Originally posted July 2010
As a photojournalist, I do not only wish to communicate my own experience in this creative field, but also the experiences and inspirations of other women in the Arab world. When I first realized I wanted to pursue a career in photography and photojournalism, I was flooded with warnings. My father and friends all warned, “This is a tough path you are choosing; you should be ready to work hard to prove yourself.” What I didn’t realize then is that my father’s warnings would make me even more determined to follow my dream. My father, as a young man, was also a photographer and most of our family photographs were taken by him.
As women in the Arab world, we have been making progress in terms of social, political, and personal achievements. When I got my first job as a photographer with Reuters News Agency in Dubai, I used to go on diverse assignments — taking photos of the Prime Minister of Dubai, a sports tournament, or the stock exchange. Immediately, I noticed that I was the only woman among the many photographers. This did not intimidate me, but made me proud. Nevertheless, I kept thinking that there should be more women working in this field. Early in my career, I wanted to take photos of special moments — documenting some of the people and places that I had seen in my two years of living in Dubai. One of my subjects was South Asian construction workers in Dubai. I spent months with them while they worked and visited where they lived, photographing and documenting their lives as I saw them in order to communicate this to the outside world. I began to travel for assignments to countries such as Yemen, Kuwait, and Bahrain. My experiences were generally very pleasant and mostly obstacle-free. That is, until I went on assignment to Saudi Arabia.
Working as a photographer in Saudi Arabia made me realize how challenging it was to be taken seriously as a woman in this particular field, and above all to be treated as an equal. It was then that I realized that I have to push harder to demand the respect that I deserve. One day, I was walking in the Ministry of Interior in Riyadh when the wind blew my head cover slightly off. As soon as this happened, I heard an elderly man screaming, “Woman, you have got one foot in hell!” His words shocked me. In Jidda, however, I had a completely different experience. I went with a male correspondent to photograph in a women’s college there. As we approached the building, the security stopped him while I was ushered in. I was delighted: the tables were finally turned. I then spent some time with the young women in that college, which was a fascinating, eye-opening experience. Many of the women told me that they loved creative arts, specifically photography, and that they wished to enter the field after they graduated. I encouraged them to pursue their dreams.
It is doubly challenging to be a woman and photojournalist in the Arab world. Nevertheless, the advantages by far outweigh the disadvantages. Being a woman helped me obtain access to places that men could not get into as easily, such as the women’s college in Jidda. I also was able to gain access to stories that women would only share among each other. I had the opportunity to photograph women in their own safe environments, free from the watchful male gaze, such as the women’s police academy in Dubai. I also remember photographing female domestic workers who had escaped abusive households and found refuge in the women’s shelter City of Hope in Dubai. The challenge in such situations has been to get women to accept being photographed. Therefore, I have had to find creative ways to tell their stories without jeopardizing their safety by revealing their identities.
Even though I may be treated differently from male photographers, my work stands for itself. I enjoy professional recognition for this work. I know and admire the work of other Arab female photographers, such as Eman Mohammed, a Palestinian photojournalist based in Gaza, Dalia Khamissy based in Beirut, and Farah Nosh, currently based in the United States. Their drive and professionalism never ceases to inspire me. I am also lucky to have been surrounded by amazing women in my immediate family: both my mother and sister are artists whose work focuses on history, social injustice, and personal growth.
I have chosen to focus on social change because I want to shed light on injustice. Photography is the creative medium through which I have shared my experiences and expressed my convictions. By engaging in photography and other forms of creative production such as writing, filmmaking, and painting, Arab women can counter the stereotypical images of women that are prevalent in their own societies as well as in many western countries. The belief that the arts and creative professions can be tools for gender empowerment has inspired me to give workshops in photography to aspiring Arab women in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon.