Women and Art in the Middle East by Jamileh Kharrazi

Life through Art

The Middle East through the Eyes of Women

Art has pushed boundaries since the caveman first finger painted on cave walls. As society developed and so did art. Said Jamileh Kharrazi. Realism began to show people the naked truths of what happened behind clothes doors. Today art does not only stand for paintings but for anything creatively made. From films to writing, art is about telling your truths.

Through art, Middle Eastern women challenge male dominated society. Elements like religion to social issues challenge the social norms of the Middle East. With each piece of art breaking down the stigmas carried by Muslim women to this day. 

Beginning Momentum


An exhibit in 2006 brought together leading Arab and Iranian artists. The exhibit took place in Dubai marking a major historical achievement for the area. Christie, a London auction house, gathered the diverse group of artists. They ranged from Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Morocco and Iraq.

Researcher at Ecole Normale Superieure, Alexander Kazerouni, told CNN, “In Dubai Iranians befriend with Arabs. They do business with them but also, thanks to the art market, look at their artistic expression all along the 20th century. They can realize how many common features existed between the two worlds, like the huruffiyya (letterism) trend in Iraq and the naqqashi-Khatt (painting — calligraphy) in Iran."

However, men seem to dominate the top of the art world leaving women veiled behind the patriarch.

Leading Ladies


Through art, many artists from the Middle East are voicing their thoughts on the current events plaguing the region. Women are emerging in the art world. Some even making waves around the world.

An art residency program helps support new Syrian artists in Lebanon. Called “Art Residence Aley” Raghad Maridini is one of the artists, as well as a director of the groups.  The space helps build a safe haven for people who are dealing with the trauma of living in the Middle East.

"We really need to protect artists during times of war because they are the ones who will protect the society," Maridini told Aljazeera.

Mardini was also a part of the Arab Women Artists Now festival in London. The festival promotes artists from the diaspora. Diaspora artists travel from place to place, spreading their culture with their travels. In this case issues happening in the Middle East.

Here and Elsewhere” an exhibit put on by the New Museum in New York brought 45 artists from over fifteen countries. Out of the 45 artists, half of them were women. This exhibition brought up issues on religion, gender roles and much more. However, the stigma that women are oppressed is one that the museum wanted to shatter.

“It is one of the many stereotypes the exhibition tries to question,” said New Museum Curator Massimiliano Gioni to Art News. “A certain Western view assumes that women in Arab countries are oppressed and left out of any cultural debate. We found instead that women artists were doing great works.”

Boushra Almutawakel was named the first Yemeni Woman Photographer according to her website.  Her wide portfolio includes “The Hijab Series,” and one of her most famous “The Fulla Series.” The Fulla Doll is a Muslim version of the Barbie doll.

She challenges the idea of oppression by showing the dolls doing everyday things. From shopping around convenient stores to chatting with her friends. The images draw likeness to the mask women wear with make-up and the traditional Hijab Muslim women wear.

Image from “The Fulla Series” Via (Photographic Museum of Humanity)

Hayv Kahraman told The New York Times about life growing up in Baghdad amidst war.  Her family fled to Sweden where she studied classical paintings that influence her style today. Kahraman's art is very reminiscent of early Renaissance and Japanese era paintings. The painted stories call out the female horrors Middle Eastern women face.

“Several of her works deal with the body being punctured as a way of symbolizing social pressures on the female body, and the micro-violence against the female form on a daily basis—especially in art history,” said Karim Sultan to DCist. Sultan is the director of the Barjeel Art Foundation, where Kahraman art is being housed in a series called “Between Two Rounds of Fire, The Exile of The Sea

Image from the collection “Between Two Rounds of Fire, The Exile of The Sea” Via (Barjeel Art Foundation)

The Museum will also be housing “I AM: An East-West Arts Initiative Organized by CARAVAN.” I AM will also explore the experiences women have living in the Middle East. Both Exhibits open September 5.

“The exhibition is designed to challenge wrong ideas of the ‘other.’ Hopefully, visitors will gain insight into the lives of modern Middle Eastern women and will experience the diverse voices, aspects, and opinions of these strong, experienced, and accomplished artists,” says Paul-Gordon Chandler, Founding President of CARAVAN.

So many women are showing that there is more to Muslim women than feeling sorry for them. The empowerment of women through art is challenging social issues that many women are afraid to speak on.

“How beautiful is it to see young women showing the world that Middle East should not be overlooked. From the arts to politics, Muslim women aren’t afraid to show the world their true authentic selves,” said Jamil Kharrazi.