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A Woman Photographs the Revolution: Insights from Myriam Abdelaziz

19 January 2012 6 Comments

Myriam Abdelaziz

Myriam Abdelaziz

“In Egypt when the authorities realized women are actually a threat, and maybe even more so than men, they started to react.”

Connection Point Manager Yasmina Mrabet interviewed photographer Myriam Abdelaziz about her work covering the revolution in Egypt. Her responses are below.

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What inspired you to photograph in Egypt and other Arab countries?

I’m originally from the region—I understand the culture and think there are many interesting stories to tell. There are a lot of stories that foreign photographers might not be able to understand or get and I feel it’s important to document things that aren’t documented enough or that aren’t documented properly.  I want to take photographs to tell stories that are meaningful and personal to me.

Can you give an example of a story you have photographed that you feel is not documented enough by foreign photographers?

In Cairo I photographed people working at small shops—for example the shoe repair person, the guys who sell fruits or shoes and who do other kinds of small jobs. I photographed these stories—Men Dreaming—with a caption under every picture. It is a story of people who work so hard in Egypt and make almost no money. They work seven days a week, all of their lives—they might own shops, and they are qualified for the work they do, but make very, very little money. With price inflation in Egypt, you can be a person who is working seven days a week for years and years, but still the idea of something like buying a TV is absolutely impossible. I asked these men what were their dreams, and some were very simple. One man said “I dream to be able to take my father to the hospital because he is sick.” These stories are a premise of the Egyptian revolution. When people are working so hard, yet barely surviving, you know there is something wrong in this country. This is something that a foreigner might not be able to grasp—that a taxi driver can work around the clock and not be able to feed the family. These people work and deserve to have a proper life, or at least more than what their salaries can provide. Their stories need to be told, and I try to do that through my photography.

You mentioned that some aspects of the Middle East are also not documented properly. Can you tell us more about what you have witnessed, and how you address this issue through your work?

Women protesting in Cairo, November 2011 - Egyptian Revolt by Myriam Abdelaziz

Mainly when you see women in the news in the Western world, it is in the context of a conflict somewhere—and all of the photos are of veiled women crying and so on. In the Western world the  Arab Muslim woman  is always portrayed as one who is oppressed, and one who is under the protection of men. No! This is not accurate. Women are strong in the Middle East. They are strong inside the household, and they are strong in many cases in the public sphere. A lot of women in the Middle East make more money than men—in Egypt for example, this is very common. For sure there are also women who are victims of men wanting to control them—but this is not the majority, and I think it’s important to show the other side of the story. Yes the woman crying in the veil exists, but it’s also important to show the others. There are happy and successful Arab and Muslim women who are working and leading successful lives.

For one of my projects I wanted to show empowered women from the Middle East, and I took photos of women from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. They are casual portraits of women in their work environment. These women are all Muslim women, all professionally active, successful, and financially independent. They all love their countries, work in their country, and believe it is important to develop their own countries rather than to go work overseas. They feel strongly that if you have skills, you should invest them into projects within your country. It is a series of images that fights the stereotypes of women in the news.

What has your experience been as a woman photographer in Arab Spring countries, and what have you noticed related to the conditions for women in Egypt particularly?

How I feel about being a female photographer is that it is usually a strength—but unfortunately not necessarily for the right reasons. People tend to be less suspicious of women because they take them less seriously. This actually works in women’s favor, and as a woman I can get very good access and stories because people are not threatened by me.  I have not felt any different as a woman documenting in the Middle East than I do walking down the street in Europe.  I sometimes feel that I have been treated differently as a woman by men—but that is personally, not professionally, and I have had the same experience both in Western countries and in the Middle East.

During the recent events in Egypt, initially, being a female photographer was helpful, because they didn’t expect me to be documenting “for real” and I was just not perceived as a threat. However this has changed, and in Egypt when the authorities realized women are actually a threat, and maybe even more so than men, they started to react. Now in Egypt the army considers women a big threat, because the women fight, throw stones, lead chants, and the attitude of the authorities is kind of like “Oh my God, we need to tame them and make sure these women don’t go crazy!” So now they are scaring the women by doing virginity tests, dragging them through the streets, and threatening them. Of course these tactics do cause women to think twice about possible dangers, but they are still going to the streets.

How have Western media outlets responded to your work?

They are interested because people are becoming tired of reading about the same things, and my portraits tell stories that aren’t often in the news. I photograph more for magazines than newspapers, and the stories that I do are not based on what will be a “good seller”—I do the stories that my heart wants.

From your experiences as a photographer in the Middle East, especially during this time of extraordinary change, what insight can you share with us about what is next for women in the region?

Hamad irons shirts…and dreams of becoming a famous writer - Men Dreaming by Myriam Abdelaziz

For sure in the region it’s time for things to change—and it might take a long time for things to be fully accomplished. It is a time to fight for what you believe in. We have seen women at the forefront of change, and it is important that the women continue to organize to ensure change—it would be a shame if everything changed except them. The situation needs to be seized. Right now, for example, in Egypt there is a threat that the Muslim Brotherhood will take power and enforce strict Sharia law, and if they enforce laws related to the veil and to other issues that infringe on personal choice, that will be absolutely unacceptable for me. I hope they will not focus on details like this, and instead focus on laws that protect poor people and enrich equality. I hope that they will put their energy into important things. This country needs money, food, and investment—otherwise it will collapse.

They say they will be secular, but things change when power comes.  If changes that impact women’s choices and equality are made, I hope that women will go to the streets and rebel, and say what they want and what they don’t want. Although in Egypt when it comes to the veil for example, 80% of the women wear it. If the Muslim Brotherhood decides this is a law, it would only impact 20%, half of which are Christians. However, I am confident that even veiled women would go to the streets if such laws were implemented, because they will still want it to be a personal choice, and I know a lot of veiled women who will not appreciate it being forced. It is a big time for women in the Middle East. It is important that they push for their rights and their presence in the public and equality with men.

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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

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6 Comments to “A Woman Photographs the Revolution: Insights from Myriam Abdelaziz”
  1. Rachida Teymour says:

    I am proud of you and your work
    it’s great
    rachida Teymour

  2. kara says:

    very insightful!

  3. Hany ABDEL-AZIZ says:

    I simply continue to be proud of your thinking, actions, and engagement, without individual freedoms there is no room for creativity, development or progress.
    Bossas. Papyrus.

  4. Akhenaton says:

    Great job

  5. Roxy says:

    This is indeed a very interesting article. I think you are absolutely right in saying that you doccument people’s stories that would be otherwise overlooked or misunderstood.

    I hope you are also right with regards to equality legislation and the unacceptance by people if progress is not made.

    I must disagree on one point, that of any woman who wears this veil is not controlled by men. How can this be? For any woman (Christian, Jewish, Muslim) is controlled by men since God was invented as a male by men, the religious books written by men, the words of men but presented as God’ words. This all to instill the fear of God to manipulate women, so by the simple act of belonging to any of these religions is in fact to be controlled by men.

    You yourself stated the desire for the men in charge to ‘tame’ the women, usually as you say by some kind of sexual aggression or shaming process.

    I often think that apart from the absolute travisty of any person covering themselves completely so as to deny themselves some of the most marvelous aspects of this planet (wind blowing through your hair, sun on your face etc.) and that fundamental communication with others of our species through eye contact etc. I think that a woman who is covered so as not to lead men astray is being denied any recognition of her own sexuality and any desires she may have, otherwise why aren’t men covered also?

    As Hany said individual freedom = development and progress.

  6. Gauhar Siraj says:

    Wonderful insights. Brave attitude. Good articulation.

    Hope to read more of similar stuff from Myriam Abdelaziz and Yasmina Mrabet

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