In 2011, when uprisings erupted across the Middle East and photographers flocked to document what would become known as the Arab Spring, most of those behind the lens were male, white and Western. But many weren't. Some were local. Some were protesters using their smartphones. Some were women.
That same year, Rawiya – a collective of female Middle Eastern photographers – was born. Rawiya's first members came from Jordan, Iraq, Iran and Kuwait, but were based all across the region. Although some have left and others have joined in the four years since then, all have continued to offer fresh perspectives, with projects about Palestinian women racing drivers, drag queens in Jerusalem, Beirut's LGBT community and child workers in Egypt. Elie Domit, Director of East Wing photography gallery in Dubai, which represents two of the original group, calls them "remarkable in their breadth – courageous, talented, passionate and brave".
Now they're showing in the UK, at Impressions Gallery in Bradford. "Photography helps us express who we are, bears witness to historic events, sheds light on injustices and can take us into worlds we know nothing about," says the gallery's director, Anne Mcneill. "Rawiya does all of this with authenticity. As each of the photographers work in the region, they literally live the stories they tell."
I caught up with Laura Boushnak, who co-founded the collective, and photographer Myriam Abdelaziz on the phone to find out more.
VICE: You all work independently as photographers. Why did you decide to set up Rawiya?
Laura Boushnak: It's like one of my colleagues, Tamara Abdul Hadi, said: "We believe there's power in numbers." When we launched in 2011, we wanted to create a platform that would allow us to share our stories, exhibit and run workshops in the region. As a freelancer it can be hard working alone, so we created this sense of teamwork – we help each other, we share contacts, we inspire each other.
Myriam Abdelaziz: I knew Rawiya and secretly I hoped I might be part of it one day. I was photographing the Egyptian revolution when I was contacted by the collective, because they thought that I'd be a great addition. I joined right away. Middle Eastern photographers who are based locally don't have great visibility – especially the female ones. If you join forces you get a message across more strongly. Instead of one person, you have five with the same approach.
How would you describe that shared approach?
Laura: Our work concentrates on in-depth projects that explore social and political issues – sometimes, but not only, women's issues. We cover the region from within. It's a local eye.
Myriam: We're trying to fight stereotypes about the region. We choose stories that aren't the usual stories, things that other photographers might not have access to. For example, Tanya [Habjouqa] has a great story about Palestinian women racing drivers, which is something that you wouldn't really know about unless you lived there. That gives a totally different vision of Arab women [from the one you tend to find in the Western media]. We speak the language, we know people – it's very different to when you're a foreigner and you just see what's on the surface.
Are there particular challenges you've faced as female photographers?
Myriam: I can only speak for myself, but in Egypt sexual harassment is a huge problem, and it's grown worse and worse. You can end up self-censoring. You'll think, 'I know this place might be dangerous so I won't go there to photograph.' That's a problem. But Egypt is a place where it's difficult to photograph anyway – for male photographers, too. You have lots of police control, and secret service are everywhere. Egypt is very protective of the image given of the country abroad, so they're watching anyone with a camera all the time.
Myriam: Being female opens some doors. In a male-dominated society women aren't considered a threat, so if you want to do an intimate story, inside people's homes, it's easier for a woman than a man. They think, 'This poor woman, we'll help her out. Let her in – what's she going to do?'
Laura: In conservative societies where men and women are segregated we can more easily access women's stories. Sometimes it's still hard to publish certain images or to get women to agree to be photographed, but you can try. Even if you don't have the picture, you have the story.
Earlier you mentioned stereotypes. What are some of the ones you're up against?
Myriam: Arab women are often portrayed as submissive, veiled and in some kind of distress. While that's sometimes the case, it's not a general situation. Many Arab women are extremely powerful within their household and beyond. Not all Muslim women wear the veil or are dominated by a male figure.
Laura: I gave a TED talk [about I Read, I Write, a series on women's education in the Arab world] a few months ago and was horrified by some of the comments on Facebook.
I also remember being in Dubai a few years ago at a Rawiya group exhibition and I was showing a series of women in Yemen wearing the full niqab. I was approached by a journalist who said, "So these are illiterate women…" He didn't even bother to read the caption – these women were the first members of their families to go to university. One of them was doing a master's degree. But he'd immediately made a judgment. It revealed so much about how people read an image.
"Realism in Rawiya" is a touring exhibition by New Art Exchange (NAE), Nottingham, curated by NAE and Saleem Arif Quadry.
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