What's Behind the Veil? The Art of Boushra Almutawakel

In conversation with Amira Nagy

When Yemeni photographer Boushra Almutawakel sees that her work conjures up strong feelings and provokes engagement, discussion, and debate, she feels she has succeeded. It is through this dialogue, as a first step, that change may slowly materialize, she says.

Mother, Daughter, Doll - Boushra Almutawakel

Mother, Daughter, Doll - Boushra Almutawakel

What's the motivation behind your work?

I want to visually give life to certain ideas, feelings, experiences, observations, expressions; to make my mark in some simple way, and to give life to the voices of other women who have none. Sometimes it's just an internal need to express an idea visually, a compulsion to get it out of my head so that I'm not consumed by it. Photography is also a release for me, particularly when it comes to issues about injustice or things that are just plain wrong. My inspiration comes from the environment I live in.

When I first started out I used to do what others were doing, or what I thought others would like. Now I do what I like, and I’ve been more successful because of it. If I listen to my voice and share that, I find that I’m not the only one, and that it resonates with so many others.

Your photo series “Mother, Daughter, Doll” gradually veils a woman, a girl and her doll until they literally disappear. What's the story behind this?

The series shows myself, my eldest daughter Shaden and her doll, who are gradually covered up. The idea was inspired by seeing so many women covered in layers of black and, most shockingly, seeing little girls no older than seven or eight wearing the black abaya and niqab, like mini versions of their mothers. I wanted to express and comment on the trend of extremism that has been increasing gradually in Yemen since the mid-90s, with the influence of Wahabi ideology, and how it affects women and girls.

Yemen, already a very conservative country, is becoming even more conservative, which I find alarming. It is visible in the trend of women’s veils. This over-covering is a symptom of intolerant extremism.

Women have always veiled here, but there used to be more color and it was somehow more open. And then I saw an increase in the layers of black clothing and veils: an abaya, then a head covering, then a skirt over the head that would cover three quarters of the upper body, then a niqab, and a sheer veil over the niqab and eyes, and to top it off they also wear gloves. Every part of the woman is covered.

Why is that?

As I understand it, this has nothing to do with religion, although it's done in the name of Islam and modesty. I feel it is triggered by distorted interpretations of Islam and a strong fear of women – and the desire to eradicate them from any public life or arena.

How far do you think some people would go to cover women up?  

I feel that extremists are so threatened by women that they treat them as personal property they own and control and would like to cover out of existence, it seems. The images on the veil are symbolic of something more sinister: of women and girls having no rights; of girls and women being deprived of play, education and childhood by being married off at such young age, raped, and impregnated; of children having children and little girls losing their lives at childbirth or risking many medical complications while at the mercy of their husband and his body. Should she be divorced, she has no rights to her children and has to go back to live with her parents, left with nothing.  

Women and girls are treated as if they don't exist, except to serve their husbands, in-laws and children – treated as if they are nothing.

Do you wear the veil? And do you argue for or against it through your art?

Yes, I wear the hijab here in Yemen, and would not feel comfortable without. With gender segregation in school, at work and social gatherings, even when a woman is covered up, men still gawk at her, make comments, and in crowded areas steal a touch here and there. Veiling is a form of protection from men and their misogynistic view of women.

There are certain aspects I like about the veil and others I don’t. I usually wear a long, loose, black abaya with a matching head scarf or magrama, or I wear a beige or black western-style knee length trench coat with a scarf covering my hair. I wear the niqab only when I go to wedding parties wearing heavy makeup.  On arrival, myself and hundreds of other women strip off our black abayas and niqabs and enter a whole other world, with colorful, skimpy, sparkling dresses; talking, eating, dancing, singing – beautiful women  you wouldn’t recognize in the streets  – a huge contradiction that we've all somehow got used to.

What changes would you like to see?

Women and girls should have the same opportunities as men and boys. Girls and women should be equally appreciated for being of the female gender – and be empowered, instead of being put down, because of it. Women should be given opportunities to lead and to hold positions of power, because that's the only way that things will change for the better for women.

However, Yemen is a poverty-stricken country with many formidable economic and development challenges, in which women and children suffer the most. So I'm not naïve about the situation.

What reactions did you get to "Mother, Daughter, Doll"?

The series “Mother, Daughter, Doll” was first exhibited at the National Museum in Sana’a, Yemen as part of a group exhibition entitled “Words of Eyes”. Out of all of my work, it has been the best received.  It was exhibited at a number of high-ranking events in Dubai and Paris and will be exhibited again in Liverpool, Boston, and at Fotofest in Houston, Texas in 2014. It has also been acquired by the British Museum in London.

I received mostly very positive feedback, especially from women. People from all over the world have written to me about it. It's been shared thousands of times on Facebook. Many people thought the series was beautiful but very sad.  Some other young women posted the work on Facebook the other way round – going from the dark nothingness into light.

From Women in Islam, Issue 1 (2014)