Manal Al Dowayan: women’s rights in art

The contemporary and experimental art scene in Saudi Arabia has developed tremendously over the past years, owing in no small part to grassroots, underground artistic activities performed by young creative Saudis. Saudi art is booming. Many artists are flirting cautiously with the limits of expression in the conservative country with its strict social control, aiming to put a positive Saudi Arabia on the map. They want to change the country’s stereotypical image, but step by step in order to avoid a shock wave that is much too strong. There is more and more room for dialogue and discussion, with people wanting to express themselves one way or another. Many are making full use of social media, blogs and YouTube, producing videos, art works, design pieces or publications.


Thus Edge of Arabia was born, a coalition of contemporary artists from Saudi Arabia who brought a strong, experimental, contemporary art movement. It is about poetry in all its simplicity. Edge of Arabia collected countless isolated artists all over the country and connected them. The initiative wants to show Saudi art both at home and abroad, thereby arousing interest in modern Arab art and culture. The organisation achieves their aim through exhibitions and publications worldwide. The profit of the sale of works of art goes to funding educational art programmes and workshops for local schools and universities, and the organisation of the first international art seminar in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Their latest achievement was the #COMETOGETHER exhibition in London, that ran from October 7 to 28, 2012. Ayman Yossry Daydban, Abdulnasser Gharem, Mounir Fatmien and Manal Al Dowayan are some of the artists who introduced their work to the public under the wings of Edge of Arabia.


Manal Al Dowayan

Manal Al Dowayan is a world-renowned multimedia artist. Her work varies from photography and installations to sculptures. She was born and bred in Ash-Sharqiyah, the Eastern Province, which is the largest province in Saudi Arabia and the heartland of the Saudi oil industry. Al Dowayan studied photography in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Bahrain and London. Her work has been exhibited both in the region and internationally, including Spain, Germany, Turkey, Korea, India, the UK, the USA and the UAE.

Al Dowayan is a fearless artist who cuts into sensitive subjects like the position of women in Saudi Arabia. She touches upon sensitive but crucial gender-specific themes in her home country, looking to clear social obstacles in an artistic fashion. One of her projects, Esmi – My Name, is breaking a cultural norm: pronouncing a woman’s name out loud is insulting in Saudi Arabia. Other projects address social women’s matters, like travelling alone or practicing certain professions.

Esmi – My Name

For the project, Al Dowayan asked hundreds of women to write their names on wooden beads she would string together into rosaries she then suspended from a ceiling. She organised several workshops for these women in Al Khobar, Riyadh and Jeddah. They would be career women, acclaimed scientists, artists, and mothers and grandmothers. Baby girls’ names would be written down by their fathers. This was her way of breaking the taboo that prevented men from publicly pronouncing women’s names. This project thus serves to underline the unique stance in Saudi society towards women’s names. Men find it insulting to mention the names of the women in their lives and women hide their identities to prevent insulting other family members. This practice is only known in Saudi Arabia and has no basis in religion.

Despite the controversial character of her work, Al Dowayan received little negative reactions. Also, the participants experienced a sense of joy and even euphoria because they could make themselves heard on the subject.

It was an experience whereby she was able to create a statement, in this feeling of unity: “Our names will be preserved and we will not allow the names of Saudi women to be erased or replaced, or to be seen as a cause for shame.” Identity is deeply linked to the personality of an individual.

The idea came to her during Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) where she discussed gender related topics in the kingdom with the other women in the women’s camp. Al Dowayan explains how a hadith (a saying or an act ascribed to the prophet Muhammad) illustrates her concept, namely the hadith related by Amr ibn al A’assaid: ‘The Prophet (PBUH) was asked: “Oh Prophet of God, who is the most beloved to you?” He said: “Aisha”.’ According to Al Dowayan one can derive this lesson: both the Prophet and the Qur’an mention names of women, and those are never associated with shame or something that should remain hidden.

Suspended Together

This installation consists of 200 doves made from glass fiber, with each dove holding a Saudi document authorizing women to travel alone. These documents for unaccompanied travels are co-signed by men, who are the legal guardians of women in Saudi Arabia. The debate on the Saudi driving ban for women is ongoing. Last year, the arrest of Manal al-Sherif, the icon of a campaign on the internet to persuade Saudi women to resist the driving ban, led to a major controversy in the country. Al-Sherif was arrested for uploading a video on YouTube in which she could be seen behind the steering wheel of a driving car.

Seen from a distance the installation gives the impression of freedom and movement. But when going closer, one sees that the doves seem frozen and are hanging without any hope of free flight. The documents haven been donated by countless female journalists, scientists, artists and other representatives of Saudi society.

I Am

The I Am project is a series of photographs featuring Saudi women active as doctors, engineers, producers, divers, architects or interior decorators, all portrayed in the same pose, with their faces partially covered with traditional jewelry. Manal Al Dowayan is commenting on the professions Saudi women are practicing. There is a debate in the country about the employment of women; some people feel that a woman should work in a profession that ‘fits her nature’. For Al Dowayan, that is a completely irrational debate, for who is to decide what fits their nature? Al Dowayan then started to take pictures of remarkable women working in many areas in order to refute the argument.

Photos: Manal Al Dowayan

Translated by Mark Eijkman


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