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.”