A Familiar Stranger is a series of photographic and video images that challenges post-colonial constructs and generalizations about the femininity, religion and agency of Arab women. Defying stereotypes of naive subservience or mindless radicalization, the women in A Familiar Stranger unabashedly project their individuality through how they dress or inhabit spaces.
I started this project to dispel simplistic assumptions about Arab women and to show their varied religious beliefs, ethnicities and personalities. Along the way something shifted - rather than reveal what they are not, I wanted to more deeply understand my subjects and how religion and patriarchy affect the women and their ability to have agency. I do this by challenging the familiar stereotypes associated with oppression, power and sexuality, and exploring the relationship between observer and subject. In that exchange there is a silent conversation, one that diminished the sense of “other” and imparts a greater awareness of equality and shared humanity.
The images appear to be reminiscent of Orientalist paintings, yet the subjects are not passive objects for voyeurs of the exotic. They are strong, defiant, self-possessed, almost iconic. One such image is of Hanan, resting with her veil half up. She exudes a quiet sensuality, negating the idea that Arab women have no feminine agency. She appears in another image with her father, an icon of patriarchy, who shows a connection and tenderness towards his daughter that may be unexpected for the western viewer.
A Familiar Stranger is a continuous exploration of distance and intimacy, inner life and outer persona, tradition and modernity. Western representations of Arab women do not allow us to see the intricate, even paradoxical, lives they live. Without acknowledging the complexity of others, we lose the opportunity to deepen our understanding of the world, and of ourselves.
The simple act of veiling and unveiling reveals a multitude of emotions in my photographic sequence of Um Basel. She is making the decision about what she shows and what she does not; and foremost she has made a choice to trust me taking her photograph during such private moments. In her trust I saw a sense of agency, a beauty, associated with the various ways Arab women use the veil in relation to the people around them.
In this image of Um Basel breastfeeding an infant, Um Basel will most readily be identified by the western observer as a mother. Unnoticed in this interpretation is that she is also a survivor, a powerful and a resilient refugee in exile, acting in a community that would denounce any woman for exposing her breast to feed her child. A day before this image was taken, Um Basel was unapologetically breastfeeding in front of men who were not direct relatives. For her, it is a primal and natural act – an act that for many western women is considered either taboo or a political statement that speaks to a woman’s right to show her body.
In my video of Hanan, she gazes silently at the viewer, challenging observers to reexamine their preconceived notions of who she is. There is a silent conversation in this exchange, one that diminished the sense of “other” and imparts a greater awareness of equality and shared humanity.
A woman wearing a veil is often associated with the ‘inferior East’ and having a lack of authority over her body. While rights to a woman’s body in the Arab world are tied to cultural and religious norms, what is missed is how much latitude women have within those parameters. The choice to wear the veil rather than not wear it can be a symbol of resilience and strength, and hence an act of empowerment. In the same context, women’s rights are not just about women being able to express their agency, but also about men getting in touch with feelings and a level of self-expression that is not expected in a patriarchal society.