The Photography Collective Documenting the True Reality of the Middle East
An 88-year-old Syrian refugee brushes her vibrant dyed hair, once her crowning glory. © Tanya Habjouqa, Tomorrow there will be Apricots pre bonded hair
Founded in 2009, the Rawiya Collective are the first all-women photographic collective hailing from the Middle East. The four-person group came together after their paths crossed while covering news stories in the region. As member Tanya Habjouqa explains, the women found that their unplanned meet-ups soon turned into professional relationships and personal friendships. "Both our friendships and work relationships straddle many cities—Amman, Beirut, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Dubai, Cairo—and many major news events," she says. "The Israel war on Lebanon in 2006 was one of the definitive moments that brought a lot of photographers together from our region."
Besides Habjouqa, the Rawiya Collective comprises of Myriam Abdelaziz, Tamara Abdul Hadi, and Laura Boushnak. A range of influences has inspired their love of photography. Hadi has a background in graphic design and moved to Dubai in early 2005, where she began her photography career at Reuters. "Living in a place like Dubai, with all its over the top glitz and opulence on one side, and migrant workers who basically build the city on the other side, really spoke to the documentarian in me," she explains. "It was there that I really understood the importance of documenting social issues, tackling underrepresented communities and misrepresentation in the region."
Habjouqa began her career as a writer, landing her first job at the Jordan Times in Amman. "I still consider myself a writer, and indeed see us as storytellers with various mediums.... not solely as photographers," she says. "My Jordanian and Texan background utilizes a lot of rich stories, narratives, folklore, black humor, and hospitality... As well as darker sides of society that are often misinterpreted by media and utilized to paint entire populations. So for me photography (and storytelling in general) was always a way to push back against stereotypes and explore social issues."
The collective aims to put the viewer's preconceived notions of the region to one side, welcoming them to take a closer look at the human nature of their subjects, inviting them to see more than their subconscious bias may initially observe. Touching on issues of gender, education, occupation and child labour, their work aims to bring about an alternative visual representation of the societies in which they live.
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These issues are not exclusive to the Middle East. One of Habjouqa's learning curves came when she was working for an alternative paper in Texas, covering an assignment about the local black community. "[They] had fallen out of the tax brackets of surrounding municipalities and were living in shocking poverty," she explains. "Some had no running water. In 2000."But it was about how to go beyond the 'shocking poverty' and tell the story anew with urgency but dignity."
Shams, an English literature student and member of the university's students union, poses for a picture in Tunis, near the interior ministry where many protests took place in the past. © Laura Boushnak, I Read I Write
The collective began tackling stereotypes with their work, focusing on the depiction of social and political issues that they found lacking nuance and context in media coverage of the Middle East. "One thing we joke as a collective is that we will leap off a building the next time a piece is titled 'Beyond the Veil,'" laughs Habjouqa. "The stereotyping of women is one major problem. There is also reason to believe that Western media (unwittingly) played a role in perpetuating a divide after the US invasion of Iraq along the Sunni and Shiite divides, which was not part of our dialogue [or] so pronounced prior. This has led to grave geo-political shifts."
Working as women in the region has not hindered their photography—on the contrary, they say that their gender has actually helped their work. "There was no challenge specifically because we were women in Middle East. On contrary it probably helped us gain access to a multitude of stories," Habjouqa explains. "If anything, banding together as female photographers helped us gain attention and platforms. Partially because there are a lot of stereotypes and misinformation about the role of women in Arab society.
Trashtails: a metaphoric portrait of contemporary Egypt. © Myriam Abdelaziz, Trashtails remy hair extensions
"It is a far more diverse society than people assume. And there are secular pockets," she continues. "Rawiya is comprised of vast ethnic and national backgrounds but we are all staunchly secular with deep respect for the various faiths and communities we have been raised with. There is no denying there are egregious human rights issues (for men and women) across the region, and specifically issues women face in hypocritical legislation and (in cases) cultural treatment. But there are also fiercely independent, beautiful, successful women making strides. And women (and men) working to protect women's rights."
Hadi explains that showcasing the collective's work across Sweden, Kuwait, Lebanon, the UK, and the US has been "incredible," allowing them to exhibit their work and talk about the issues they've explored via the medium of photography. From May 7 to May 28, the group will be exhibiting their show In Her Absence I Created Her Image at the Open Source gallery in New York.
Going through these experiences together also means that when projects get intense, they're able to support each other. One of Habjouqa's biggest projects led to a World Press Photo prize as well as a Kickstarter-funded photography book, Occupied Pleasures.
Egyptian belly dancers are an endangered species, on the road to extinction. That is, if there isn't a belly dance renaissance in Egypt sometime soon. © Myriam Abdelaziz, Cairo Dances
Described as a "testimony to Palestinian resilience as they pursue simple pleasures in the face of an endless occupation," it features sublime but everyday images of Palestinians who live under occupation in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Habjouqa says she couldn't have done it without the Rawiya Collective's support. "During periods of uncertainty with projects or ideas, we give each other critique and support. Brutally honest at times, which is what is needed," she explains.
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"I think we see it as an honor when any one of us asks another's opinion. And, beyond just friendship, I have a deep respect for the work that my colleagues produce. In countless lectures and teaching opportunities, I refer to their work when covering critical gender, social, and political issues."
Bader, Kuwaiti. Started in 2009, this portrait series is part of a large body of work capturing semi-nude Arab men of diverse backgrounds. © Tamara Abdul Hadi, Picture an Arab Man
Shams (left), who won the Student Union elections at her university, sits with her colleagues at her favorite spot, which is graffitied with an image of Lebanese thinker Mahdi Amel. © Laura Boushnak, I Read I Write
Wadi As-Salam ("Valley
of Peace), is a cemetery located in Najaf, a province in the Western part of Central Iraq. T
his vast cemetery (over 5 million people are buried here) is considered to be the second largest and oldest cemetery in the world.
© Tamara Abdul Hadi, Valley of Peace
West Bank: Portrait of a young man. After grueling traffic at the Qalandia check point, a young man enjoys a cigarette in his car as traffic finally clears on the last evening of Ramadan. © Tanya Habjouqa, Occupied Pleasures
Most women in the UK sleep easy at night, believing that they live in a country where poisonous anti-abortion rhetoric has been consigned to the history books and our political system believes that women should be protected—not punished—when it comes to having an abortion. On Monday, that was proven wrong.
A Northern Irish woman has been sentenced for the crime of having an abortion after buying pills over the internet to induce a miscarriage, reports the Belfast Telegraph. The 21 year old, who cannot be named for legal reasons, pleaded guilty to procuring her own abortion by using a poison, and of supplying a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage. She was given a three-month jail term suspended for two years.
Crown prosecutor Kate McKay said that the woman had just moved into a house in May 2014 when she told her new housemates that she was pregnant and was trying to raise money to travel from Belfast to England for a termination. After falling short of the money required, she contacted an abortion clinic in England for advice and was told that she could acquire two drugs—mifepristone and misoprostol—off the internet to induce a miscarriage. She was 19.
She miscarried on July 12, 2014. Her housemates discovered bloodstained items and a fetus inside a black bag in a household bin. McKay said the housemates were "taken aback by the seemingly blasé attitude" of the young woman and reported her to the Police Service of Northern Ireland about a week later.
Defense attorney Paul Bacon said that his client was living in Belfast with people that she barely knew. The teenager felt "isolated and trapped ... with no-one to turn to" and resorted to "desperate measures." He told the court that the 21 year old had since had a child with her partner and was now "trying to put her life back together again." He also said that she felt "victimized" by the system.
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There was widespread anger last night that a woman in the UK has been punished by the courts for having an abortion. In the Independent, Siobhan Fenton wrote:
Just last week when Donald Trump suggested that women should be "punished" for breaking abortion laws, he caused outrage around the world. In the UK, his comments were roundly condemned by politicians and commentators. How easily the British forget that this happens within the UK, out of sight and out of mind in Northern Ireland.
"The sentence in this case is very interesting," Sally Sheldon, a professor of law and medical ethics at Kent Law School, told Broadly. "The judge has really given the lowest sentence that was available to him. Section 58 of the Offenses Against the Person Act, which the young woman has been charged with, carries the maximum sentence of life imprisonment. That's the most onerous sentence anywhere in Europe right now. The reason is we're operating under an archaic piece of legislation is that it was passed under the reign of Queen Victoria and hasn't been changed since. It's just way out of line with contemporary moral views."
Belfast Town Hall. Photo by Micky Wiswedel via Stocksy lace front wigs
Despite being part of the UK, Northern Ireland operates under vastly different abortion legislation. "Abortion is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, so it's up to Stormont [the Northern Ireland Assembly] to introduce new legislation. The 1967 Abortion Act which liberalized access to abortion in England, Wales, and Scotland has never been extended to Northern Ireland. The reasons for that are political and obviously to do with religious sensibilities in that province."
In a 2011 census, 40.7 percent of people described themselves as Catholic, while 19 percent identify as Protestant and another 13.7 percent as Church of Ireland. That makes it the most Christian place in the UK.
"You need to remember that Northern Irish MPs are very strongly anti-abortion," Sheldon added, "so those who sit in Westminster tend to be absolutely unified in rejecting an extension of the Abortion Act in Northern Ireland—it's one of the only issues they vote in the same direction on."
Opinion polls suggest that the Northern Irish public would welcome some liberalization of abortion law. An Amnesty International survey carried out in February found that 69 percent of people thought the law should allow abortion in cases of rape and incest, while 60 percent supported abortion if the fetus had a fatal abnormality.
Sheldon pointed to a lack of incentive for politicians to take on the fraught issue of abortion in Northern Ireland. "Abortion more generally is not seen as a vote winner for parliamentarians, it's not something they like to deal with."
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As the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) points out, this is not the first time that a woman in the UK has been sentenced for buying drugs off the internet to induce an abortion. "While the situation in Northern Ireland is desperate, and this young woman was undoubtedly pushed into breaking the law because she couldn't access abortion at home, any woman doing this in England, Wales or Scotland would be criminalized in exactly the same way," a spokesperson explained.
cosplay wigsWhile the Abortion Act made abortion available to women in these regions, it did so under strict conditions of control that do not cover at-home abortions. Any woman who buys abortion drugs online in the UK are still deemed to be carrying out a criminal act. In 2013, a woman from North Yorkshire, England, was sentenced to eight years in prison after falling foul of the law. "Abortion legislation in the UK," concludes BPAS, "is not fit for the twenty-first century."
But there are slow, encouraging signs of change. In November, the High Court in Belfast ruled that existing legislation on abortion contravenes human rights law. "I think that's very significant for a domestic court to say that," Sheldon said. "You've also got various human rights bodies that have condemned the law as breaching human rights. I think there is widespread recognition that the law needs to be changed. The problem is finding the political will to act on that."