Featured post

Contemporary Narratives - Photography: A Short Guide to History, Theory, and Practice: Online Course Starting April 27th 2022

  Sign up to my new series of talks on Contemporary Narratives - Photography: A Short Guide to History, Theory, and Practice .  Starts on Ap...

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

People see Saudis as "non-human"

The previous post looked at the Wadjda, the first Saudi film. It is a film where the main character, Wadjda, negotiates her way through different social spaces to get herself the object of her dreams - a bicycle. It's a bicycle that represents the physical freedom to roam, the bodily freedom to express itself, the freedom of equality and the sexual freedom of becoming a woman. 

It's all about body then. But it is also about the different spaces a woman can inhabit - from the anonymous half-built spaces of Riyadh to the spaces of the street, the institutional spaces of the school and the private and shared spaces of the home.

This use of space, the humour of the main character, the physical expression through clothes and gesture gave the film three dimensions. I've met a few Saudis before, had coffee with them and chatted with them, I've read a few books about the country, but this added something that I had never seen before, especially because it was making Saudi women visible. As Ahd Kamel, the actress who plays the main character says in this video on the film, "People look at Saudi in a very black and white way... They see Saudis as non-humans."

When I saw Wadjda, I thought of Wasma Mansour's work on  single Saudi women interiors. I thought of her even more when she told me her best friend, Ahd (who's mentioned above) played the evil headmistress, Miss Hussa, a women with a face that is bile and vinegar in human form. 

Ahd is not only an actor but also a movie director. See her film Sanctity hereAnd see her talking about the film and her role in Wadjda here

So I thought I would ask Wasma a few questions. And she very kindly answered. 

How do interiors express a Saudi woman’s identity?
The interiors can  be considered as windows into the participants lives. My photography in a sense explored traces of the participants’ activities, rituals and habits, carried out in the privacy of their homes. They also highlighted important, sometimes symbolic, items that evoked memories of family and home life in Saudi Arabia.

Why are these interiors important?
In my project, the home emerges as a dynamic space which elucidates how the participants are grapple with their past and present realities. The domestic sphere is important primarily because the women have a considerable control, and often full control over how they choose to exist within them (and outside them) in the UK. Since most of the participants lived with their families back in Saudi Arabia, their past living experience I would say was managed or overseen by their guardians (domestically) or the religious police as state apparatus which is given the licence to regulate people’s comportment and appearance in the public domain. This is limiting for the participants in many ways.

How private are they?
By they, I am assuming that you mean the participants. I think the majority of the participants value privacy in that most of them requested to conceal their faces from being visible in the portraits I took of them. 

Do these interiors conceal as well as reveal?
Interesting question.  When I explained my work to the participants, particularly the part about photographing their private spaces, I gave them the full licence to, in a sense, curate their space for the camera.  

What are the negotiations that Saudi women must negotiate?
There are issues that don’t allow much room for negotiation in Saudi, such those related to faith and tradition for example. With regards to religion, there are main principles that one should follow and subscribe to, and any infraction would incur serious repercussions. There are more room for manoeuvrability within the cultural norms and tradition though, as these often evolve with time and political and socioeconomic transformations, not to mention that the rapid development with communication and technology, exposure to other value systems around the world makes people revise some old traditions.  An example of this can be seen in the ways that the veil has transformed in Saudi Arabia.  The premise of the veil is to conceal the woman’s body in the public domain, and yet at the moment, many Saudi fashion designers have subverted this and have turned the ‘abayah’ (veil cloak) to a fashion statement.

Are there any negotiations that can’t be mentioned?
I think the negotiations that are risky to reveal, even to me, are the ones that concern religion.  Of course even some traditions feel almost impossible to change, especially amongst the tribal segments of Saudi society, because for these groups of people, the collective identity is the priority, and the individual must not compromise them in any way.

No comments: