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Reclaiming Women’s Bodies | Sama Alshaibi

Selections talks to six talented female photographers from the Arab world and Iran whose work spans the gulf between East and West, transcending language and culture to tell universal stories

Each of the six women interviewed in this issue deals with this in their own way, some choosing to address the gulf between East and West directly in their work, others approaching it more obliquely. Yet ultimately, each achieves a similar alchemy — using photography as a tool, they are able to transform and translate their personal experiences into a universal format, rendering their subject matter accessible to people of any background, challenging harmful stereotypes and championing new perspectives.

Iraqi-American photographer Sama Alshaibi tells Selections how Arab women in the U.S. are under siege and reveals details of her upcoming project, Carry Over, which sets out to deconstruct colonial images of women from the Middle East and North Africa.

Iraqi-American photographer Sama Alshaibi explores war,
displacement and discrimination through photographs of the human body

When Sama Alshaibi once thought she wanted to be a war photographer. But having studied photojournalism at university in the U.S., she quickly realised that she was drawn to a different kind of work.

“I first began in photojournalism because I wanted to document the effects of war and migration on human lives,” she recalls. “I quickly changed my practice to use my own body, as I wasn’t comfortable photographing people when they were most vulnerable. I also felt I was better suited towards conceptual art, because metaphor and performance could play an active role at suggesting the complicated layers of human struggle. It was a ‘language’ I was at home with.”

Today, Alshaibi works in photography, video and installation, exploring the causes and aftermath of war, displacement, exile and mass migration through the vulnerable human body — particularly the female body.

“Women are always targets of violence when their communities are under duress, both historically and now, from any ethnicity, race or religion,” she says. “What makes Arabic/Islamic women particularly vulnerable in the U.S. right now is multi-faceted but, in simple terms, those who wear the hijab are an easily distinguishable target for Islamophobia and hate crimes.”

These incidents have increased since the election of Donald Trump, she says. Where, during George Bush’s term, women wearing the hijab were viewed with pity, they now elicit fear.

“I first addressed this in my work Between Two Rivers,” Alshaibi explains. “Back then, Bush’s war in Iraq was growing more unpopular as time dragged on and weapons of destruction were not found… The administration, with the help of the media, began to conflate women’s rights in Iraq with exporting Western democracy…. Most people in the U.S. had no idea that Iraqi women once enjoyed some of the strongest rights and protections in the Middle East, most of which now has been eroded under the new constitution, as well as the terror they experience daily since the weakening of their country’s security apparatus.” Alshaibi, who often photographs her own body, conveyed this violence through her work by physically altering herself with scarification.

A new project, entitled Carry Over, likewise tackles perceptions and misperceptions of women. The work “deconstructs vintage, colonial images of women from the Middle East and North Africa and the similar contemporary depictions of them made by Western photographers,” she reveals. “I hope to deconstruct why and how complex Arab female identities are reduced and then reproduced through photographs, in that it trivialises their relationship to security, homeland and their socio-economic mobility, simply through how they choose to dress.”


Featured image: Sama Alshaibi, After the Vote

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, A Dialogue Between Generations of Arab Women in Art #42, pages 142-143.

Filed under: Art, Front Medium, In Conversation With

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India Stoughton graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies. During her course she spent a semester studying in Damascus, where she developed a deep interest in Syrian, Lebanese and Iraqi art and culture. Having traveled extensively in the Middle East, spending time in Morocco, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Qatar, as well as Syria, she is currently based in Lebanon, where she works as an art and culture reporter.

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