Game Changers The Traditions Issue

Coming of age: a Middle Eastern and North African experience

Sara Bin Safwan. Courtesy.

When a copy of In the middle of it all landed on my hands last June, I could truly say that I had never read anything like it before. And I’ve read my fair share of books. That’s because the 88-pager published earlier this year tackles MENA women’s coming of age experience, an undiscussed topic in the region’s public discourse, and it does so in its own unique way.

The book unites 31 women from diverse backgrounds, who get personal and share their experiences of reaching adulthood- including adapting to pre-established beauty standards, experiencing childhood nostalgia, and making sense of their identities- through art, writing, and photography.

All of them were brought together by the Banat Collective, a creative community founded ‘in response to a lack of artist spaces and lack of discussions about womanhood within the arts in the Middle East and North Africa’.

I speak to Sara Bin Safwan, the Banat Collective’s Emirati-Honduran founder, curator, and Central Saint Martin’s graduate of Culture, Criticism, and Curation. She reveals how the collective came together, why she thinks the coming of age experience in the MENA needs to be highlighted, and why men should pick this book up too. This interview has been edited.

In the middle of it all tackles the coming of age of MENA women. Courtesy.


How did the idea of the Banat Collective come about?

After living in London for so long, I grew apart from the UAE and a desire to reconnect with my country and culture personally inspired me to start Banat. I also had questions and ideas I wanted to share with people but I found it hard to physically find people to connect with initially. The Internet became a great tool to connect with artists across the region and led me to meet some incredible and talented women that inspire me every day.

I started the collective as a reaction to the lack of small-scale art initiatives in the UAE. Banat is really a response to the need for more accommodating spaces for grass-root movements to grow.

The team spearheading the Banat Collective is made of five women- Bahraini Eman Bahrani, Emirati Aliyah Al Awadhi, Libyan Farrah Fray, Bahraini Fatema Nooh- and you. How did all of you meet?

I was running Banat on my own until I started to create In the middle of it all. I sent out vacancies and met everyone through Skype. I’ve met three of the girls from the team [in person] so far, but the distance does not interfere with our ability to communicate and run the platform. We are constantly sharing ideas through our weekly meetings or Whatsapp group.

Tell us about the curation process for In the middle of it all. How did you get the word out to contributors to participate?

The idea came to fruition through a brainstorming session between myself and a few artists (this was before the official team came together). There was pressure because it’s our first collaborative project to share with the world and we wanted to make sure that we presented an idea that hasn’t been run over many times in the Arab art community or come across as ‘overly feminist’. Ultimately, we agreed that we wanted to present something universal and authentic. This led to the theme of coming of age.

Once we agreed, we held out a call for submissions through social media for artists to tackle the theme and received over 70 submissions. We also invited specific artists that we felt resonated with the book to be included in the book and even received work created exclusively for In the middle of it all from Manar Khalid, Amira Al Awadhi, Aruua Al Salami and Farrah Fray.

How did you choose from the contributions you received?

The submissions required the artist to explain the concept and artist statement to help us understand the work. This allowed us to categorize and identify specific themes and topics that connected similarly with each other, which led us to section the book into 5 chapters that overlook the arc of the coming of age story. The chapters focus on themes such as puberty, identity and place, nostalgia, beauty standards, and spirituality, with many sub-themes in between.

Instead of presenting an array of essays or interviews, the book takes a visual direction, creating a visual narrative through consolidating artworks within different themed chapters. These chapters resemble a structure that isn’t linear, but rather reflects the way that different moments and ideas can be both set apart or tied together.

I had to be rigorous and decisive with the selection of art and writing to present a project that was authentic, inviting and important. By that I mean that I knew that the story of coming of age from an Arab girl is a unique experience that is kept secret and made into a story of taboo. In the middle of it all presents stories from real women and girls who experience firsthand what it is like to grow up as a girl from the Arab world – an experience that is never shared publicly in the mainstream or within our own communities.

Why do you think coming of age in the Arab World needs to be highlighted?

It’s a meaningful topic that is not only universal and relatable but is also a topic of much stigma and deliberation in the region and internationally as well. Coming of age is overlooked in the Arab world, being rebranded and constructed by centuries of cultural and social tradition.

Despite this, the trials of womanhood uncover happiness, resilience and independence. Through showcasing artworks that uncover personal histories and cultural intricacies, In the middle of it all reveals diverse and authentic experiences of growing up and hopefully demystifies the stereotypical notion of the Arab woman. 

In the middle of it all also tackles spirituality. This featured artwork is by Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail. Courtesy.

In the middle of it all also tackles spirituality. This featured artwork is by Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail. Courtesy.

What is that stereotype?

I think there are two stereotypes. One is the Western notion that Arab Muslim women are inherently oppressed. Two is that Arab women are not and cannot be feminists.

In the Western media, Arab women are portrayed as living difficult lives, following behind the steps of men and linking that to Islam. This has created a horrible stereotype that Islam is an oppressive religion and has no room for independent women. 

My second point is that there seems to be a struggle within Arab culture of grasping the concept of feminism for the Arab woman. I have met many who believe that feminism is not meant for us. However, I believe that they are also wrapped up in the Western narrative. We need to introduce new concepts and ideas that help the ideas of feminism branch out beyond the West, [and] that can be inclusive of other cultures and genders. Feminism is not about running naked on the street but about claiming autonomy and basic human rights. This is a concept that should be universal in all cultures, not just Western [ones]. 

However, I truly think this is a beautiful time for Arab feminism, where there have been more initiatives and people raising awareness about the issues running in their home countries. I think it’s very important to finally start claiming ownership of our own stories! 

Therefore, have you showcased any of the curated artwork in the West or had any discussions revolving around it there?

We have not had the chance –yet– to showcase our work outside of the region. I have very little interest in attracting Western audiences because Banat is made for women (and men) currently situated here, in the region. There is a lack of space, opportunity and discussion that needs to be addressed. Grass-root movements are a necessity in order to foster growth and creativity.

I constantly see (and I am one myself) that young people leave the region to study or live abroad when actually, they are leaving a fertile space that is ready for change. My shift in perspective came to realization when I released the book, and noticed that most of the supporters are local and regional, which tells me that there is a thirst for creative spaces that actually mean something. It’s empowering to create something that is your own and no one else’s.  I believe it is important to have the ability to frame our own histories and experiences.

I think once we are able to show what we are capable of is when that energy translates outside and hopefully pulls in audiences that are willing to change their perceptions of women and people from the Arab Region.

Why do you think art is the best way to communicate and challenge narratives?

Art is a universal language. It sounds cliché, but it is. No matter your position, your background [or] your gender – art is the most accessible way to communicate and challenge narratives.

Moshtari Hilal’s artwork depicts the struggles marginalized groups go through when they’re expected to adopt Eurocentric beauty standards. Courtesy.

The book is currently only available for purchase through your online store. Will we be seeing it on shelves in bookstores anytime soon?

Yes, we are currently working on distributing locally and overseas in some stores!

Do you think men should pick this book up too? Why?

Of course, Banat Collective aims to be inclusive and share ideas with anyone who is willing to take part in our discussions.

A message for our readers.

We are constantly open to general submissions for artists and writers who would like to have their work featured through Banat Collective.

We’re opening up our projects to have more of a physical voice locally in Abu Dhabi and hopefully [will] be programming some events soon. Keep posted on our social media!

Click here to read more about the Banat Collective and ‘In the middle of it all’. 

Disclaimer: The views of the interviewee(s) are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees, and affiliates.

Sharifah Alhinai is the Managing Storyteller at Sekka.