Below is an excerpt from my recent piece on The National:
Nameless in her own space, judged and defined by others, familiar in some ways, but misunderstood in others – the art exhibition entitled Lalla Essaydi: Revisions explores the artistic representation of Arab women.
In the series Les Femmes du Maroc, the subjects’ entire bodies and space are obscured with illegible calligraphy, that for non-Arabic readers, as the artist Lalla Essaydi herself explained, questions the “assumption that the written holds the best access to reality.”
It also presents a telling account of how the existence of Arab women, who are most commonly defined by their bodies and surrounding spaces, is reduced to rigid concepts that obscure their complictated realities. Arab women are often perceived in binary terms: either she is “this” or she is “that”.
Essaydi, a Moroccan-born artists, explores these themes in her latest exhibition in Washington DC in ways that allow for their application in fields other than art.
As I was viewing Essaydi’s exhibition in DC, I began reflecting on how Moroccan women have been, and continue to be, represented.
Their situation is constantly explained in relative terms. Their status and role in society are seen through the lens of their recent history. This inevitably produces a narrative that assumes every Moroccan woman shares the same reality.
In fact, the status of Moroccan women is, as in any society, riddled with inequalities and imposed hierarchies rooted in history and power, both heavily shaped by political economy.
It is important to identify and expose these inequalities and hierarchies. At various moments, when particular narratives are being perpetuated, both the wealthiest and the poorest, the privileged and the deprived, come to represent the reality of the masses.
I will examine the case of two Moroccan women whose realities demonstrate these two extremes, but who have come to define Moroccan women as a group: Selwa Akhennouch and Amina Filali.
The two are Moroccan women whose lives have come to dominate mainstream media headlines both within and outside Morocco. Measured on a spectrum that factors in wealth and social class, they stand on opposite ends.
What is even more important is that the situations of women in positions like Amina Filali are direct products of political and economic policies that gave way for the success of women like Selwa Akhennouch.