. Not only does that diversity counter stereotypes many in the West have about Muslim women, but also, and equally as important, it counters the dominant narrative that some Muslims hold about their own communities: that all women must behave and look a certain way. It benefits both communities to see the reality," Ali says.

From Iranian artist Shadi Ghadirian's series "Nil, Nil"/credit:
Shadi Ghadirian

 The exhibition, organized by topics (faith, change, power, myths and more), regions or types (interviews, art or stories) features exclusive interviews with leading Muslim women leaders, such as Dr. Shirin Ebadi from Iran, the first Muslim woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize; Fahima Hashim, a leading women's rights advocate in Sudan; and Fawzia Koofi, who will be running for President of Afghanistan in 2014.  

It also showcases world-renowned artists like Palestinian Laila Shawa, Algerian Houria Niati and Yemeni photographer Boushra Almutawakel, as well as emerging voices from the next generation, such as Rajae El Mouhandiz, a Dutch singer from North African descent who is leading the movement for Muslim women's representation in pop culture.

 And there are also the wonderful "Muslima Stories", multi-media mini-memoirs in which ordinary Muslim women depict what it is to be a Muslim today. Viewers can leave comments after each art piece or interview, thus engaging in an international dialogue. 
"I wanted to participate in Muslima because I wanted to contribute to the effort of demystifying the term. For me, Muslima is a woman from a Muslim background.   It is more about culture than religion," says Algerian artist Houria Niati.  For the exhibition, she has chosen  "What If", a mixed media series in which she superposed the face of a young modern Algerian woman onto pictures of Algerian women in traditional costumes taken during the French colonial rule.  "The exhibition is full of hope. It brings all our diversities together, so we can join forces and fight for equality and freedom from wherever we are," Niati adds.
 "I usually prefer not to be associated with gender or religion or anything else in my career, but anything to help alter the perception of Muslim women is good. And art can cross borders," says Palestinian artist Laila Shawa whose powerful work "Target Wall of Gaza 1," depicting a little boy planted as a target against a wall covered in graffiti, is included in the exhibition.

"Target Wall of Gaza 1," by Palestinian artist Laila Shawa/credit:Laila Shawa

 Like, Shawa, many women participating in Muslima believe the artistic space is a better platform for discussing issues associated with gender and religion than the political arena.

 "I love this project because it is not selling one Muslim interpretation, but amplifies voices from several generations, cultural contexts and interpretations," says the young singer and artist Rajae El Mouhandiz.   "Producing work and being owners of our own stories help us in the long term to respond to ignorance.  But it also helps us to share the beauty, the diversity and the complexity of life and our individual interpretations of what religion and freedom and citizenship mean to us in this global community."

El Mouhandiz also wanted to take part in Muslima to share her experience as a young female Muslim artist in Europe. She says she not only faces racism in the Netherlands for being a Muslim, but also discrimination from within the Muslim community for being a singer who doesn't wear the hijab and is "too sexy."

Like El Mouhandiz, many women featured in Muslima believe that change has to come from the outside world - which needs to shift its perception of Muslim women - but also from within the Islamic framework, says Ali, the curator.   "The refrain I hear again and again from the contributors is that Islam is not the problem. Islam grants women rights that are then taken away from them by politics, power, patriarchy, tradition, and even fanatical readings of the religion. In fact, the irony seems to be that women living in the 7th century when Islam was founded had more rights than some women living in a few select Muslim countries today. For example, does Islam say a woman can't drive? Absolutely not. Didn't the Prophet's own wife, Aisha, move about on a camel -- and wasn't the camel that day's car? 
 An excerpt from Tamadher al Fahal's 'zine, "Diary of a Mad Arabian Woman"/Credit: 
Tamadher al Fahal

 “And outside of the law, people’s own ways of thinking need to change. Some Muslims seem unable to live and embrace the rich diversity within the Muslim communities. Instead, Sunnis kill Shias and vice versa. Or Muslims from the Middle East think they're more authentic than Muslims from India and vice versa. This issue of authenticity makes it so that many Muslims feel unwelcome in their own Muslim communities. ‘Maybe I'm too americanised to be considered Muslim?’ ‘If I don't cover, they'll say I'm not Muslim."   That needs to change.’

To the outside world, to those who “still think a Muslima is a sad oppressed woman who is part of harem, has no opinion or rights and basically is a house slave," El Mouhandiz has this word of advice:   "Turn off your TVs and go online to see the Muslima exhibition and meet all these amazing women and their work. They will blow your mind with their leadership, grace and talent!"

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