Saudi Women Alone, Photographed

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Saudi Women Alone, Photographed

While Saudi Arabia remains one of the most repressive places in the world to be female, Wasma Mansour captures the tentative freedoms of those who live abroad.
September 23, 2015, 2:00pm

Saudi Arabia is probably not the first place to come to mind when you picture the words "female freedom." Women were only just given the right to vote this yearand despite widespread protests, women are still barred from driving and are only allowed to leave the house with a male chaperone. But what happens when Saudi girls live abroad?

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For her series Single Saudi Women, London-based Saudi photographer Wasma Mansour captures young Middle Eastern women living in the UK on their own terms. "Most of the women who I worked with have relocated to England for the purposes of education or employment," Mansour told Broadly. "That in itself challenges the stereotype that people have of Saudi women being all locked up and in a constant state of crisis."

Those who leave Saudi Arabia experience a seismic change in culture—they've come from one of the world's most religiously strict countries, where they hear the athan (call to prayer) five times a day, to the ever-increasingly secular shores of Britain. When you grow up in a society where a leading cleric believes that driving a car will result in infertility, you tend to try to express yourself a little more when you leave home. That's evident in Mansour's photographs—the ways in which Saudi women stake out their individuality within their own spaces.

What she highlights is how the everyday normality of female existence transcends geographical barriers. The bedrooms photographed look like any other millennial girl's college dorm, from the Audrey Hepburn posters, makeshift clothing rails, and kitschy 'Never Dream Alone' pillow comforters.

"For them it's more like [having] this space to be able to grow, to have their personalities in a sense just develop, just being by themselves," Mansour said. The perceived stigma and oppression of Muslim women, in other words, only exists insofar as you deny our individuality.

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Yet the photos capture a sombre vulnerability that only comes with being alone in a foreign country. Mansour's subjects do not live with their families, who are located on the other side of the world. It's a sensation that any young female in her early 20s is familiar with, whether you live alone in your university halls or in a shared apartment.

The one nod towards Saudi culture lies in Mansour and her subjects' mutual agreement to obscure their faces, though she feels that the artistic decision highlights their personalities more. "When you do look at the photos," she explained, "you do get a glimpse of their identity, by looking at what they choose to have in their spaces – it tells you something about their personalities."

"Most of the sort of debates about Saudi women mainly focus on liberating them, and that they're oppressed," Mansour added. "I'm not saying that there aren't any groups of women in Saudi Arabia who aren't, but then again that can be said about women around the world.