Yemeni-American photographer, filmmaker and writer Yumna Al-Arashi has always hated Halloween. "A day from hell when white men and women find it OK to wear burqas for fun? I usually hide at home and pray to my ancestors for the power to just sleep through it."
"The Halloween costumes I regularly see represent Middle Eastern stereotypes of women as oppressed, mystical, or sexualized figures—we are almost always boiled down to one of the three," she tells Broadly. "When it comes to stereotyping women from the Middle East and North Africa, all I see are burqas, Cleopatra, and Jasmine from Aladdin."
Al-Arashi's photographic work usually interrogates the stereotypes of Muslim women in Western society, and her series "Northern Yemen" and "Face" has received critical praise for its depictions of Arab women as strong, powerful figures of grace and beauty.
This year, she decided to apply that critical perspective to Halloween. She noted that spooky costumes aren't just about dressing up as scary or sexy vampires (or racist clichés, for that matter). They also serve as a way to celebrate beloved figures in pop culture and history.
With that in mind, she says, "I dressed up as five of my female heroes from the region—not only to inspire readers to learn about them, but as a call to action for many young women to do the same." Working with Afghan-German illustrator Moshtari Hilal, Al-Arashi created a series of self-portraits and collages of herself as her favorite historical figures. Below, Al-Arashi writes about their stories and the impact of their lives on her own.
“Fairouz is a singer whose voice echoes through all corners of the Middle East. Born Nouhad Wadie' Haddad to an Eastern Orthodox Christian family in Beirut, she has been described as the greatest Arab diva of all time. She performs as a solo musician, combining theatrical and operatic influences in her work.
Her music has always alluded to politics. When she was invited to perform in private for Algerian president Houari Boumedienne in 1969, she declined and stated that her work was intended for the people. Her songs were banned from Lebanese radio for six months as punishment, though it only served to increase her popularity in the region.
During the Lebanese civil war, she refused to take sides and stopped performing altogether within the country. Her voice echoes the pain of the civil war and remains greatly applauded by Western audiences and the Arab diaspora today.
Fairouz’s voice soundtracked my life when I spent time in Lebanon. Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese all adore Fairouz. I found her the glue which unifies them despite their political and religious differences—the humanity and beauty of her voice can pull anybody in. At the end of the day, Fairouz is the one thing they can agree upon, and that is a real superpower.”
“Doria Shafik was a feminist, poet, editor, and a one-woman revolution. She was one of the major leaders of the women’s liberation movement in Egypt in the mid-40s, and women in her country gained the constitutional right to vote in 1956 partly because of her efforts.
By 1945, Shafik received her doctorate in philosophy from the Sorbonne in Paris and became editor in chief of La Femme Nouvelle, an Egyptian cultural journal. Soon after, she decided to publish her own magazine, Bint Al Nil ('Daughter of the Nile' in Arabic), with the intention of educating Egyptian about civic participation.
In 1951, Shafik led 1,500 women in storming the Egyptian parliament to demand their socioeconomic rights. She then went on numerous hunger strikes to demand women’s voting rights and to protest then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s dictatorship. Soon after, Nasser placed her on house arrest. It sent Shafik on a downwards spiral, and she killed herself at the age of 66. She remains forgotten by most Egyptians, though the New York Times recently published her obituary in their efforts to honor those overlooked over the years.
See also: Shafik’s mentor Hoda Shara’awi, who paved the way for many of her accomplishments.”
“In 1969, Leila Khaled became the first woman to hijack an airplane. After joining the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP), she hijacked TWA Flight 840, which was headed from Rome to Tel Aviv. She then forced the pilots to land in Damascus, safely removed the passengers from the aircraft, and proceeded to blow up the plane.
There was no intention to harm anyone, and no one was injured. Khaled stated that her intentions were to simply draw attention to Palestinian suffering.
Ever since I was a child, the word ‘terrorist’ has been thrown at people who look like me. Growing up in the US, I was overwhelmed by racist propaganda about the Middle East and celebratory images of the bloodshed that the US inflicted on innocent people during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I was amazed that no one could see that the real terrorists were not the Arabs. I felt like I’d found my hero when I first read about Leila Khaled. By hijacking an airplane, Khaled was able to give Palestinians airtime that was never afforded to them when their homes were wiped out by brutal Israeli attacks.”
“Umm Kulthoum is the voice of Arab freedom; I call her the Queen of the Middle East. The Egyptian singer’s voice echoes the soul of the region and the pain of change, uniting disparate Arab countries through our mutual love of her songs. Born in a Nile Delta village to an Imam, she learned to sing by reciting the Quran. Her father noticed her talent and dressed her as a boy in order to allow her to perform music.
Kulthoum lived through the golden age of Cairo at the height of its cosmopolitan appeal—an era of cinema and music that saw the city gain worldwide fame. Her songs quickly grew popular in Egypt and became the unofficial soundtrack to the turmoil experienced by her country and the surrounding region. When she died in 1975, four million Egyptians attended her funeral. Her death was a national tragedy felt by the world.
There’s nothing that more perfectly summarizes Arab identity than an Umm Kulthoum song. Each of her songs last up to an hour, with dramatic highs and lows. You can laugh and cry in a single song, and then go through it all again.
Many people mistake Kulthoum’s music as romantic, but most Arabs argue that her work reflects the pain and suffering of a region falling apart at the seams. Today, her voice is still heard blasting from homes, taxis, cafes, and street corners, prompting listeners to dance with joy or hang their heads in sorrow.”
Queen of Sheba
“The legendary Queen of Sheba makes an appearance in both Jewish and Islamic texts, though there is little archaeological evidence of her actual existence. Personally speaking, the widespread and fantastical stories about this empress and ruler of present-day Yemen are enough to convince me that she really existed.
According to myth, she ruled the Kingdom of Sheba in a region that the Romans named “Arabia Felix” (“Happy” or “Fertile Arabia” in Latin). Until the power shifts that came with colonialism and capitalism over the last few centuries, it was not uncommon for the region to have female rulers (Tomyris, Arsinoe II, Zenobia, to name a few). Like the traditional female facial tattoos I photographed on women in the Middle East and North Africa, the Queen of Sheba is a legendary symbol of matriarchal power.
The Queen of Sheba harnessed the gifts of the land to gain power throughout the world. She was said to be able to communicate with and through animals—one legend states that it was how she was able to talk to her beloved King Solomon when they were separated. Though the details of her existence are up for debate, the legends of her power and wisdom are indisputable. We need more Queens of Sheba.”