In a world divided and beset by fear and hatred, where Islamophobia is widespread and gender equality appears to be regressing, it is more important than ever to recognize that the real enemy to freedom is not the Muslim people, but extremist fundamentalism. With that, it is also crucial to elevate the diverse and vibrant artistic voices of women in the Islamic world, who are opposing this extremism and defying the Western stereotypes of the silenced and subservient Islamic woman.
Here we present to you five young, talented Muslim women from the ‘Axis of Evil’ who, in spite of the daily threats to both their freedom and their lives, are shattering pre-conceived notions of identity and confronting the oppression and discrimination that they face through their art.
Laila Ajjawi (Palestine)
Born and raised in an impoverished Palestinian refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Irbid, 27 year old graffiti artist Laila Ajjawi has seen her talent and education open doors and create opportunities far beyond its confines and the traditional fate of a female refugee in the Middle East.
At the heart of Laila’s artwork is the desire to highlight discrimination against refugees, explore Palestinian identities, deconstruct gender ideology, and reclaim the largely male-dominated Jordanian public space. She gained international attention in 2014 thanks to her participation in the Women on Walls (WOW) feminist street art campaign, which commissioned her to paint public murals in Cairo, and in a Syrian refugee camp and women-only martial arts training facility in Jordan. She subsequently presented her work at a women’s rights conference in Tunisia in March 2015.
By placing strong women at the centre of her paintings and murals, Laila is challenging patriarchal attitudes, changing social perceptions and proving that girls can “express themselves without the limits that society or community is trying to put them under.”
Boushra Almutawakel (Yemen)
Yemen’s first professional female photographer, Boushra Almutawakel, gained international recognition for her use of the veil in challenging social norms and exploring the complexities of public appearance in Islamic culture.
For over 15 years, her stylised portraits of Middle Eastern women have confronted the media’s obsession with what women are wearing and the popular Western view that the veil is a symbol of oppression, drawing similarities with the way some women hide behind the ‘social mask’ of heavy make-up in order to feel comfortable.
In her 2008 project, What If, Almutawakel garnered significant attention by portraying men in veils and women in traditional male outfits, while France Flag (2010) was a reaction to the ban of the veil in France, condemning the act as intolerant and an affront on freedom of choice.
Of her work, Almutawakel says, “I want to be careful not to fuel the stereotypical, widespread negative images most commonly portrayed about the hijab/veil in the Western media. Especially the notion that most, or all women who wear the hijab/veil, are weak, oppressed, ignorant, and backwards”.
Safa al Ahmad (Saudi Arabia)
The number of restrictions imposed upon women in Saudi Arabia is horrifying to say the least.
For Saudi journalist and filmmaker Safa al Ahmad, this gender oppression was compounded by the society-wide suppression of speech, where shows of dissent can lead to execution. When the Arab Spring erupted throughout the Middle East in 2011, Saudi Arabia was not immune to the pervading sentiment, and the government tried desperately to crack down on protests.
Safa filmed peaceful mass uprisings in the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and managed to smuggle them out of the country to create the 30-minute documentary Saudi’s Secret Uprising. Allowing a rare glimpse of civil public unrest from the region, the documentary was broadcast on the BBC in May 2014 and in the wake of it, Safa faced extensive and violent online threats, was accused of “lying and spying, advocating terrorism, aiding and abetting terrorists, and of course I have been called a heretic”, and has been advised to not return to her homeland.
Since then, she has produced documentaries for various international outlets focusing on the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, including The Fight for Yemen and Al Qaeda in Yemen, and has also been a staunch advocate for women’s rights in the region.
Sonita Alizadeh (Afghanistan)
Born and raised under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Sonita Alizadeh was 10 when her family first considered selling her as a child bride. Then at the age of 16, after she and her family had fled to Iran, her parents tried to marry her off again for $9,000. Before it could be finalized however, Sonita rebelled.
Despite it being illegal for women to sing in public in Iran, Sonita, with the help of Iranian director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, filmed a video for her rap song Brides for Sale, to vent her opposition.
The song became a huge hit and, earning €2,000 from the venture, pressured her parents to back down. Sonita is now studying as part of a scholarship in the US and has become a sensation back home. Her songs are fiercely feminist and rail against the barriers that Afghan women face on a daily basis.
In a country where only 18% of women are literate and – owing to the lack of access to education – 57 percent of girls are married before the age of 19, Sonita’s work has the potential to spark a significant sea change in Afghanistan.
Hila Sedighi (Iran)
Award-winning Iranian poet and social activist Hila Sedighi is famous for her poem Autumn’s Rain, which addresses the oppression facing young Iranian students. Active in reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi’s 2009 presidential campaign, when conservative incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was returned to office, demonstrators, in what became known as The Green Movement, took to the streets claiming the election was fraudulent, and Sedighi recited poetry at the protests.
Since 2015, there has been a surge in the crackdown on members of the artistic community in Iran, with the government anxious to maintain its dominance in the domestic sphere and beat back any potential political gains of the Rouhani administration and more moderate factions, and on January 7, 2016, Sedighi was arrested by authorities on “media and culture-related crimes”.
Sedighi was awarded the Hellman/Hammett prize for free expression by Human Rights Watch in 2012 and has also publicly exhibited her artwork.