Yemeni photographer considered a defender of women’s rights and a pioneer in the Muslim world was surprised by the repercussion of the series launched in 2010.
A mother, her daughter and a doll undergo a transformation with Muslim veils, through nine images, until they are completely covered by burkas and finally disappear altogether.
The montage with the series of photos has gone viral on social media since the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan.
Created in 2010 by Yemeni photographer Boushra Almutawakel, the work returned to circulation in the midst of the crisis in the country under the caption “disappearance”.
The repercussion surprised the author herself, considered a defender of women’s rights and a pioneer in the Muslim world.
“I went from 1,500 followers to 20,000 in two days, it’s crazy,” she told BBC Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish-language news service, from Dubai, where she now lives with her family.
The artist admits, however, to having “contradictory feelings” in relation to the events of recent days.
While happy that her work is having an impact, she feels it has been misinterpreted and has been used as a way of criticizing Islam and the wearing of the veil (or hijab).
In this interview, Almutawakel talks about the message intended by his work and says that “patriarchal misogyny” is not only found in the Arab and Muslim world, but “everywhere”.
BBC Mundo – Your photographs, in particular the series ‘Mother, Daughter and Doll’, have been widely shared on social media in recent days. What is the message of the work?
Boushra Almutawakel – It’s a commentary on patriarchal misogyny. Fear, control and intolerance. What will it take for these extremists to accept women; how many layers will be needed?
The feeling is that the only thing that will make them happy is that women are actually invisible.
I come from Yemen, a country that has always been very conservative. From the 1980s onwards, however, the influence of Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia grew, and I personally felt that things were getting too extreme.
And for me this has nothing to do with Islam. Before, veils were colored. Each village had its own veil. In some villages, women don’t even cover their faces.
I’m not against the hijab. If so, I would have opened the series with a woman in a bikini. But where is it written that a 5-year-old girl must cover her hair?
It’s like culture is much stronger than religion. There are many wonderful things in our culture, but the misogynist part, the extremist part, of completely covering women, hiding them, using them as property, is not part of Islam.
BBC World – Some people have used your photos to criticize Islam in general. How do you see it?
Almutawakel – It is definitely a misuse and a misrepresentation, because the series “Mother, Daughter and Doll” is part of my work as a Muslim, as an Arab, as a Yemeni woman wearing the hijab.
When I return home (to Yemen), I wear the hijab. I’ve been the target of a lot of hatred, especially from Arab women who tell me I’m against Islam and the hijab.
And that was my fear of showing off my work in the West—some people on the right used my work to show how Islamic women were being oppressed.
And my work is not about Islam, it’s about extremism. It’s about patriarchal misogyny, which isn’t just found in the Arab and Muslim world, it’s everywhere.
BBC Mundo – Do you have mixed feelings about the repercussion of the work?
Almutawakel – Yes. I’m glad people are seeing my work, but I’m a little upset because it’s like people are using my work to reinforce a message they want to get across.
Muslims and Arabs think that I am on the side of the West, that I am against Islam. But this comes from the misuse and misuse of the work.
And I’m not talking about Afghan women. They can speak for themselves. I believe people should listen, not speak for others.
And that’s what happens with the West. I know the intention is positive, but we also want to save ourselves, and we have a voice. The West cannot continue to speak for us.
Afghan women need to speak out. And I’m sure they will. They have voices, they are strong.
BBC Mundo – So what role should the West have in crises like the one happening in Afghanistan?
Almutawakel – The West does not need to save us. In any case, the West has destroyed us. The Taliban was created by the United States so that they could fight the Soviets.
And they left the Taliban to the Afghan people. Who needs them? What kind of world is this? I would like the West to stay out of our countries, including mine. They destroyed the Middle East in every respect.
BBC Mundo – Does the possibility of the crisis in Afghanistan further increase Islamophobia worrying you?
Almutawakel – Of course it worries. And of course it increases. But Islamophobia exists with or without the Taliban, going back to September 11, 2001.
If the Taliban did not exist, they would look for something else to feed this propaganda that spreads that Islam is evil. A lot of this unfortunately has to do with ignorance, fear and misunderstanding.
BBC Mundo – What is the intention behind the series “What if…” (“What if…”), which shows a man wearing a burqa?
Almutawakel – I wasn’t trying to provoke. While at college in the United States, I went through a religious phase and wore the hijab for a year.
I remember when it was summer, I sat there, sweating, and I saw the young Arab Muslims in shorts… personally, that didn’t make sense to me. so i took [o véu].
And I thought: how would it be otherwise? If men were the only ones to wear the hijab. It was a surreal question that I wanted to translate through photos.
I remember that I exhibited the series at the National Museum of Yemen. And, to my great surprise, many women loved it. I think almost all men hated it.
I remember a fight with a doctor who studied in the United States. He asked me: what are you trying to say? That men should be women? Are you questioning what God said? He took it very seriously.
BBC Mundo – You lived for several years in France, one of the countries that publicly banned the wearing of the burqa. How was the experience?
Almutawakel – It is very contradictory. France’s motto is equality, liberty and fraternity, but the reality is different.
Muslims are a minority, they are marginalized. And they focus on women, the most marginalized, the most vulnerable, it’s like a form of extremism, but in the other direction.
It sounds horrible to me, all the more horrible because the West was educated in modernity, based on freedom and freedom of expression. But it’s not true. It’s just not true.
BBC Mundo – What is your opinion on the intense debate around the veil?
Almutawakel – We are not focusing on the real problems. Women are always told what to do, to wear the hijab or take it off, be thin, be young… Leave us alone!
See what the makeup and wellness industry is all about. The billions of dollars circulating there. Women undergo plastic surgery and starve to stay thin. This is also a form of oppression.
Many of the women who cover themselves are doctors, politicians, writers, lawyers, artists. And they are strong. Not because your face or body is covered, but because of your intellect.
Some people in the West see a veiled woman and immediately assume she is oppressed and needs to be saved. But not all women who wear the hijab are oppressed. And I’m not speaking for Afghan women, but for Yemenis and myself.
BBC Mundo – Are you worried about the suppression of women’s rights by the advance of the Taliban in Afghanistan?
Almutawakel – Yes, of course, I’m afraid like everyone else. The things that happened in the past, women who get shot, who are taken out of school, out of their jobs, who are killed, it’s horrible.
Any form of fundamentalism, of extremism, where there is no room for flexibility, for discussion, for dialogue, is frightening.
However, I think we’re living in a different time, because now we have cell phones and social networks, and they can’t do things like they used to.
I also believe that this time many women will fight harder. They have had 20 years of better lives and are strong, ambitious and capable. I have faith in them.