In a New York photography exhibit female Muslim students show off a range of work and attitudes toward self representation. While some pose in personal shots, three refuse to be photographed for religious reasons. Eighth in a series on women and Islam.


NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–In the intimacy of Brooklyn’s Arab-American Family Support Center three young Yemeni women paced the halls with their faces unveiled and bodies cloaked in black niqabs. They broke into smiles and shook with laughter as they took in a photo exhibit featuring their work and that of 12 classmates.

"This is a beautiful picture," whispered one to another as she took in a snapshot of two henna-covered hands.

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Photographs by Muslim Women

The pictures on the walls ranged from the personal to the abstract, the poetic to the political, the staged to the off-the-cuff.

At one end of the spectrum stood simple family photos: a girl in a white T-shirt sprawled on backyard grass; children’s faces aglow with thumbs in command of a video game; a family spread across a couch at holiday time; a dish in various stages of cooking shot by a mother and her two daughters.

But other photos turned to the conceptual: blue pens on a table spelling out Allah; a man pointing a baton against a woman’s throat in an outdoor staged protest; an elegant swirl of calligraphy; a computer screen logged into the Internet phone service Skype connecting a family in the United States to a grandfather in Yemen.

The photo exhibit marks the culmination of a 12-week course organized by the New York-based Bread and Roses Cultural Project at the Arab-American Family Support Center under the guidance of Shari Diamond, who teaches at New York’s Parsons School of Design, which partially funded the project.

Bread and Roses will exhibit the class work, which was only briefly displayed at the Arab American center, at Gallery 1199 in Manhattan through June 29. In September, a second New York exhibit at the Pomegranate Gallery will open with a panel discussion about Muslim women.

‘Anonymous’ Artists

Among a class of 15, the three young Yemeni women, while roaming the exhibit refused to be recognized for the work in which they stood behind the camera many times in front of family and friends. The word "Anonymous" underlined each of their photographs on display.

A request for their photograph was met with one word–"haram," which means "forbidden" in Arabic–and a quick veiling of their faces, followed by apologetic eyes.

"In the culture it is so hard for them because if they take a picture people are going to make a problem outside of the community for the family," said Nidal Alloubame, a Jordanian mother of two who was part of the photography class. "They are scared for anyone to know this is her hand, this is her body."

In their photo exhibit, "Unseen America: Arab Women in Brooklyn," these three photographers decided to remain precisely that: unseen. Or at least, not recognizable.

In shadows, reflections, disconnected body parts, the three young women–who for reasons of religion and family reputation refused to be photographed–depict themselves in fragments.

"I asked them to consider photographing themselves," said Diamond, who taught the students digital photography. "I showed them different ways of being part of a picture without being fully seen. This is about accepting who they are. You can’t go from black to white or white to black overnight."

Reflections Hidden in the Background

Only one photograph gives the three classmates away. Foreground: The character Carrie Bradshaw of "Sex and the City" dressed in pink stepping out boldly into the world from a movie advertisement. Background: three black-robed reflections, mostly hidden, partially lit by a camera flash.

"It is fun because they are such a contrast," said Diamond. "She (Carrie) is here, full blast. And they are there in what they wear. Even though sometimes we see them as so different, they clearly had a connection with the ‘Sex and the City’ craze. You can look at this picture in a lot of ways."

Using Henry David Thoreau’s longing for people to see "the world through each other’s eyes," the Bread and Roses Cultural Project has organized photo classes of this nature for over 700 groups around the country, including Arab women in Brooklyn.

The class also spurred discussions. One topic: What is taboo and what is not in Islam? If henna is alright on Moroccan hands, what about tattoos like the memorial butterfly on the wrist of their American photo teacher?

Many of the students were recent immigrants, some who spoke limited English. Others were long established in the city, hailing from Jordan, Syria and Morocco. Mothers–juggling jobs, children and extended families–particularly relished the stillness brought on by the photographs.

Camera Provides Clarity

"With a camera you can concentrate on one thing and that makes it clear," said Fadia Munder, a Brooklyn chef originally from Syria who took proud pictures of her restaurant, her five children and three daughters-in-law. "When I see the pictures I like it more than reality."

Alloubame, the Jordanian immigrant, agreed. "When you take a picture, sometimes you like it more because it is still. There are more details, more focus."

These two women were part of a larger group who photographed themselves and were willing to put their homes, family and lives on display without concealing their identities.

After the class ended, Hindia Gaseem, 19, who is also Yemeni, bought a digital camera and is considering media studies when she enters Hunter College in New York as a freshman in the fall. "When I take a picture," she said, "I see things that I didn’t know were there."

Saba, 24, too uncomfortable to provide her last name and one of the few who signed her work anonymously, said she also aspired to continue photography, maybe even as a profession, after the classes.

"Maybe for Al Jazeera," quipped her friend, sending the three young women in niqabs into a renewed fit of the giggles.

While the class helped the women come together as a group–there were 15 participants hailing from five countries–the purpose was to showcase the diversity within Muslim women’s collective identity and shatter prevailing U.S. stereotypes.

"I’ve been in people’s homes, met their families," said Judith McCabe, who oversees the Unseen America project, a program to promote first-person photographs and stories of people who are frequently ignored by the media and mass culture. "Now I don’t see people as a group. I see them as individuals."

Dominique Soguel is Women’s eNews Arabic editor.

This series is supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.