The written word can have more power than the spoken.
As I woke up to hundreds of notifications about International Women’s Day, I thought of how great and far women have come through time. Reflecting back on feminist campaigns and collectives, it really is inspiring that women are creating their own “her-story.”
In an age of social media, it’s so easy to express yourself and have your voice reach tons of people. But what about the women whose voices have been buried under folds of history?
Keeping this in mind, I wanted to bring up an important art project that Irish actress, Róisín O’Loughlin started. She went through poetry archives from the Middle East and discovered something amazing.
In the 11th century, an Arab woman named I’timad Arrumaikiyya, wrote to her husband, “I urge you to come faster than the wind, to mount my breast and firmly dig and plough my body, and don’t let go until you’ve flushed me thrice.”
Another woman, Wallada bint al-Mustakfi wrote had poetry embroidered on the left and right side of a tunic. The left said: “I am made for higher goals and by Allah I am going my way with pride.” On the right, “I allow my lover to touch my cheek and bestow my kiss to him who craves it.”
All of this may seem shockingly risque in contrast to what the media portrays about Muslim or Arab women. However, do we forget that Muslim or Arab women are just women? Through the centuries, there is a whole world of sexual, lustful, and romantic poetry that these women have written; voices that have been lost to our world today.
After discovering these poems, Róisín decided to reach out to Muslim and Arab artists from around the world to respond to the poems she found. She was frustrated that these women’s voices were buried across history. Forty-Six artists responded to her call and organized an exhibition titled, Radical Love: Female Lust that opened on Valentine’s Day and ran until March 5, in London. All proceeds from the exhibition went to the Global Fund for Women Refugees in Lebanon.
The poems discovered are extremely beautiful, some with a depth of lust. This type of poetry may be viewed as un-Islamic, but there are a number of verses in the Quran as well as Hadith that highlight the importance of sex. Women and men have equal rights over each other when it comes to intercourse during marriage. It’s also crucial to understand the importance of women to express themselves; we’re not robots.
Róisín stated: “We found inspiration in these poems that rang out loud and proud across the Arab world over 1,000 years ago. By looking back and away we could illuminate something of who we are, and what unifies us as women. Radical Love: Female Lust came about as a response to the ever-raging criticism of female behavior and use of stereotypes to divide and deny shared experience and humanity.”
Artists participating in the exhibit were assigned to work with poems written by women from the past. They created new pieces inspired by these poems, responded to them, or even created their own stand-alone works.
Ilona Szalay, a famous London-based painter was assigned “All Lovers,” a pre-Islamic poem written by Ishraqa Al-Muharibiyya.
In response, Ilona explains, “Female sexuality in general is seen as something very passive, something to be taken.”
These poems represent the view of the female sexual and how it is something that participates just as much as the masculine. How often have we seen the media paint Arab and Muslim women as having no sexual appetite, they’re taking away an important voice for them.
Another poem written by Umm Khalid al-Numayri was assigned to Egyptian photographer Hana Gamal. The poem focused on her thoughts after her son’s death.
This poem serves as a poignant reminder of the horror that’s been taking place in the Middle East. The poem highlights upon the resilience of women struggling with difficult circumstances. Hana mentions how she sees this display of resilience and strength in her everyday life, “When I got to the local market I see women holding her kids with one hand and holding grocery bags with the other hand while carrying a pile of bread on her head. This for me is the definition of strength, love and vulnerability all together.”
Women are not weak or in need of “saving” as they are portrayed in the media.
A Syrian refugee, Yara Said migrated to the Netherlands and is also featured in the exhibition. She reflects on how war is like “a messy divorce” and can really scatter families and the stability of a normal life. By expressing herself through art, she is given a voice to tune into a larger discourse on these issues. To Yara, “Today and everyday I feel honoured to be a refugee. To be a woman, To be an artist.”
By going back in time to rediscover feminine voices we can truly learn to appreciate how far we have come. Women have been expressing themselves since the dawn of time and we sure as hell shouldn’t stop now.
Not just today, but everyday we should seek to reach out and connect with the women from our past and those around us. After all, when we are gone, it’s the emotions in the stories and written word that will live on.
To learn more about the women involved in the exhibit and to purchase artwork, visit the project’s site.