Some of us might remember her as the veiled woman stuck in a transparent box on the streets of Paris. Sonia Merazga, a visual artist with roots in Algeria, just returned to France with her husband after what they call a ‘hijra’ around the world. Have they found a new place to call home after months of traveling?
Hisham D. Aidi describes the phenomenon in his latest book ‘Rebel Music‘: from 2011 on, French Muslim youth have been feeling uncomfortable in their country and many are even migrating, looking for a a new habitat less violent towards their religion. This sounds familiar when you listen to Sonia Merazga’s story. I saw the Algerian-French artist for the first time in the women’s section of the Kapitan Keling mosque in Georgetown, Malaysia. A funny sight, as she was trying to escape the Malaysian May heat by allowing a ventilator to blow under her flowy praying veil provided by the mosque. After we kept on accidentally bumping into each other, I learned that Sonia and her husband were on a world trip in search of a home to replace France with. The City of Lights and Love and the government located in it continued to disappoint them, as Muslims particularly.
A hijra out of the ordinary
‘La Hijra des Meuniers‘ is what they called it. The trip passed through Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, the United States, and Canada. It was about discovering, seeing, meeting Muslims living in these places. And more. “For us, it was about leaving where we were and finding a place that fitted us ideologically and religiously. It was about finding a country where we feel good, which is not the case in France,” Sonia explains. “The problem with France is that they have an issue with religion, and with Islam in particular. They still treat Muslims like immigrants even though they are French citizens. This creates schizophrenia for Muslims living in France: they constantly feel rejected, as if they are sent back to their origins. There’s a lot of frustration and anger. It’s not healthy.” This issue is more than merely a societal problem: “One of a plethora of political examples is the way the French government is dealing with Palestine. This ruthlessness also shines through in its media coverage. The French government always has an unhealthy way of dealing with Muslims, whether it’s worldwide or with Muslims within France.”
Of all the countries on her personal hijra, Iran left the deepest impression: “We were prejudiced because of the things that were stuffed in our heads about how we were supposed to perceive Iran and Iranians. In general, many activists hear Western propaganda and gather something that is opposite to the information they give us. So when I went, I was able to make up an idea that was more correct than the one I had before. I was really surprised and touched.” The artist met someone she will never forget: “When we arrived in Tabriz, I met a young girl who introduced me to her family. We talked a lot and I got attached to them. Until this day this encounter has affected me the most.”
De l’art militant
What Sonia does is artivism, socially engaged art: “It’s activist art. I can’t make nice pieces just for the sake of beauty. I criticize injustice and Western hypocrisy because I don’t agree with what’s happening in the country I live in. I want to change things and my art is the only way for me to do it. My art can touch people and push them to change, to sensitize. Our trip has inspired me enormously and moved me – there are so many issues I want to address through art now.”
Her paintings and photos talk about the manipulation of the human spirit. The central theme is how we give ourselves the illusion of democracy, in varied ways. Her art works depict how we fool ourselves with the impression of being free. In addition to this, the globetrotting artivist brings other art pieces to the table: “I also do things that are more personal, that are connected to deeper, more intimate things.”
One of Sonia’s public performances granted her widespread notoriety across France. Veiled and locked up in a see-through cube, she depicted a veiled women caged by French society. “Unfortunately, French politicians have decided to battle veiled women and the visibility of Muslim women. They attack them on all levels such as education and work. My country, where I grew up in, that keeps on telling me that it’s the country of human rights and freedom… It was so contradictory to me, so wrong! It made me think of the treatment reserved for indigenous people during colonization. The official discourse says that we will prevent veiled women to work and to go to school to emancipate them, because we support women’s freedom. But how can women acquire independence if they can neither work nor be educated? This contradiction allowed me to show what this law meant according to me: that we’re being reduced to objects.”
Although they realize no place is ideal, Sonia and her husband decided to repot their roots to Morocco for now. As much as she has been focusing on French politics, Sonia’s future works will definitely have a more international touch. To people who are dreaming of undertaking a world voyage, Sonia has one thing to say: “Do it! It can only be enriching. It opens up your spirit. It deconstructs preconceived thoughts and it reconstructs us at the same time. Traveling, it’s a discovery. Not only of the country and its people, but of oneself as well. If you like traveling, it means you’re looking for something within yourself. Sometimes you can get answers through traveling. So if you want to do it, go. I even think it should be an obligation (laughs).”