Yumna Al-Arashi Is Upending the Stereotypes That Shackle Muslim Women
This past July, threats began to flood 27-year-old photographer Yumna Al-Arashi’s inbox. “They threatened rape, death, all of it,” she explains, on a break from packing for her move from Los Angeles to Beirut this month. “They all came from men, and I thought, ‘Okay, that’s enough of you trying to control my identity and my body to the point of threatening to rape me,’” she continues. This tenacity is typical of the artist, whose images boldly foreground the diversity and power of women and are upending homogenizing stereotypes experienced across the globe.
The emails came in response to several news articles focused on Al-Arashi’s series “Northern Yemen,” which shows hijab-draped women against the stunning desert landscapes of her family’s home country. Across the photos, her subjects resemble superheroes or towering statues of immortal and all-powerful goddesses, their hijabs billowing mightily in the wind. “There’s this prevalent idea of a woman who is covering her hair or her body as totally oppressed, and that’s never a viewpoint I’ve agreed with,” explains Al-Arashi, who is Muslim and grew up in Washington, D.C. “My whole life I’ve been surrounded by Muslim women who cover themselves, and they’re such badasses and have such incredible depth—as much as any of the uncovered women I’ve met. As a Muslim woman, you’re often boxed into a single identity. I wanted to shift that stereotype.”
Al-Arashi wrapped “Northern Yemen” in 2014. At the time, she pitched the images to numerous publications and received a slew of declines in response. “It’s so funny, they’re the same publications that are now covering the project three years later,” she says. “They were originally confused or just uninterested by what I was trying to say, but now they’re going nuts about it. I guess it’s just about timing, and what’s going on culturally at a given moment.”
Indeed, Al-Arashi’s photographs, and the negative response they’ve elicited, smack as searingly relevant in today’s political climate. Just several weeks after she began receiving the deluge of hate mail—much of it spinning her images of strong, hijab-sporting women into absurd accusations that she is an ISIS supporter—America’s Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump grossly typecast Gold Star mother and Muslim woman Ghazala Khan after her appearance at the Democratic National Convention. During her husband’s speech in honor of their son, a U.S. soldier who’d been killed in 2004 by a car bombing in Iraq, Khan was seen noticeably without words. “She had nothing to say. She probably—maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say,” Trump said, speculating that Khan’s silence was the product of oppression wielded by the Muslim religion. Khan later explained that she didn’t speak because she was too overcome with grief.
It’s in this environment that Al-Arashi’s “Northern Yemen” is getting a necessary second look. But it isn’t the photographer’s first body of work, nor will it be her last, to empower women through photography. Al-Arashi was raised in step with the rise of the internet, a vehicle that encouraged early photographs focused on her identity as a teenager and, more subtly, a Muslim American living in post-9/11 America. “It was a very political time, just after 9/11, and photography became a means of identifying myself and my surroundings—to really get a grasp on the world that I was living in,” she explains. “The internet became my channel for communicating and sharing, everything from blogging to taking photos of everyday life.”
Today, with a bachelor’s degree in international politics and years of photo documentary work throughout the Middle East, Jamaica, and the U.S. under her belt, Al-Arashi’s interest in using photography as a vehicle to better understand the world around her—in all its chaos—has only intensified. In addition to the women featured in “Northern Yemen,” or the cohort of friends she shot in dreamy, body-positive nudes, last summer she trained her lens on a traveling band of trick-riding cowgirls en route from California to Kentucky. During the nine-day expedition, a gunman opened fire on a gay nightclub in Orlando in an ISIS-inspired attack, killing 49 people and injuring scores more. Along with the stunning images she published, the photographer reflected on her own challenging experience as a Muslim woman in the midst of a white and conservative rodeo in the wake of the tragedy.
Looking inward, self-portraits of Al-Arashi herself, head uncovered and occasionally cruising on a skateboard or silhouetted against against the American desert, also pop up regularly her Instagram feed, often alongside images of women wearing traditional coverings. It’s a striking dichotomy—one that Al-Arashi hopes will bring more awareness to the issues she’s tackling. “I wanted people to see that there is a Muslim woman that exists that can be comfortable with her body and who still supports other women who are covered, who thinks that’s okay,” she says.
From her new home in Beirut, Al-Arashi will sharpen her Arabic in preparation for her latest project: a several month-long trip to Northern Africa to document the last generation of Muslim women with facial tattoos. She explains that the tattoos—which were once emblems of beauty and cultural identity—fell out of fashion, and were even considered shameful, after missionaries and literacy spread through the rural Muslim world, from Algeria to Iraq.
“It’s this huge population of women that most people don’t know about or understand,” she says. “A lot of my work is based on understanding what it means to be a female in the Middle East. This project, hopefully, will bring another dimension to that idea and give context to how the current Middle East—and the identity of women there—have been shaped.” While Al-Arashi is in Beirut, ensconced in the young creative community, she’ll remain uncovered, but when she arrives in Africa she’ll don a headscarf. But as she’s proven tenfold with her empowering images of women sheathed in cloaks, the woman inside will be strong, multifaceted, and free-thinking all the same.