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Saudi Arabia Isn't Having a Feminist Revolution

Weirdly, Saudi photographer Nouf Alhimiary thinks being allowed to cycle doesn't count as women's rights.

by Tabatha Leggett
20 May 2013, 11:45am

Saudi Arabia's first ever anti-domestic abuse advert.

When it comes to women's rights, Saudi Arabia takes baby steps to a whole new level of infancy (In utero steps? Spermy steps?). Sure, the King Khalid Charitable Foundation launched the country's first ever anti-domestic violence advert last month, but women are still unable to defend themselves against those exact domestic violence cases in court. In 2013. 

One other huge breakthrough that I'm sure would have the Pankhurst sisters setting off streamers in their graves is new legislation that allows women to ride bicycles. Granted, they still have to be supervised riding their bikes by men – but bicycles! Think of the endless freedoms that come with finally being able to cycle around Riyadh, a city not built with cyclists in mind whatsoever!

Oh, also, girls in private schools are now allowed to play sport, but girls in state schools still can't. Which sounds about fair, right? To keep things balanced and fair, the amount of rights a woman should get should depend entirely on her wealth. 

Despite these astonishingly forward-thinking changes, Saudi Arabia was still ranked 131st out of 134 countries for gender parity in the 2012 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report. So recent optimistic reports of Saudi Arabia going through a "feminist revolution" seem a little off the mark.

I spoke to Nouf Alhimiary, a 20-year-old photographer from Jeddah, about the challenges she faced when she tried to put on an art exhibition about Saudi women in a country where basically every minutely inflammatory art piece gets banned from public display.

VICE: Hey Nouf. So how come you were only allowed to display half of your exhibition?
Nouf Alhimiary: You know that thing where you take a picture of your outfit every day and post it on Instagram or Twitter? I thought it was interesting that a lot my Saudi friends do it when they’re out of the country but can’t do it here because they have to wear the exact same thing every day: the abaya. I wanted to create a parody of that by photographing women wearing the same thing in different places. I wanted to call it “What She Wore/ What She Wore Underneath”. The plan was to take pictures of all these women in the abaya, take pictures of whatever they were wearing underneath and then display both pictures together.

But you weren’t allowed to do that?
The curator for the Mostly Visible show told me I couldn’t do it because the government would have rejected it. In Saudi Arabia, the government has to look at every art project that's going to be exhibited to decide whether or not it can be displayed. The curator told me that if I included pictures of women outside their houses not wearing the abaya, they wouldn’t display it.

So what did you do?
I settled for “What She Wore”, which I actually like because it makes you ask, 'Why do all these women look like they’re wearing a uniform?' But even though I only displayed pictures of women in the abaya, a lot of people at the exhibition came up to me and asked, “Why are you trying to change women?”

Are you trying to change women?
I’m not really trying to change anything. I’m just asking for the option to either wear the abaya or not. I’m not asking for tradition to be diminished, I’m just asking to be able to make that choice for myself and not have other people do it for me.

Were you angry that your work got censored?
Being born in Saudi as a woman, I’m used to it. I wasn’t really outraged. I kind of saw it coming.

Your pictures are certainly very powerful.
To someone who’s not from Saudi, it looks strange because you’re not used to people looking very similar. If you’re from Saudi, you’re used to seeing women dressed in the same thing. But seeing these pictures together makes you think, 'You know what, maybe we’ve taken it too far because Saudi men have the option of wearing traditional outfits or jeans and a shirt, and women don’t have that choice.'

A lot of the Western press is saying that Saudi Arabia is going through some kind of feminist revolution, what with the release of the recent anti-domestic violence ad and the change in cycling laws. What do you make of that?
When I heard about the cycling law, I thought it was ridiculous. I mean, come on, you can now ride a bike with a guardian? You might as well be driven in a car. The streets in Saudi are not made for cycling. It’s like the government is saying, “Look, we’re giving you something! Shut up, women!” No one wanted this. No one demanded the right to cycle.

Do your friends share your opinion?
Everyone jokes about it. Everyone thinks it’s really ridiculous. As a woman in Saudi, you’re always a minor, no matter how old you get. You always need a guardian watching over you. Even if you need surgery, a man has to give you permission. I also know a lot of people who want to travel outside of the country, but they can’t because their guardian won’t give them permission.

Do you think your photographs will help to change things at all?
The change is very slow and there are a lot of obstacles standing in its way. Young, educated women are trying, but most people are too brainwashed to think for themselves. But I do think art is the most useful tool when it comes to promoting feminism in Saudi Arabia, because you can speak about so much and still be vague.

How did you get into photography?
I started doing photography when I was in middle school and my dad bought me a camera. In Saudi, you don’t really hear about photography that much. I used to look at pictures in magazines, but the people in the magazines we had didn’t look like the people around here.

What was different?
You wouldn’t see pictures of women in the abaya. Even in Arab magazines, the pictures you’d find were Westernised. So I started taking photos of things around me and tried to make them look like the stuff I saw in magazines.

And now you’re exhibiting in Venice?
Yeah, I'm exhibiting in the Venice Biennale this year with Edge of Arabia's exhibition Rhizoma (Generation in Waiting). I’d love to exhibit more abroad; it’s given me an insight into what Saudi culture is like to other people. I think it’s interesting as a cultural experience.

Thanks, Nouf. 

Follow Tabatha on Twitter: @TabathaLeggett

More from Saudi Arabia:

Let Them Build a Women-Only City in Saudi Arabia

Women Are Being Electronically Tagged in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia vs Israel: It's Cyber Warfare!

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