Exploring life as a Muslim woman

BEIRUT: As everything gradually moves online – from reading and shopping to watching television and talking to friends and family – the art world is keeping in step.

While physical exhibitions, museums and art fairs still play a major role when it comes to visual art, other art forms are arguably more suited to online presentation, which allows access to a far wider audience than would ever have been thought possible two decades ago.

Launched last month in honor of International Women’s Day, “Muslima” is an online exhibition of fine art, photography and writing from women around the globe, exploring what it means to be a Muslim woman in today’s world.

Curated by California-based novelist, artist and activist Samina Ali and organized and hosted by the online International Museum of Women, “Muslima” aims to encourage cross-cultural dialogue about Muslim women, to break down barriers, to challenge stereotypes and to encourage understanding.

“All too often, Muslim women are held back by negative attitudes,” Ali explained in an email interview from the U.S. “In the West, those are negative stereotypes of Muslim women: they’re considered illiterate, backward, powerless.

“In some parts of Muslim-majority countries,” she continued, “Muslim women also suffer from negative attitudes that diminish them and limit their power: they aren’t allowed to drive, or they can’t pursue an education, or they are subjected to anti-women laws that are said to be based in Islam but have no basis whatsoever in Islam. The purpose of this exhibition is to show the realities of Muslim women’s lives. ... But – and this is very important – with complexity.”

The exhibition title, chosen by Ali, conveys the inclusive ethos behind the exhibition. “In Arabic, muslima is used to indicate a woman who believes in God and upholds God’s values,” she explains in her curator’s statement, “such as prayer, charity, fasting, kindness and mercy. In the way I’ve written muslima here, it’s singular: one female. This is intentional.

“In a world that’s grown accustomed to denying the rich diversity of Muslim women’s thoughts and contributions,” she continues, “of erasing their complex differences and reducing them into an easy stereotype of an oppressed group, into lesser human beings, this exhibition title highlights the singular form of muslima in order to celebrate the unique passions and accomplishments of each and every Muslim woman who contributes.”

Ali said that according to the Quran, which refers to prophets such as Jesus, Abraham and Moses as Muslims, the term muslima applied to “anyone who believes in a higher power and advances good in the world.”

Ali spent two years putting together the exhibition, contacting prominent Muslim women, most active in promoting women’s rights, to invite them to participate. “It’s been an all-consuming, at times overwhelming, process,” she says.

“There are so many different components to this exhibition: interviews of leading reformers like Dr. Shirin Ebadi and Sima Samar and Zainah Anwar. Then we feature art in all genres: fiction, poetry, essay, photography, painting, multimedia, film, documentary, song.”

The “Muslima” team is accepting submissions from artists around the world until April 15, whether male or female, Muslim or non-Muslim, as long as they tackle the topic of what being a Muslim woman means on an individual and societal level. Each submission must relate to one of eight topics – power, leadership, appearance, myths, generations, faith, change and connection.

To date, the online gallery includes work by Lebanese painter Helen Zughaib, Palestinian artist Laila Shawa, Iranian painter Samira Abbassy, Italian sculptor, video artist and photographer Maimouna Guerressi, among many others.

Alongside the artwork are essays by women who are more comfortable expressing themselves in words than images, as well as a series of Q&As Ali conducted with Muslim women who are pioneers in their fields.

“Most of the women I’ve interviewed are women who are not artists themselves,” says Ali.

“They can’t speak to their reality through their painting or photography or fiction. But these women are doing the hard, necessary work of reforming laws and countries and attitudes. ... I wanted to bring their voices into this exhibition, unfiltered.”

Among the women Ali interviewed are Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer who became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as Maria Bashir, currently Afghanistan’s only female prosecutor general, who has risked her life to educate local women and fight high levels of violence against women in Afghan society.

A democratic exhibition, in the sense that it is open to anybody – providing they have internet access – “Muslima” places work by newcomers alongside pieces by famous artists such as Shawa, who also discusses her “Walls of Gaza” series in an interview with Ali.

“This is not an exhibition for the elite,” Ali stresses. “Any woman, no matter her economic status, no matter where she lives, in a village in India or the heart of London, has an important story to share.

“By being virtual, the museum is providing a global platform where all women can engage in a dialogue across race, culture, religion, and economics. Only by fully engaging all women can we make a difference.”

You can visit “Muslima” online at

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 09, 2013, on page 16.




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