Part 4: Broadening the View
A photographer with a broader view of Muslim women and Islam in general is Magnum
photographer Abbas, originally from Iran, and also well known for his work on Islam.
Abbas is currently working on a project called The Clash of Religions which he started
in 2002 on the first anniversary of 9/11, a new long-term project based on his belief
that cultures, not faith, are replacing political ideologies in the contemporary world.
As a member of the renowned Magnum agency since 1981, he has involved himself intensely
with the creation of a worldwide report on religions, and the role of religion in social life.
While much of Abbas's work concentrates on wars and revolutions, and the internal
tensions within Muslim societies, his photo-essay entitled Old and New Values published
by The Iranian, not only shows photographs of Muslim women in their roles as
wives and mothers, but also as photojournalists, painters, sculptors, artists' models
and students, riding horses, as politically active, ankle-deep in muddy water planting
rice, and selling vegetables in the market. All the Muslim women wear a veil but the
veil is not the focal point of the image. It assumes its natural place as part of the
woman's attire. Abbas chooses to shows us each woman as a separate but integral part
of that society and from his work we can draw a fuller picture of Muslim women in Iran,
a picture that goes a long way to dispelling the myth of the mysterious, veiled 'other'.
Another attempt at a broad view came in 2001 with the British Council's Common Ground
Exhibition which showed "aspects of contemporary Muslim experience in Britain, South East
Asia and the Middle East" and provided "a platform for the exchange of experiences, ideas and concepts among photographers".
Originally there were eight, young, UK-based photographers: Clement Cooper, Tim Smith, Rehan Jamil, Suki Dhanda, Amyandtanveer, Jagtar Semplay, Anthony Lam and Sam Piyasena. The exhibition organisers claim that the work embraces a broad spectrum, including social documentary, portrait, landscape and conceptual work.
Indeed, the exhibition broadened further when it went to Indonesia, Bangladesh and Malaysia in 2003 and 2004, and Malaysian and Indonesian photographers were invited to participate. They created new work which then went on to the Middle East and Gulf States in 2006: Bahrain, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and finally Oman. From October 2006 the exhibition began a tour of Russia and Europe.
The exhibition has been claimed as groundbreaking and a sign that, in the Islamic Gulf at least, the region is moving towards greater liberalisation. The photographs were chosen to present a challenge without being inflammatory through the use of images which are a hybrid of more than one culture.
Looking Beyond the Veil, from the series Pointing to the Future 2005, Manal Al-Dowayan, Saudi Arabia, Common Ground Exhibition, Black and white print
They included a photograph by Manal Al Dowayan (above) of a woman holding the steering wheel of a car entitled Looking Beyond the Veil which touches on a big issue for Saudi Arabia as Muslim women are not allowed to drive there.
In another photograph, a rap artist from Leeds sports a diamante medallion with the word 'Allah' inscribed in Arabic and wearing a basketball vest. Yet another depicts two British-Asian girls playing pool. Both are wearing headscarves and jeans. One is chalking the cue while the other is taking a shot.
Also in the same exhibition, Hackney-based photographer Suki Dhanda created a picture-diary of a 14-year-old Muslim girl from Whitechapel. In the photographs she can be seen praying with her mother, playing pool and chatting in a chip shop with friends. Dhanda says the response in Saudi has been curiosity rather than outrage.
Yet another photographer, Al Dowayan, shows us a veiled woman wearing gold chains, an image which the photographer intended as a metaphor for the restrictions in the lives of Muslim women. "When these chains turn into a cage, when they hold you down, as beautiful as they might appear on women, I'm just saying we need to question them. The Saudis who have seen my work have come up to me and they have said they want to understand it. Some of it is about traditions that don't make sense and I am ready to talk to them about this", says Al Dowayan, adding, "I like to think it has inspired some reaction. I am very optimistic; this is a time of hope".
Another contemporary group exhibition, Muslim Women in Germany, was hosted by the Goethe-Institut in Washington and put together by Ostkreuz, the well-known photographers' agency founded in Berlin in 1990. The exhibition finished in February 2008. The four photographers whose work was included are Anne Schönharting, Maurice Weis, Jordis Antonia Schlösser and Nicole Angstenberger. The stated aim of the exhibition was to "depict female Islamic culture in Germany, portray women as members of their Muslim subculture as well as of general society".
It will be interesting in the future to assess the impact of this exhibition from a country where Muslim women, particularly those within the Turkish community, are often forced into marriage, suffer physical abuse, and may be the victim of 'honour' killings.
Click here to read Part 5.
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