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Muslim women speak out from behind the veil
NIDHI GUPTA  8th Jun 2013

Works from Maimouna Guerresi’s Maimouna Family; Homa Arkani’s Marilyn (R)

new art exhibition on the Internet can even give feminists a run for their money. The International Museum of Women, an online 'social change' museum, recently unveiled a mammoth interactive show titled 'Muslima: Muslim Women's Art and Voices'. Between the lines of this self-explanatory title lies a challenge to the dominant perception that Muslim women are bare, voiceless entities whose identity is hard to distinguish from the veil they are 'forced' to sport.

In Arabic, the term muslima is used to define a woman who believes in God and upholds God's values, such as prayer, charity, fasting, kindness and mercy. Curator Samina Ali has deliberately used this term in singular in the context of this exhibition. "In a world that's grown accustomed to denying the rich diversity of Muslim women's thoughts and contributions, of erasing their complex differences and reducing them into an easy stereotype of an oppressed group, into lesser human beings, this exhibition title highlights the singular form of muslima in order to celebrate the unique passions and accomplishments of each and every Muslim woman who contributes," she explains.

Along with interactive sessions with writers, journalists, artists, photographers and others, the exhibition features works by 63 artists and photographers from around the world. These women have addressed issues as wide ranging as any other 'set' of artists who could be clubbed into a single frame of connection. And their interpretations of the same issues are equally diverse.

For instance, the veil in particular garners a lot of attention. If Karima Zuhair looks for completion in the transparency of individuals in The Different, Waheeda Mullulah's Green explores the possibilities of being swathed in layers.

In some Muslim communities, the word ‘muslima’ carries connotations of a religious woman. For this reason, many of the women we approached hesitated to be featured. — Samina Ali

If Sadaf Syed chronicles the lives of women who continue to 'cover' despite having migrated to different contexts, then Boushra Almutawakel's Hijab series paints a completely different picture of the veil — in Yemen, where it is a colourful, designer object, the hijab becomes an accessory more than a burden.

There are also those who deal with identity and change. Maimouna Guerresi, the famous Italy-born photographer who converted to Islam, shows the possibilities of unifying two divergent cultures, represented by her daughters in the series Maimouna Family (Mother of Two Cultures). Nadia Helmy Ahmed's photographs of 'covered' women boxing challenges the paternalistic notions of what a Muslim woman should be like. Samira Abbassy's Compulsive Navigation Disorder series explores the age-old existential question 'who am I?' from a migrant's perspective.

There is a wide range of traditional elements to be found in this oeuvre too — artists like Rabea Chaudry, Soheila Esfahani, Sana Naveed and Deniz Oktem Bektas, among others, all dabble in the artistic form of calligraphy. Amanda Koster documents 4 groups of all-women Sufi singers in Morocco.

Fatima Zahra Hassan works with the miniature painting style to re-imagine a poem by the 17th century poet Bulleh Shah. She says she has never worked on gender and prefers to work on text-based art. Evidently, tradition can be empowering too.

"In some Muslim communities, the word muslima carries connotations of a religious woman who prays five times a day, fasts, and wears the veil. For this reason, many of the women we approached hesitated to be featured. They didn't consider themselves to be 'that type of Muslim'. Some simply didn't believe in God. Just as we hope to stretch the stereotypical understanding of what a Muslim woman is, we are hoping also to stretch the meaning of this word," observes Ali.

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