My practice uses multidisciplinary tools to navigate overlapping tensions around religion, gender, censorship, and third-culture identity. I’ve most recently worked with installation and mixed media on paper—collage, drawing, and intricate paper cutting—to tell personal stories that juxtapose the opposing cultures I was raised within. Born in Chicago to Yemeni parents, I struggled with a conflicting relationship to Islam, our community’s patriarchal social norms, and the boundary-pushing icons of 80’s and 90’s Western pop culture. In my community of origin, calling attention to my transgressions is considered shameful. In contemporary conversations around Islamophobia and xenophobia, my arguments are often viewed as inconvenient as they complicate what have become polarized and narrow agendas.
Recently, my work has shifted to more personal, vulnerable, and contentious topics. I am in a unique position to shed light on taboo issues because of extreme measures I took to have autonomy over my life and body. Shortly after graduating high school, I was forced to change my identity to avoid retribution in the form of honor violence. I fled a pending forced arranged marriage, religious conservatism, and oppressive misogyny. These are not convenient topics to discuss in today’s society. Right-wing media eagerly uses them to incite xenophobia. Within minority communities, “don’t make us look bad” is often heard to discourage ‘airing dirty laundry’. Despite these challenges, dialogue that challenges misogyny remains crucial. My current work lives in this terrain.
This past summer, I was invited as an artist-in-residence at Los Angeles’ Women’s Center for Creative Work. I used the space to share details of my daily life as a teen, using my old bedroom as the setting, as well as the soon to come identity change and the reasons it was necessary. It was a complicated space; inviting and personal with sporadic references to the challenge and struggle for autonomy. Creating this space enabled intimate conversations where visitors shared their own stories of personal struggle as they were coming of age. For example, I met several young women at my exhibition who revealed to me their conflicts with hijab, a head covering worn by some Muslim women. They confessed that even deliberating the matter made them feel extremely isolated. On one hand, they wanted visibility to help fight Islamophobia; on the other, they disagreed with the notion that a woman’s virtue is related to what she wears. They were comfortable sharing their stories with me and we had a complex, nuanced conversation that these women cannot find many places.
As a Yemeni-American, I increasingly feel the importance of representation as the devastating war in Yemen continues into its fourth year with alarmingly low coverage. I’m particularly concerned with the response to gender-based violence which is often not seen as worthy of attention or justice. Within the first five months of the war, documented cases of gender-based violence, including rape, rose by 70%. Child marriages increased by 66%. The United States, where I have lived most my life, bears undeniable responsibility in the escalating crisis in Yemen. Yet Yemen is included in the list of seven countries whose citizens are banned from obtaining visas to the U.S. Furthermore, in June 2018, then US Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked the right to use domestic violence as grounds for asylum in the U.S. which had provided an opportunity for women to escape serious cases of gender-based violence when not protected by their state.
As my work gains attention, I am reminded of the opportunity and privilege I have to call attention to the impacts of this war. A recent exhibition featured works I created in response to the conflict which examined the censored and limited U.S. media coverage of the war in Yemen. An additional piece speaks to the burden of honor and shame placed disproportionately upon Yemeni women and girls from a very young age. In what was been called the forgotten war, issues that predominantly affect women and girls are further overlooked. The taboo of shame and honor, specifically when associated with a woman’s sexuality, are rarely voiced, not unlike a woman’s name. With this piece I used a matronymic with my and mother’s name, a reversal to the standard patronymic which conceals a woman’s name to prevent drawing shame.
My practice is rooted in the principle, “the personal is political” and this conviction continuously drives me to challenge resistance—aiming to underscore the connections between personal experience and larger social and political structures. I see my work as a place of relevance for others, particularly those of the growing multicultural diaspora.
Many of us find ourselves in a strange space between invisibility and hypervisibility. I am curious about these spaces and the cultural differences that shape us.
*third culture identity refers to those raised in a culture that is different than that of their parents.