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I have a friend who is obsessed with TED Talks, and who recently sent me link to this TEDx Talk with the title “I am a mad Arabian woman.” I rolled my eyes a little. Anything with the word “Arabian” (when its not followed by the word “horse”) makes me roll my eyes. But then, this was the same person who had sent me the video of Palestinian-American stand-up comic Maysoon Zayid’s talk “I got 99 problems… palsy is just one,” which (although Zayid makes a point of saying “I’m not inspirational”) I found to be very inspirational. She also sent me Somali-American poet Hamda Yusuf’s talk “Just another towelhead”, which was another eye-opener for me.
So I watched the Mad Arabian woman video, intrigued by the questions in the description: “What does it mean to be a modern Muslim woman in the world today? How can one balance traditions, culture, religion and personal choice in life?”
Tamadher Al Fahal is a Bahraini woman – one of several whose names are becoming familiar to many today, such as the incredibly brave Al Khawaja sisters, Maryam and Zainab. Unlike Bahraini women who are involved in traditional forms of activism such as protests, Al Fahal uses art as a form of political expression, a process that began when she created a diary, which she called “Diary of a mad Arabian woman.” As Al Fahal puts it in her talk, the diary was intended as an “anger management exercise” dealing with what she calls her “cultural frustrations.” Later, however, she put it online as a way to share those frustrations with others, and was pleasantly surprised by the reactions.
On the first pages of her diary/scrapbook, she lists the reasons for why she is mad:
“I am mad because society implements what they like from the Holy Quran but not what is fair, I am mad because people have been using religion to contain me not to free me.”
She looks with a critical eye the challenges that women face in her society: “Like many, I have been raised in a conservative family where a lady is not allowed to…well, she’s not allowed to do anything at all.”
Among the segments in the diary are several pages on artists who are “speaking… through art about Hijab” from Shepard Fairey to Princess Hijab, to Shirin Neshat. At other points in the diary, she reflects on her own confusion about the niqab, and at another point turns her satiric wit on “the Hijabees” with familiar judgmental criticism of hijabi women wearing tight clothes and building a tower under their hijab, asking what the point is to this practice. I personally always bristle at anyone critiquing what other people choose to wear, and so I found this particular page very discomfiting. But I was intrigued by the way Al Fahal struggles against “cultural frustrations” and a society where a lady is “not allowed to do anything at all” at the same time as speaking about the stereotypical representation of Muslim women, representing herself as doing her part to fight the tendency to show Arab women as victims. She clearly refuses to prioritize one over the other, attacking both Islamophobia and misogyny equally.
Al Fahal’s use of illustrations reminded me of Yawmiyat Majida (Majida’s Diaries) a comic created by Jordanian graphic designer Ahmad Qatato, who believes that “illustration is one of the strongest, yet most underrated, forms of communication.” Like Al Fahal’s diary, Majida’s Diaries explores gender identity and societal expectations as well as stereotypes about Arab women, and is written mostly in Arabic but with some English. The comic features two friends, Majida and Maram, one a hijabi and one a non-hijabi.
Another artist who has used comic strips to protest stereotypes is Deena Mohamed in her webcomic Qahera which features a niqabi ninja superhero (Qaher) and her non-hijabi friend Layla Magdy. Qahera is written in both English and Arabic.
Mohamed has remarked that: “Qahera is basically everything I long to be, and she is modelled after the countless strong women I see every day living their lives despite the challenges they face.”
Like Al Fahal’s Diary of a Mad Arabian Woman, Qahera and Majida’s Diaries address Arab and “Western” audiences at the same time, fighting against both Islamophobic sterotypes and misogynist interpretations of the Islamic religion. At a time when it seems like there’s nothing but bad news coming from the region, it is heartening to see this new generation of young men and women who are using their skills to challenge perceptions of Arab women, both inside and outside their societies.