What is behind the veil? An interview with Boushra Mutawakil

What is behind the veil?

An interview with photographer Boushra Mutawakil

When the Yemenite photographer Boushra Mutawakil sees that her work of documenting and processing the world in pictures conjures  strong feelings and provokes engagement, discussion, and debate, she feels she has succeeded somehow. It is through this dialogue, as a very first step, that change may slowly materialize, she says. 

What is 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 is just an internal need to express an idea visually, a compulsion to get it out of my head so that I am not consumed by it. Photography is also a release for me particularly 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 have been more successful with my work because of it. If I listen to my voice and share that, I find that I am 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 does it tell of?


The series shows myself, my eldest daughter Shaden and her doll who are gradually getting 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, however, 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.  What is the reason for that? According to my understanding, this has nothing to do with Islam, although it is being 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. To that greater extent will they cover up women?  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 being at the mercy of their husband and his body. Should she be divorced, she has no rights to her children while having to go back to live with her parents, left with nothing.  Women and girls are treated like they do not exist, except to serve their husbands, in-laws and children – treated as if they are nothing.


Are you wearing the veil? And do you wish to advocate for or against it through your art?


Yes, I wear the hijab here in Yemen, and would not feel comfortable here without. With gender segregation in school, at work and social gatherings in Yemen, even when a woman is covered up, men. Still gawk at her, making comments and in crowded areas steal a touch here or 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 would not recognize in the streets  – a huge contradictions, that we all  got used to.


I am not for or against the hijab. What I am against is fundamentalist, extremist, intolerant ideology. What I am for is choice. Every woman should have the choice of wearing or not wearing the veil. No one should be forced, for example as in France to take off the veil. This is another form of extremism in my opinion, in the other direction. It all comes down to whatever the woman is most comfort- able with. For example, my mother wears the niqab, and is most comfortable wearing it, even when she travels to the West. Although I don’t agree with her, she is entitled to her opinion and choice. Wearing what one wants is a form of self-expression – a form of freedom. I feel the veil is neither black or white nor good or bad, it is a complex, multilayered, symbolic topic. 

How did you become a photographer?


At the time I was a young woman of 20, openly seeking to become a photographer by profession would have seemed “foolish” to everyone. It was small events that led me there.  While studying business in the US, I took a black and white photography course. From the very first image that magically emerged from the developer in the darkroom, I was hooked. On return to Yemen I had a full time desk job, but I joined an artists’ group. We would have group exhibits and I was surprised to see interest in my work and that people actually purchased it. I built a darkroom in my parents’ house, and continued to process and print. It was still just a very serious hobby at that time but then    finally realized that this is what I really wanted to do; I quit my work in 1998 and became a full time photographer – against the advice of family and friends. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.  That year was one of the most interesting and memorable times in my life. I had the great opportunity to travel to the most remote and remarkable places throughout Yemen and meet and learn from fascinating, wonderful individuals. To my great surprise, in addition to it being rewarding on a personal level, it proved to be financially rewarding as well. 


 How did you develop your courageous own opinions?  Was anyone supporting you? 


One of the greatest influences in my life was my cousin Issam, who used to tutor my brother and I.  He opened my eyes to the magic of learning, and the fact that learning was not something you only had to do in school, but part of daily life - and that it was wonderful and fun. He also taught me that I had so much untapped power within - we all have this.  When my father was insisting that I get engaged to my first cousin when I was 14, I refused. However, I felt regardless of what I wished, I would have to comply with it because my parents wanted that for me. During this time, my cousin wrote me a note that I kept to this day which truly empowered me. He wrote: “You are only 14 and your only priority should be your education. Not your mother, not your father, not even God could make you get married if you don’t want to!”  And that is exactly what I told my father. My cousin helped me to see that I had a choice and that should I choose to, I could say No!  I often wish girls and women knew that they had rights and that they don’t always have to do what they are being told, especially if it is something they don’t want or something that may be harmful to them.


You are the first female professional photographer in Yemen. What does that mean for your work in the environment it takes place in? 


For a long time I felt I was not taken seriously by my family, friends, and others. When I started out in the 90s there were very few male photographers and no women. Now, in 2013, and with the advent of digital photography and social media, more and more artists are sharing photography - in ways I ever dreamt possible. I am especially pleased to see more women photographers and filmmakers, owing the female perspective, which is lacking. I was honored in 1998 with several other Yemeni women pioneers, as the first Yemeni woman photographer. I didn’t really think much of it, except that it is an honor to start doing something that practically no other women were doing in Yemen.  I feel in some small way that I may be an example to other women who want to do something different and out of the norm. My story can show them: you can live and do the things you want to do, you don’t have to wait, or do what your father or mother want for you, but to lean in and listen to the God given, all knowing voice within. 


In which way can the arts improve women’s lives in Islamic contexts?


The situation of women in Islam is generally a huge inspiration for my work. As a woman living in Yemen,   experience and breathe it on a daily basis. It is a driving force in my work and personal life. Also, as a mother of four girls, I feel things have to change for the best for women now, and women of the future. As an artist, I reflect back on my society – thinking about what is beautiful or ugly about it. I make my mark or a kind of record or commentary on my time, culture, or religion. I am like a visual social anthropologist, with an opinion. If my work of documenting and processing the world in pictures conjures strong feelings and provokes engagement, discussion, and debate, I feel I have succeeded somehow. It is through this dialogue, as a very first step, that change may slowly materialize. 


Which changes would you expect to see happen?


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 is the only way that things will change for the better for women. However, Yemen is a poverty- stricken country with many seemingly formidable, economic and development challenges, in which women and children suffer the most.  So I am not naïve about this.  


What reactions did you get from different audiences to this series?


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 by a number of high ranking events, magazines and online publications in Dubai and Paris and will be exhibited again in Liverpool, Boston and at Fotofest in   Houston, Texas in 2014. It has 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 has 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 in the other direction – going from the dark nothing to lightness.

Recorded by Amira Nagy