Arab and Iranian women are a favorite obsession of the West. That obsession usually turns on two questions: how do they dress and are they oppressed? Of course, this narrow lens obscures the true picture of womanhood in the Arab and Iranian world. It also disempowers Arab and Iranian women, by making them the object rather than the subject of their own stories.

A new exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington D.C., is, however, flipping the script, handing the camera to the women themselves, and giving them a stage to present their experiences and realities to American audiences. “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World” features twelve artists and over eighty photographs that challenge common Western stereotypes about women in the Middle East, as well as the region as a whole

As Kristen Gersh, the exhibit’s curator, explains in the monograph accompanying the exhibit:

“She Who Tells a Story” offers a prism through which we can better understand the complex cultural, political, and religious mosaic that makes up the rich and multiple identities of this region in flux. It is intended to break down ideas of a nostalgic, Orientalist, traditional, or exotic world through showing contemporary visual media. These images force Western viewers to examine the way they look at the Middle East, and all viewers to rearticulate our ideas about the stories we thought we knew.

The powerhouse artists featured in the exhibit include Iranian photographers Newsha Tavakolian, Shirin Neshat, Shadi Ghadirian, and Gohar Dashti; Moroccan photographer, Lalla Essaydi; Yemeni photographer, Boushra Almutawakel; Lebanese photographer, Rania Matar; Egyptian photographers, Rana El Nemr and Nermine Hammam; Palestinian photographers, Tanya Habjouqa and Rula Halawani; and Iraqi photographer, Jananne Al-Ani.

The photographs displayed in the exhibit are as diverse in their aesthetics as they are in their subject matter. Reflecting a small selection of the range of issues affecting Iranian and Arab women, the images tackle war, occupation, protest, female identity, family, and protest, among other topics.

In her series, “Bullets Revisited” (2012), Lalla Essaydi covers women in bullet fragments, in order to express her anxieties about increasing restrictions on women in North Africa and the Middle East, post-Arab Spring.

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Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Triptych, chromogenic prints on aluminum, 150 x 66 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Miller Yezerski Gallery, Boston, and Edwynn Houk Gallery, NYC

In the “Hijab” series (2001), created in the immediate aftermath of September 11, Boushra Almutawakel presents a woman veiled in an American flag. The image challenges politically charged media representations of the head scarf and explores what it means to wear one’s identity on one’s head.

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Boushra Almutawakel, Untitled, from the series “The Hijab,” 2001; Chromogenic print, 47 1/4 x 39 3/8 in.; Courtesy of the artist and the Howard Greenberg Gallery

In the series “Listen” (2010), Newsha Tavakolian tackles the issue of female singers in Iran. Under Iranian law, women are prohibited from performing or recording by themselves. In her photos, Tavakolian captures the emotional and artistic depth of these women’s performances.

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Newsha Tavakolian, “Maral Afsharian,” from the series “Listen,” 2010; Pigment print, 23 5/8 x 31 1/2 in.; Courtesy of the artist and East Wing Contemporary Gallery

In the series “Nil Nil” (2008-9), Shadi Ghadirian presents a series of still lifes that juxtapose military objects with feminine objects to highlight the female experience of war.

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Shadi Ghadirian, “Nil, Nil” #11, 2008, Pigment print photograph, 29 7/8 x 29 7/8 in.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum purchase with funds donated by Pat and Arthur Stavaridis, 2014.20; © Shadi Ghadirian; Photo © 2015 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In “Today’s Life and War” (2008), Gohar Dashti creates staged narratives that reflect her experience as a child born after the Iranian Revolution who lived through the Iran-Iraq war in Ahwaz, a city close to the Iran-Iraq border.

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Gohar Dashti, Untitled #5, from the series “Today’s Life and War,” 2008, Chromogenic print, 27 5/8 x 41 3/8 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Azita Bina, and Robert Klein Gallery, Boston; © Gohar Dashti

In “Women of Gaza” (2008), Tanya Habjouqa humanizes the women of Gaza, while rejecting Western stereotypes.

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Tanya Habjouqa, Untitled, from the series “Women of Gaza,” 2009, Pigment print, 20 x 30 in.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum purchase with general funds and the Horace W. Goldsmith Fund for Photography, 2013.565; Photo © 2015 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In “Cairo Year One: Upekkah Series” (2011), Nermine Hammam tackles the topic of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, as it progresses from idealism to repression.

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Nermine Hammam, The Break, from the series “Cairo Year One: Upekkha,” 2011; Chromogenic print, 23 5/8 x 23 5/8 in.; Courtesy of Taymour Grahne

For those in the D.C. area, “She Who Tells a Story” runs through July 31. For those outside Washington, a series of audio recordings from the curator and several of the artists provides even more background and context for the exhibit.

No matter where you are, “She Who Tells a Story” is well worth exploring, for Middle East experts and novices alike.

UPDATE: Our friends at Kaleidoscope Islam have recorded a great podcast about the exhibit. Have a listen:

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  • Valencia Hargrave

    THE BEAUTIFUL WOMAN WITH THE AMERICAN FLAG PRINT WEARING IT AS A HIJAB, DOES ANYONE THINK SHE WOULD BE PROSECUTED, OR BEHEADED IF SHE WERE TO WEAR THAT IN A MUSLIM COUNTRY? THEY’RE FREE TO BRING THEIR RELIGION HERE YET WE CAN’T PRACTICE OUR RELIGION THERE AND IT HAS COME TO THE POINT WHERE WE CAN NOT SAY THE NAME JESUS HERE IN AMERICA. THEY HAVE A RIGHT TO PRACTICE THEIR RELIGION HERE BUT NOT TAKE MY JESUS AWAY. AMERICA WAS BUILT ON THE PRAYERS OF THE WORD OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST AND THE PRAYERS OF THE FOUNDING FATHERS, THAT’S WHY THE TEN COMMANDMENTS WERE ON EVERY GOVERNMENT BUILDING. THE GOVERNMENT OF TWELVE WAS FORMED FROM THE TWELVE DISCIPLES OF THE HOLY BIBLE.