The Hidden Feminine: Examining the Female Image in Yemeni Art

Muslim women are frequently shortchanged by stereotypes. How do artists help to change minds and destroy prejudice?

I have selected the work of two female photographers, Boushra Almutawakel and Yumna Al-Arashi, and two male painters, Hakim Alakel and Mazher Nizar, to show us the face of Muslim women. All of these artists are of Yemeni blood and wrap up synkroniciti’s series on Yemen.

Recently I posted about the difficulty of being female in Yemen today and how current attitudes toward women do not square with the history of the nation, a place ruled in the past by Muslim Queens. You can read that post by clicking here. This post explores how those ultra conservative attitudes make their mark on the Yemeni soul and how they impact the way Yemeni artists, male and female, seek to portray the female form.

No exploration of the feminine in Yemen is complete without acknowledging and unpacking the hijab, the head covering worn by many, but not all, Muslim women around the world. The graphic below illustrates just a small portion of the diversity in female coverings in the Muslim world. There is a great deal of variety and opportunity for self-expression.

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Boushra Almutawakel

Boushra Almutawakel was born in 1969 in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. She earned a BSBA in International Business at American University in Washington, DC, where she also fell in love with photography and worked as a photojournalist for the university paper and yearbook. Returning to Yemen in 1994, she became an educational adviser, but kept taking pictures and participating in exhibitions until embarking on a career in photography in 1998. Professional female photographers were unheard of in Yemen at the time. She balances her own projects with photography for magazines, charitable and cultural organizations and has garnered an international reputation for her insightful work. Boushra served as a cultural advisor for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington and later worked at the Ministry for Human Rights in Sana’a, specializing in women’s rights. She moved to France with her husband and children in 2013.

Her Hijab Series employs feminine humor and dignity to take aim at prejudice against Muslim women in both Eastern and Western culture. You can see more of this series as well as other works on Boushra’s website.

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“True Self”

“I first started the series on the hijab/veil while attending photography school, where I attended a lecture by the Egyptian feminist writer Nawal Elsadawi. At that lecture she said that she felt that women who wore the hijab/veil or nigab were the same as women who wore makeup, in the sense that they all hid their true identities. I thought that was a fascinating perspective, and so decided to interpret this photographically.”

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“What if?”

“In this ongoing project on the hijab/veil I want to explore the many faces and facets of the veil based on my own personal experiences and observations: the convenience, freedom, strength, power, liberation, limitations, danger, humor, irony, variety, cultural, social, and religious aspects, as well as the beauty, mystery, and protection. The hijab/veil as a form of self-expression; the veil as not solely an Arab Middle Eastern phenomenon, the trends, the history and politics of the hijab/veil, as well as differing interpretations, and the fear in regards to the hijab/veil.”

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“Mother, Daughter, Doll”

“A lot of people think that covered women are oppressed, backwards and uneducated. That is far from the truth. But at the same time I can’t hear very well if I am veiled and I can’t see the lips of women wearing the niqab. The biggest problem I have is with children being covered—there is nothing Islamic about that. I prefer our traditional veils which are colourful and more open. The black we’ve imported from the Gulf and the Wahhabis—with gloves and the rest of it—is too much.”-Boushra Almutawakel

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“Sitara, Rada’a”

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“Eye Motion”

Hakim Alakel

Hakim Alakel was born in the artistic city of Ta’izz in 1965. He studied first in Yemen under the famous master artist Ali Hashim, following up at Moscow State Academy in Russia, where he graduated with a Master of Arts degree cum laude, specializing in frescoes, art history and conceptual art. There is a marked Art Nouveau influence in his lush and colorful paintings, which are on display all over the world. Learn more about Hakim and his paintings here. A large figure on the Yemeni cultural scene who has worked as a Professor of Art, a magazine contributor and critic, a consultant for the restoration of Yemeni architecture, a coordinator for children’s art and theater projects and much more, Hakim now lives in Jordan. The irony is that the elimination of his duties with the Yemeni Ministry of Culture, which is unable to operate in a country torn by war, has freed him to return to painting, imbued with a profound sense of nostalgia.

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Hakim’s paintings recall city life in Yemen before the civil war, when communities functioned and family life was not dogged by death and warfare. There is a palpable longing for the emotional stability and simplicity of that time. Sleeping or awake, pensive or free-spirited, regal or humorous, the women he paints have personalities which are only rivaled by his vivid use of color. He must have had great affection for the women in his life to render them with such humanity and honesty.

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“In my work, I depend on a range of aesthetic references, especially Yemeni ones, which form the basis of my artistic language. These include architecture, clothing, and other aspects of Yemen’s huge cultural inheritance, which goes back to 5000 B.C. and continues to the present day. This cultural heritage, especially its urban aspects, influences me greatly, and I feel that the Yemeni city lives inside me.”

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 “These cities, and their inhabitants, whether in Sana’a, the capital, or other cities, form a primary reference for my work… the clothing, the weather, the nature, and the environment. You’ll find the Yemeni women actually form the main inspiration for my art work. They are unique in their style, their vision, their dress… and there is also a certain kind of silence in their faces. I see these women as symbols and representations of the larger environment in which they live.”-Hakim Alakel

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Traditionally, Yemeni women have dressed in bright colors and patterns. Most favored a bright cotton hijab rather than the burka or niqab, but those days have faded in the cities, where women are arrested for being on the street without permission and bullied for not being “properly covered”. Women in smaller villages, such as those picturesque towns in the Haraz Mountains that I have spoken about in an earlier post, still tend to dress in this fashion. It is good to have artists remembering and witnessing to better times. Maybe one day those good things can be restored and even bettered.

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Mazher Nizar

Born of a Yemeni family in Mumbai, India in 1958, Mazher Nizar came home to Yemen in 1985 after receiving his Diploma in Graphic Art from the Government College of Art & Craft in Kolkata. He lives in Sana’a and is frequently inspired by the Old City. Mazher’s paintings hearken back to the Queen of Sheba, blending Arabic and Yemeni motifs and elements with a romantic Indian painting style. He has exhibited his work across Europe and Asia, as well as Canada. His decision to remain in Sana’a through the Civil War and share his art online through his Facebook account have inspired many Yemeni to hold on to hope. You can see more of his work on his website.

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The feminine “inspired me a lot because it was hidden, and something hidden creates imagination, and imagination is good for the artist to go on and on with.”

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“It was very good for me to paint on the Queen of Sheba, and I started painting ordinary woman as a Queen. It became fact that all my women became very spiritual and they were very out of this world. They are not portraits of any particular women, they are just women of my expressions, how I feel them.”

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Mazher is inspired by women and believes them to be more spiritual in nature than men. Rather than seeing the covered woman as a victim, he sees her as an exalted mystery. If she is not completely human it is because she is superhuman- a mythological force which nurtures hope, symbolized by flowers and birds- not because she is in any way inferior. Veiling her stokes her desirability and spirituality, heightening romance. This is lovely, although there is a certain loneliness in being mythical.

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Yumna Al-Arashi

Born in Washington, DC in 1988, the child of a diplomat, Yumna Al-Arashi was in middle school when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 struck. Overnight, she became subject to intense intimidation and bullying stemming from misguided hatred in the wake of tragedy. I recommend you read her moving experience here. Yumna holds a Bachelors Degree in International Politics with an emphasis on the Middle East from the New School in New York City and is now a documentary photographer who has lived and worked in many places around the world. She has worked with prestigious cultural organizations and magazines and has exhibited her own projects in the United States, the Middle East and London. You can see her credentials and more of her beautiful work on her website. Her work does a fantastic job of unifying the mythological feminine with the human.

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from Northern Yemen

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from Northern Yemen

“There’s this prevalent idea of a woman who is covering her hair or her body as totally oppressed, and that’s never a viewpoint I’ve agreed with,” explains Al-Arashi, who is Muslim and grew up in Washington, D.C. “My whole life I’ve been surrounded by Muslim women who cover themselves, and they’re such badasses and have such incredible depth—as much as any of the uncovered women I’ve met. As a Muslim woman, you’re often boxed into a single identity. I wanted to shift that stereotype.”
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from Northern Yemen

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“I wanted people to see that there is a Muslim woman that exists that can be comfortable with her body and who still supports other women who are covered, who thinks that’s okay.”
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from Portraits

“I believe that controlling sexuality is the root of controlling all power in a society. To be able to openly bring a woman’s sexuality to light is an incredibly important step in expressing a woman’s freedom and humanity. Discussions of sexuality shouldn’t be taboo, and my hope is to be able to open the forum for further thought on the issue.”-Yumna Al-Arashi
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from Water

 

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from Water

Comfortable in Her Own Skin: Tradition, Modernity and the Dancing of Irina Akulenko

The society we live in shapes our understanding of body image and self. How does dance influence that understanding?

Video via WorldDance NewYork. Irina Akulenko plays the blindfolded character of Justice as pictured in the Tarot.

Irina Akulenko bases her life as a dancer, teacher and choreographer in New York City, touring both nationally and internationally. As soloist and collaborator, she has been part of Bellyqueen Dance Theater, Bella Gaia, Alchemy Dance Theater and  BALAM Dance Theater, to name just a few of her credits. Her style is a fascinating blend of several traditions with its foundation in belly dance. As a child, Akulenko was already exploring ballet, piano and voice, as well as drawing, when she had her first taste of belly dance. She was quickly addicted and sought out teachers who could show her the intricacies of this expressive art form which originated in the Middle East. Her background lies in Egyptian Cabaret and American Tribal style belly dance.

 Photograph of a ghaziya (1906)

Photograph of a ghaziya dancer in Egypt(1906)
TIMEA with CCLicense

Egypt has one of the oldest traditions of belly dance, stemming from social folk dances that were performed by men, women and children. These were later refined and embellished to be performed for Ottoman rulers, who kept troupes of dancers, both male and female. There were actually periods of time in which the Ottomans banned women from dancing and men, known as zenneskept the tradition going. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, dancers supported themselves by working cabarets or night clubs, donning sequined and revealing costumes that showed off the impressive torso and hip articulation that is the hallmark of belly dancing. It was at this time that belly dancing became an almost exclusively female profession, since there were no clubs catering to women and homosexuality, which was fairly common among the Ottoman nobility, was no longer tolerated. Much of the seediness and stigma attributed to belly dance comes from being relegated to night clubs in Cairo, where the women who danced were seen as little more than prostitutes.

The Egyptian Cabaret tradition persists, although there are tensions in modern Egypt. Dancers, singers and performers in general are not considered respectable in conservative Islamic society. Bare midriffs have been banned since the 1950s and women who show their bodies are considered haram, mortally sinful and abhorrent. I recommend this article from Daily News Egypt to anyone who desires to understand the challenges and intimidation belly dancers face there. Egyptian Cabaret style is much less restrained in the West than in its homeland.

Dance has a way of speaking clearly without language. Even without the historical stigma, it is understandable that some people, westerners and easterners, religious and non religious, find fault with the sensual movement of belly dance and the empowerment women find in it. This reaction probably has more to do with the viewer’s lack of comfort with their own sensuality than with a lack of modesty on the part of the dancer, who has simultaneously become powerful and vulnerable. Thoughts can be scary, even when they don’t lead to action. How do we learn to simply allow something, or especially someone, to be authentically and naturally sexy without becoming possessive?

Provocative and beautiful, belly dance has traveled all over the globe, fusing with other forms, evolving and preserving itself. American Tribal Style (ATS) was created by the fascinating Carolena Nericcio-Bohlman, inspired by folk dance from the Middle East, North Africa, Spain and India informed by modern flourishes and sensibility. It has a heavy emphasis on group improvisation and communication through dance, returning belly dance to its roots while also taking it somewhere new.

Irina Akulenko at White Sands, New Mexico, USA © Irina Akulenko from her website

Irina Akulenko at White Sands, New Mexico, USA
© Irina Akulenko from her website

Irina Akulenko’s desire for inspiration has led her to study and integrate other forms of folk dance into her style as well. Flamenco, from Andalusia, in Spain, is a bold, expressive and modern form, famous for its powerful, percussive elements and use of props, while Odissi is the oldest form of dance in India, characterized by delicately stylized head and limb gestures. Belly dance, Odissi and Flamenco all use well articulated body movement to express emotion in an improvisational format. By using all three, she widens the emotional and technical range of her work. What an exciting thing to be so comfortable with your own body!

Video via WorldDance NewYork. Akulenko reveals a gentler sensuality in this performance which recalls the Odissi tradition of India.

Akulenko also holds a degree in Political Science and is drawn to women’s issues and visual art. If you like, you can learn to belly dance from her series of instructional videos at Howcast on YouTube. Her talent for blending styles reveals an openness to finding similarities between cultures and a need to express herself to a wide audience. Anytime we express something, we risk being evaluated and judged. True artists like Akulenko know that the expression is worth the risk. Brava!

Images of Humanity: Storytelling and the Doll

Dolls are frequently dismissed as children’s toys. Might there be deeper significance behind them than we are willing to entertain?

© backpack photography with CCLicense

© backpack photography with CCLicense

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A pair of dolls from Peru in my collection.

When I was a kid, my father traveled several times to South America. He brought me exotic dolls that were dressed in the costume of the towns and regions where he purchased them. I would unwrap them and gaze at their beauty, then we would carefully wrap them back up until the next viewing. Even at a young age, I knew these dolls were different than Strawberry Shortcake and Barbie. They were not for play. Most of them were not mass produced from plastic– those that were always seemed much less unique and special.

So, if a doll isn’t simply a toy, what is it?

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Girls playing with a Campbell doll, New York City, 1912
Public Domain Image

First of all, even toys have purpose. Dolls help children to prepare for future experiences and interactions by letting them imagine the thoughts of other people. Tea parties with toys are experiments that later shape how we build our circle of friends. Did you surround yourself with baby dolls, who might just have foreshadowed younger siblings and, more distantly, sons or daughters, or did you parley with exotic beings and people from foreign lands who might inspire interest in different culture? Who was at your table? I always prized stuffed animals far above all of my human dolls, and completely ignored baby dolls. Now I’m in my upper thirties, happily married with two cats and no kids. If you want to know who your child is, observe them with their toys and see what they are drawn to. These tendencies will be tempered by experience, but they are the underpinnings of personality and are never completely erased. As we play, we are.

Puppets and dolls are built for storytelling. Children spend hours thinking up conversations and putting toys into all sorts of situations. For many kids, this helps to relieve the loneliness of childhood. It is comforting to go to sleep with a friendly and familiar doll after a rough day, especially if the child is surrounded by adults who have their own worlds to deal with. As we get older, these characters still have resonance for us. They connect with archetypes in our subconscious and find their way into our dreams.

© Danny Choo with CCLicense

© Danny Choo with CCLicense

Dolls are powerful tools for codifying values and behavior because they make an impression on a subconscious level, especially when introduced before the human being has mastered language and nuance. There are plenty of women that grew up with the tyranny of Barbie and her impossible body proportions. Even more traumatizing is the unfortunate pregnant Barbie whose entire stomach lifts off to expose a baby that is much too clean and shapely to be newborn. After all, we wouldn’t want to scare the children with honesty, right? Dolls transmit some of our earliest information about body image and yet they have very disturbing anatomy. Are we really so uncomfortable with our own bodies?

© Castles, Capes and Clones with CCLicense

© Castles, Capes and Clones with CCLicense

Men, did you think that you escaped? Dolls marketed for boys are often called action figures. Boys haven’t traditionally played with baby dolls and Barbies, but they’ve had cowboys, superheroes, and Darth Vader (I confess that I had two Darth Vaders). Many of these characters have clothes molded to their body, clothes that make the man and render him recognizable. There isn’t anything underneath. To make a generalization, we have long encouraged girls to bear and then nurture children, all the while watching their figure, while pushing boys to look for action, identify with their career and exhibit strength. Then we complain that women are from Venus and men are from Mars.

Ethnic dolls aren’t innocent either, stemming from a desire to codify appropriate dress and behavior in an attempt to hold onto the past and resist modernization and cultural blending. They can be used to promote negative stereotypes of outsiders or to create iconic images of cultural heroes, reminding us of the exclusion and inclusion at the childhood tea party. Certainly there is value in remembering and honoring the past, even as there is value in embracing the future, but it helps to be aware of that there are always agendas that seek to guide our understanding. As we have already seen, dolls can be excellent pieces of propaganda.

Pahlik Mana, Water Drinking Girl

Pahlik Mana, Water Drinking Girl Kachina
Image Used in Accordance with Fair Use Policy

Some traditional figurines, such as the Kachina of the North American West, are seen as the embodiment of spirits or gods. These beings inhabit the crafted image, making it sacred in the eyes of the worshiper. Medicine men and voodoo practitioners use dolls to heal, harm and enchant. These forms have religious connotations that make the label of doll almost inappropriate, but they operate in similar ways. Instead of seeing the figure as a model for human interaction, for telling human stories, these dolls are models for interacting with deity and spirit.

There are other uses for dolls that are generally considered taboo in polite company, those that connect the doll with fetishist and sexual urges, bridging a gap that many find distinctly uncomfortable. Is this the grown child who continues to find solace and companionship with the inanimate rather than risk experiencing romantic human interaction? If we could get over our embarrassment, would we be able to understand such behavior and address it with less fear?

Puppets in Karnataka, India

Puppets in Karnataka, India
© Prassanare with CCLicense

When we admire or enjoy a doll, we are activating and reinforcing our methods of interpreting and experiencing the world around us. Memory and imagination can seize upon these figures as a way to connect us with our younger selves, just as our younger selves used them to imagine the future. Such connection can be surprisingly intense.

Quote for Today: Eula Biss

© derekGavey with CCLicense

© Derek Gavey with CCLicense

British researchers recently found that girls between the ages of seven and eleven harbor surprisingly strong feelings of dislike for their Barbie dolls, with no other toy or brand name inspiring such a negative response from the children. The dolls “provoked rejection, hatred, and violence” and many girls preferred Barbie torture — by cutting, burning, decapitating, or microwaving — over other ways of playing with the doll. Reasons that the girls hated their Barbies included, somewhat poetically, the fact that they were ‘plastic.’ The researchers also noted that the girls never spoke of one single, special Barbie, but tended to talk about having a box full of anonymous Barbies.
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Poor Barbie! Healthy or not, there is certainly plenty of hate out there for this icon, the world’s most famous doll. Have you heard about the recent uproar over her appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated? You can read about it here.

Here’s an oldie from Aqua that seems to fit. Keep in mind that humor is often a way to deal with issues that are too deep and dark to be approached with seriousness.