Arts & Culture

How Marwa Al Kalbani challenges stereotypes about niqabis through photography

Marwa Al Kalbani’s work shows that fun and the niqab shouldn’t clash.

.للقراءة بالعربية انقروا هنا

By Sekka Editorial

The subjects of a fun and bright photo series by 23-year-old Omani photographer and graphic designer, Marwa Al Kalbani, are different women wearing the niqab– the black face veil worn by some women in Arab and Islamic societies. 

But instead of posing straight in front of a camera, the photographs portray these women taking part in different leisure activities. In one photo, a group of niqab-wearing women are running barefoot on the beach. In another, a woman sports fuchsia sunglasses with the niqab, and is flying off a yellow swing.

The young Omani, who is also a graphic designer, grew up in Oman, where the niqab is not very common. In fact, Marwa’s first encounter with a “niqabi” ( a woman who wears a niqab), and the stereotypes she discovered she had about it, was in a theme park in Saudi Arabia approximately ten years ago.

“The other times that I saw a niqabi at a theme park was actually when I was taking shots in Oman last year in a theme park called Marah Land. A Saudi niqabi was there with her family and was going on all the rides, as well as the slides,” she explains.

When she was younger, Marwa’s views of women who wear the niqab were that they had to behave in a serious manner, and so she never imagined that they could engage in physical or leisure activities. Marwa explains how her perceptions came to be, “I definitely know that these thoughts and ideas were initiated within our communities. You always hear people making up rules on how others should live their lives. We have so many societal expectations, not just for niqabis, but for every individual in our region, and there are many standards set for women.”

From Marwa’s photography series (Re)Moving Ideals: Challenging Niqabi Stereotypes in Arab Society. Images: Marwa Al Kalbani. Click on each image to enlarge it.

It was then that Marwa realized that these perceptions people have about how people should dress, and behave, change with time.

“I’ll give you an example that I have been thinking about for the past couple of years. If I wanted to wear my traditional Omani dress and go around the malls and meet friends wearing that, would I be judged? If it was thirty years ago, no I wouldn’t be. But now? One hundred per cent.”

Nowadays Omani women, especially the younger generation and those residing in big cities, are rarely seen in traditional Omani dresses in public spaces like shopping centres and restaurants. 

“What I mean is that as humans we tend to adjust based on our surroundings and if we see anyone that is ‘different’, we automatically question their choices,” Marwa states.

From Marwa Alkalbani’s photography series (Re)Moving Ideals: Challenging Niqabi Stereotypes in Arab Society. Image: Marwa Al Kalbani.

When she became aware of her own stereotyping of women in niqab, how the niqab and fun don’t necessarily clash, Marwa planned to positively change others’ perception about niqabis through the tool she knew best: photography. “I’ve always questioned certain conventions or expectations, especially in relation to women, and I have tried to relate it to my work,” she says.

Marwa’s photography series (Re)Moving Ideals: Challenging Niqabi Stereotypes in Arab Society, focuses on the niqab, and portrays women enjoying different leisure activities while wearing it. The photoshoot, which took in place in Oman, and for which Marwa’s friends modelled for her on the basis of her memories of seeing niqabis in theme parks, was a social experience for everyone.

“The women who are photographed are a group of my friends who aren’t niqabis… [So] we got to see reactions of others on the spot, and my friends [also] had the chance to put themselves in someone else’s shoes,” she explains.

Marwa has also turned her photo series into colourful GIFs, or moving image files, that she plans to print in the form of a zine or a flipbook, and have them distributed in the region soon. The GIFs portray niqabis in playful settings, such as playing catch with a ball, and flying away by holding onto  a bunch of balloons.

From Marwa Al Kalbani’s photography series (Re)Moving Ideals: Challenging Niqabi Stereotypes in Arab Society. Image: Marwa Al Kalbani.

“The plan is  for customers to receive a zine that showcases all these photographs, and includes expressions using Arabic typography to aid and enhance my message…The whole point of making a GIF was that I was exploring the idea of motion, and having a GIF created a balance between the whimsical and realistic side of this topic,” she adds.

Marwa has received both criticism and admiration for her photography series, which she shared on her social media page. Critics questioned the point behind publishing such a photo series, while supporters encouraged her to further explore topics that engage society members in a healthy discussion.

As for the future, addressing and challenging stereotypes will remain a topic that Marwa will continue to explore, but her next project is more local. 

“I would like to explore the emergence of the abaya—the black cloak worn by women in Arab societies, and specifically in the Arab Gulf States — in the Omani community, and the impact it has on societal standards relating to women,” she states.

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