8 Remarkable Arab Women Artists

To celebrate Women’s History Month, I’ve put together a list of eight remarkable artists with Arab heritage for Multicultural Kids Blog as part of their series.

Today is also Mother’s Day in the Arab world, so it feels like an appropriate day to honor these women.

These female artists come from all over the world, with one common thread connecting them all together, the language of their grandmothers, Arabic.

The below eight women have helped influence our global, shared history.  They are leaders in their fields, innovators who have raised their voices up high.

(This post includes affiliate links.)

Musicians

Umm Kulthum – Egypt

Umm Kulthum was born on the Nile Delta in Egypt in 1898 and showed exceptional singing abilities at a very young age. Her father, a local Iman at a mosque, taught her to memorize the Quran and once disguised her as a boy, so she would be able to perform in a play he directed. At sixteen she started professional singing lessons and moved to Cairo in the 1920s to pursue singing full time.

She was introduced to French poetry, a new musical instrument, the oud, along with many famous writers and composers of the time. She stayed true to her humble backgrounds and concentrated on bettering her voice through public performances that were open to all. She formed an orchestra of accomplished musicians and took classical music that had been played in private, wealthy homes into the homes of the everyday population, which brought her many fans from all over the world.

By the 1930s Umm Kulthum was also acting in Egyptian movies and her musical performances were being broadcast every Thursday to millions of listeners in the Middle East. Her songs would last for hours, sometimes a three hour concert would consist of only two or three songs.  Songs would very from one performance to the next as she used the audience to engage with her in her storytelling. The streets were clear as people rushed home to listen to her magical voice singing of love, longing and loss.

When she passed away at the age of 76 in 1975, over 4 million Egyptians lined the streets of her funeral procession, turning it into a national event. She influenced many contemporary singers, inlducing the American great Bob Dylan, who once said in an interview, “She’s great. She really is. Really great.”

Fairuz – Lebanon

Nouhad Haddad was born in 1934 in Lebanon to a Christian family and often sang in school performances. She was heard at the age of ten by a teacher at a music conservatory, who encouraged her to attend. Her conservative father would only let her attend if her brother accompanied her. She went on to study various styles of singing, including Tajweed, a recitative style of communicating the Quran.

Shortly after leaving school, she worked as a chorus singer at a radio station, where she picked up the name Fairuz, which is Arabic for turquoise. Fairuz would soon met her husband, a musician at the same radio station.   He and his brother would go on to write many of her most popular hits, including several musical operettas and concerts.

She loved performing for the common people, once getting banned from radio air time for six months for refusing to play for a private audience to royalty. This only fueled her popularity among her fans.

Fairuz went on to tour many parts of the Arab world, traveled to America in the 1970s and also performed at the Paris Olympia. Her show in Las Vegas in 1999 drew record-breaking numbers and she has stared in 20 musical plays.  She posses a rare flexibility in her voice that allows her to sing both Arabic and Western modes meticulously.

Writers

Fatima Mernissi – Morocco

Fatima Mernissi was born in Fez, Morocco and grew up in a harem.  She was surrounded by women in her grandmother’s upper class home, most of whom were illiterate. But she was encouraged to learn to read the Quran and went on to study in France and the US. She returned to Morocco to teach at a university in the mid 1970s and soon became known as an Islamic feminist.

In 1975 she wrote her first of over 20 books:  Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Muslim Society. In 1994 she wrote Dreams of Trespass, a memoir chronicling her youth living in a world of women separated by men.

Mernissi used her sociology background and her education to help those around her. She co-founded La Caravane Civique, a group of Moroccan intellectuals dedicated to the education of rural Moroccan women. She conducted field research with the Moroccan government and UNESCO and was published in many leading publications about women in Moroccan and Islamic society.

Her writing is unique in its contemporary as well as historical perspective.  When she passed away in 2015, The Guardian wrote this in her obituary

Though Fatima’s interpretations and deconstructions of the scriptures were iconoclastic to establishment Islam, she was not, by and large, a target of formal censure, because of her rigorous scholarship, her respect for and adherence to the Quran, her demonstrated intellectual expertise with the Quran and the Hadith (the sayings attributed to the Prophet{pbuh}) and their many concordances. Her empathetic style and her elegant use of jadal — reasoned and logical argumentation, itself a Qur’anic mode — kept the hecklers away.

Helen Thomas – USA

Helen Thomas was born in Kentucky to two recently immigrated Lebanese parents. They moved to Michigan when Thomas was four where her father ran a grocery store and they were active in the Greek Orthodox Church. Despite her parents being illiterate upon their arrival to Ellis Island, they encouraged her to attend university and she went on to get a degree in English, as journalism wasn’t yet offered as an option.

Thomas moved to Washington, DC, and started working for newspapers, starting with writing about women’s social issues and then switching to news. She has since gone on to cover the administrations of 11 United State Presidents, earning the nickname “First Lady of the Press.” Her book, Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House, went on to become a best seller.

Thomas broke many barriers in the journalism field for women, becoming the first women to be a member of several press organizations. She traveled with many Presidents on their international visits and became known world wide for her blunt, outspoken voice.  When Cuban leader Fidel Castro was asked in the early 2000s what was the difference between democracy in Cuba and democracy in the United States, Castro reportedly replied, “I don’t have to answer questions from Helen Thomas.”

Directors

Moufida Tlatli – Tunisia

Moufida Tlatli was born in Tunisia in 1947 and later moved to France to graduate from a Paris film academy. She become a script supervisor for French television and movie editor for many well known directors.  She went on to become the first Arab woman to direct a full featured-film.

The film, The Silence of the Palace, deals with issues of gender, class and sexuality interwoven through the lives of two generations of women who live in a palace harem. Through her beautiful backdrops and chilling oud tunes, Tlatli shows the violence of patriarchy, colonialism, and poverty through a series of flashbacks of a young wedding singer, who has returned home to honor the death of the palace prince.

Tlatli has gone on to direct more movies, including The Season of Men, which debuted in 2000 Cannes Film Festival.  It depicts an island where women are held prisoners for 11 months out of the year, waiting for husbands who return from the mainland for a “season.” It is a story of loneliness, frustration and desperation. Tlatli used her movies to be a champion of feminist ideologies, while at the same time she struggles with staying within the norms of a strict society.

Annemarie Jacir – Palestine

Annemarie Jacier was born in 1974 in Palestine to one of the area’s oldest Christian families. Her family moved to Saudi Arabia when she was a child and they later sent her to a private school in Texas. She eventually ended up in New York and studied film before returning to the Middle East.

Her film Like Twenty Impossibles, was shown at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival and was the first time a Palestinian female director walked it’s red carpet.  The movie tells the story of a film crew who took a remote side road, trying to avert a closed Israeli checkpoint.

Jacir has gone on to make many other movies that explore the relationship of growing up a female in a colonized, military society. Her movie, When I Saw You, was nominated as Best Foreign film at the 85th Academy Awards and was considered by many to be cinematic poetry. Her film journeys through the plight of the displaced, who were kicked out of their homes in 1967, but is somewhat autobiographically in nature, as she herself has been denied re-entry into her homeland.

Artists

Manal Al Dowayan – Saudi Arabia

Manal Al Dowaya was born in Saudi Arabia and initially went to school to be a system analysis. She worked for an oil company before returning to her love of art and became a full time artist in 2010.  She often creates collaborate works, inviting women from the community to come and be a part of the voice she creates with her pieces.

Her artwork involves photography, sculpture and installation to highlight the sociology-cultural norms that define the daily lives of the women around her. Her earlier work included such important pieces as “Look Beyond the Veil” that focused on social restrictions on driving, voting and playing music while her series “I Am” highlighted real women in their various economic roles.

In 2011 she exhibited at the Venice Biennale a piece titled “Suspended Together” that consisted of 200 white, fiberglass doves. Each dove was hung in mid flight, it’s underbelly imprinted with permission slips from men guardians. She collected them from individual prominent Saudi Arabian women, who needed them to travel alone. Each permission slip was unique, forever weighing down a bird that represents freedom.

Her recent work includes going back to photography, creating a recent series called “Crash” that highlights the dangers of female teachers in rural villages. Unable to drive, and paid very low wages, most of the teachers have to rely on unreliable drivers and cars. Al Dowayan spent a year researching and documenting the accidents to humanize the struggle of women in modern Saudi Arabian society.

 

Boushra Almutawakel – Yemen

Boushra Almutawakel was born in Yemen in 1969 and went on to study photography at university abroad. It was there that she attended a lecture by Egyptian feminist Nawal El Sadawi. During the lecture, El Sadawi said “women who wore the hijab/veil or nigab were the same as women who wore makeup, in the sense that they all hid their true identities.”  Somehow that stuck with Almutawakel, who would let this lead her artwork.

Almutawakel wants to show that women were not oppressed, backwards and uneducated for wearing the veil, rather it was advantageous and empowering in some ways as it protects and privatizes the woman’s body. Yet at the same time, her work tries to counter the negative fuel of how the veil is portrait in the Western media.

She has gone on to produce important works like “The Hijab / Veil Series”, which aims to explore the perceptions of the veil as it’s used to cover up more and more of a woman with her child holding a doll. The last photo has them disappear from our view all together.

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I hope I’ve introduced you to eight remarkable Arab women, some Muslim, some Christian, who use their art to question their government, their society and their religion.  I hope that by introducing you to these women, you’ve learned a little more about Arab women’s diverse history.

Be sure to read more articles below to learn more about international Women’s History Month –

Happy Women’s History Month (2016)

Fatima Al-Fihriyya is luminous

Women’s History Month Series 2016

Women's History Month Series on Multicultural Kid Blogs

Join us for our second annual Women’s History Month series, celebrating the contributions and accomplishments of women around the world. Follow along all month plus link up your own posts below! Don’t miss our series from last year, and find even more posts on our Women’s History board on Pinterest: Follow Multicultural Kid Blogs’s board Women’s History on Pinterest.

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A Crafty Arab on Multicultural Kid Blogs: 7 Women Artists Who Changed History
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The Art Curator for Kids: Songs We Can See – The Art of Peggy Lipschutz
March 4
Kid World Citizen: Children’s Books about Women Scientists
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Mama Smiles: Picture Books about Great Women in History Your Kids Need to Know
March 8
Hispanic Mama: 4 Latina Women Who Made It Happen
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Discovering the World Through My Son’s Eyes: Spanish Children’s Book on the Life of Felisa Rincón de Gautier, First Female Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico
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Witty Hoots: Some Awesome Women in My Life
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MommyMaestra: Women in World History Trading Card Template
March 14
Crafty Moms Share: The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses
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The Jenny Evolution: Non-Fiction Books about Women for Kids
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Discovering the World Through My Son’s Eyes: Celebrating Latina Authors
March 17
Living Ideas: Education Heroes of Indonesia
March 18
La Cité des Vents: Julie Victoire Daubie, First French Woman to Have the Baccalauréat
March 21
A Crafty Arab: 8 Remarkable Arab Women Artists
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The Art Curator for Kids on Multicultural Kid Blogs
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