Saudi Arabian Women Unveiled

Uploaded by vice on Oct 16, 2012


ZIYAH GAFIC: I don't think photography's a [INAUDIBLE]
I see it more as a series of impressions or constructs
about my personal projects.
I want to see them as open structure and to allow some
liberty to readers to draw their own
conclusions about it.

I think that Islamic countries or Muslim world.
There's a huge number of stories that are either
untold, or told in a superficial way.
Coming from a Muslim background in a country that
has a significant Muslim community, I just wanted to
try to offer a different perspective.

Photography for me was a hobby.
I have no academic background in photography whatsoever.
I was studying comparative literature,
that's my formal education.
I want to tell stories.
Here you're using words, the other place you're using
pictures, but it's basically the same thing.

During the war years in Bosnia, I was a
teenager, I was 15.
And I wasn't really able to take part in what was
happening there, in the events that were unfolding around me.
Because I was too young to fight, and I was too young to
be a photographer.
Except of being subject of those events, which means
basically a target, like every other citizen.
That was kind of a frustration.

When I started working seriously, I was focused on
what was an aftermath of the war in Bosnia.
Huge part of it is compensation, maybe even
re-creation of the excitement and adrenalin rushes that I
was experiencing as a kid.

And as I was completing that body of work, I realized that
there was a number of places around the world that had been
following a similar pattern of ethnic
violence, fraternal wars.
A lot of these places share one more thing in common,
which is significant Muslim population.
So I got interested in that, because I think photography--
for me, it's all about empathy.
My previous experience actually allows me to do that.
And that's how the project, Troubled Islam, developed from
working in Bosnia to all the countries
all the way to Pakistan.
This is from Pakistan.
The family with the things that they saved when they were
fleeing the Western Province.

That is one of my favorites.
It's Kabul Cemetery.

It's oxymoron in itself.
I just wanted to make a comparison
between these countries.
And one of the comparisons was, obviously, just to see
how people cope.
And how they manage to preserve the traces of
normality despite all the odds that are against them.
Comparative method is not necessarily a very fruitful
method to make conclusions.
I think with images it's very fruitful.
I mean, if you put things together, the reader can kind
of make a decision and make conclusions on their own.
And this is the brand new book that hasn't been distributed
yet and it's a very special project.
So I wanted to make something where my interference as a
photographer, as a human being, will be minimized.
And I also wanted to make a project that my subjects might
benefit from.
And the project culminated in a publication
called Quest for Identity.
About eight years ago, I was working on a group project.
And as part of that story, I went to this facility in
central Bosnia which handles the whole identification
process of missing people in Bosnia, which is roughly
40,000 people have been missing or killed.
They have database of DNA and so on and so forth.
But among other things they also have storage of archived,
cataloged items.
Personal belongings that had been recovered along with the
human remains.
What happens, they invite families and they browse
through these items.
This is a horrible process.
And I said, wait a minute, wouldn't it be better if these
people actually recognized these items on the paper
instead of actually physically having to go to these
facilities and browse?
So that's the project.
So I just had to photograph these items in
exactly the same way.
On a forensics table on which the bodies are assembled, and
photographic them in a very clinical, very detached way.
And to create this book and iPad app and online catalog of
these items which will correspond with
the physical archive.

It's amazing how absolute detachment in form can
actually create an extremely emotional body of work.
Everyone has a wristwatch, everyone has family pictures
in their wallet.
It allows you as a reader to create a story around.
Twenty magazines published that across the globe, from
Spain, to Holland, to the States.
And the project was supported by so many people and so many
So I think that's probably the best thing--
well, not best, but the most important
thing I've ever done.

I have an assignment from the Sunday Times Magazine, which
regularly hires me or runs my work.
And so they gave me a commission for
this particular story.
We're flying to Riyadh in a few hours where we'll spend 10
days to shoot a story on Saudi Arabian women.
So I'm going to do photos, and I'm going to shoot video

I traveled on several occasions to Saudi Arabia to
do different stories.
It's a place that it's actually rarely reported from,
considering that it's pretty difficult to get access to the
country itself.
And every time someone speaks about Saudi Arabia, that's
what they speak about-- women's rights
to drive, to work.
So it's a good place to challenge the stereotype.

So we came to Saudi Arabia in Riyadh, the capital.
Riyadh is a weird city, I would say.
It's kind of heartland of the royal family, which is kind of
plateau in the middle of the country.
I wouldn't call it a beautiful city, because there's nothing
actually to resemble the fact that this is one of the oldest
inhabited places on Earth.
Basically all the traces of old cultures and civilizations
are kind of wiped out.
And instead of that you just have this eclectic
architecture which combines super modern American
architecture with some Bedouin kind of tent-style roofs and
so on and so forth.
So a lot of glass, a lot of metal.

Yeah, it is a kind of a place where everything takes place
in the private places.
Either behind the walls of the houses, or in
the shopping malls--
close quarters, so to speak.
It's because of the heat, and because of this obsessive need
for privacy.
So nothing really happens in the streets.
And to make things even more complicated, Saudi society's
fairly segregated.
I wouldn't call it extreme, but here it's more visible.
Talking to women in general, it's not the
easiest thing to do.
And especially when it comes to talking to camera or taking
pictures that are going to be published abroad.

It's a traditional culture, it's sensitive.
So as usual, I rely on local knowledge and local
Good, yeah?
FAHMI FARAHAT: Absolutely, ready.
Rock and roll.
ZIYAH GAFIC: Because no matter how many times to travel to a
certain place, your knowledge of culture and how things work
is fairly limited.
We hired a local production company.
They have a lot of experience in dealing with people.
I made specific demands of what kind of women I would
like to meet.
The local production company basically sorted it all out.
It's what I do for a living now, fixing ladies.

ZIYAH GAFIC: I think there's a general feeling that Muslim
women in general, and Saudi woman in particular, is
somehow put in the backseat of the society.
That picture is very fragmented and largely
So I'd like to get kind of a cross section of Saudi women
and to try to photograph them and interview them in their
private spaces or their working space.
That way?

DR. BOTHYNA MURSHID: In Saudi Arabia when we go
out, we wear abaya.
Abaya, it's different from region to region.
Here in Riyadh, we wear mainly black.
For every occasion, we do have different kind of abaya.
Fashion designer, they would have a business
only to sell abaya.
And women they, of course, are like oh, I'm wearing this
designer, I'm wearing that.
So yes, abaya, it's part of the fashion now.
My name is Bothyna Zakarea Murshid.
I had my doctorate from Yale University in management of
chronic illness, which is sub-speciality from doctorate
in clinical research.
ZIYAH GAFIC: Whenever we are talking about Muslim woman,
Saudi Arabia's always picked up as a bad example.
But actually, statistically, women in Saudi Arabia are more
educated than men.
There are more women with college degrees, or MAs and
BAs and PhDs, than men.
If the issue that we are dealing with is that Muslim
woman are underrepresented in the media, then I want to
dedicate my attention to her.
Can you move a little bit that way?
Yeah, perfect.
That's why portraits seemed like an
appropriate way to do it.
I wanted to give certain formal values to the picture.
So I'd like to be accurately composed.

After all these years of being a photographer, I don't get
easily surprised.
But what keeps surprising me every single time I get out in
the field and photograph is how people are willing to
allow photographers to enter their private space.
I think that's pretty amazing in any country.
And also in a country like Saudi Arabia where everything
is so private anyways.
Somehow there's this implied trust between a subject and a
So you have a cupcake store?
BASSMA ALHAMMAD: It's not ours, we're
only opening the franchise.
But the original was in Dammam.
It was founded by a Saudi female--
it was very successful.
It's all cupcakes, and they covered over
with the green cream.
About the Saudi women in general, a lot of people think
they're pampered.
But the truth is no, they're very active
but behind the scenes.
They're mothers, they're housewives, they work, they
study at the same time.
A full job, also they're starting their own business.
Recently I can see they're achieving a lot.

ZIYAH GAFIC: On the other hand, yeah,
they're beautiful women.
That's also another thing that we are not aware of.
Because most of the images you see are the images from the
street where they are obliged to cover either part of their
body or most of their body and face.

This was a more controlled environment where I would
choose which part of the room or house plays the person the
way I would like.
What I wanted to create is this kind of simple
environmental portraits.
And the context, in this case environment and private
spaces, actually tell much more than just the figure or
the face of the person.

The story about Islam is a relevant one, globally.
I think it's been widely inaccurately
represented in the media.
That it's tried to be presented as a conflict
between East and West and between Christianity and
Islam, and I think that's really dangerous.
So it's on us to shift that image.


ZIYAH GAFIC: All of the women we met, they all work and they
all have college degrees.
And equally so, I'm sure there's a bunch of women who
are not educated and are out of work.
But I'm just talking about what I've seen.
And obviously, we've seen only a small fraction of it, so I'm
not claiming that we have the whole picture.
But I think it's important to do stories that are showing at
least slightly a different side of the coin.
Nice to meet you.
How are you?
Nice to meet you.
With photographers somehow, a lot of us try to please the
We put the blame on yeah, that's what the media wants.
That's what the people want to see.
How do we know what people want to see?
I can only listen to the common sense.
If I was the reader, what I would like to read?
So this is what I would like to read.
So I do the stories that I would like to see
someone else do.