Brushes with history: Saudi artist Hend Al-Mansour's quest to reframe the story of women’s roles in the Arab world

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Hend Al-Mansour came to the US 21 years ago as a physician, then gave up medicine for art. Her work received the juror’s award at the Contemporary Islamic Art exhibition in Riyadh in 2012 and she received the Jerome fellowship in printmaking.
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Updated 23 March 2018
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Brushes with history: Saudi artist Hend Al-Mansour's quest to reframe the story of women’s roles in the Arab world

WASHINGTON: The West — and the Western media especially — has tended to see Saudi Arabian women mostly as victims, passive players in a deeply patriarchal culture.
That view has been slowly changing. As the driving ban lifts this June, Saudi women are being perceived not as victims but as standing up for their rights.
Hend Al-Mansour, a leading figure in the Saudi women’s movement, is one of the most widely recognized Saudi women artists. She has been on a quest to reclaim, through her art, the story of women in the Arab world.
“In the first few years (of my shows), I found myself more or less educating people, trying to help them understand the basic thing, that women in the Arab world are not passive,” she said. “Later, the audience was more understanding. Especially now, as the Saudis are on the front pages, people understand more.
“People are very curious. Gradually, they’re getting it. It’s baby steps.”
Al-Mansour came to the US 21 years ago as a physician, then gave up medicine for art. Her work received the juror’s award at the Contemporary Islamic Art exhibition in Riyadh in 2012 and she received the Jerome fellowship in printmaking.
One of her prints was recently on the cover of a report for the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, a nod to Al-Mansour’s importance among Saudi Arabian feminists. The report lists 20 instances of activism in three different waves by Saudi women, starting from the historic demonstration against the driving ban on Nov. 6, 1990.
In an extraordinarily open conversation, Al-Mansour talked with Arab News about leaving medicine for art, the status of women in Saudi Arabia, and the changing view of Arab women in the West.

How has the view of women in the Arab world changed, especially from the West?
Especially in the West, there is a broad blanket, and it covers all women. But the Arab world is not homogeneous. In the 1970s, when I visited Beirut, it was normal for women and girls to wear miniskirts. In Saudi Arabia, men and women have been assigned well-defined, separate spaces. I studied in Egypt (attending medical school there). There women could get a wide range of education. They could be engineers, doctors.
In the late 80s and 90s, a wave of conservatism came over the Middle East. When I went back to Saudi Arabia in the 2000s, I could see black gloves, and I was surprised.
When I first came (to the US) they didn’t differentiate: A Pakistani, Iranian and Arab were the same thing. After the Arab Spring, they began to understand there are differences.
More importantly, they understand women are not passive in the Arab world. Women in the Middle East have conviction. If they put hijab on, they believe that this is part of their identity, religion and respect for their bodies. If they don’t put it on, they have conviction about that, too. They are active in whatever they’re doing. They are passionate.

I have often wondered, looking at photographs of the old Middle East, what would cause women to willingly give up some of their freedom?
I don’t understand either. When I was in Saudi Arabia, my friends were mostly unveiled. When I went back, my friends were all veiled. It’s a social phenomenon, but I don’t think religion is the cause. The religion is the result (of the same wave that results in women putting on the veil).
I put on hijab in Egypt for more than a year. It was a more of a rebellious act. I was catching the beginning of the wave.

What made you take it off?
I felt like a hypocrite. My behavior wasn’t that of a pious woman.

How do you explain the influence of religion in Saudi Arabia to Americans?
In Saudi Arabia (some believe that) the morality of the community depends on how the women dress and behave. The duty of the women is to keep society straight. Men’s job is to guard women.
It’s complex. Men are not off the hook. The whole community has roles, but they’re not natural. There is a concept in Saudi Arabia that women have half brains. That’s why I went to medical school, to prove that wrong. Now, there is a deviation from all that baggage, as Saudi Arabia becomes less isolated. Women are being recognized as whole humans.

What are some lost stories of Saudi Arabia?
When I was in Saudi Arabia, I learned the Western art. I admired Leonardo da Vinci. But there were beautiful local practices, like henna, I didn’t recognize. When my mother was a young woman, she thought henna was something backwards. … But each local, beautiful pattern has a name. We have lost it now. …I (found) eight of the patterns, and created an image of them. I made a series of prints from those. I also printed around them a folktale from the same period of time: Green in Souk, Red in Mother.
Another thing that we lost is the native architecture. When I was a child, under 10, there was a totally different landscape, of mud houses and narrow streets. The narrow streets keep the shadow in the street, and women can move in between their houses without having to veil. Even in the neighborhood, they could go from one house to another.

Does your mother like what you’re doing now?
She was really excited when I became a doctor, and mad at me when I left medicine, though she thinks I am a good artist. … She didn’t go to school when she was young, because there weren’t any schools. She studied with me.
What people should recognize is that women in Saudi Arabia are working harder than other women to make progress, to be in that place. I remember a story a woman told me of what her father did when he saw her holding a pencil – just holding a pencil. That was a great sin, and he hit her.

What led you to give up being a doctor to become an artist?
I wanted freedom of expression and freedom to be myself. It was really hard. When I realized how our conception of art in the Arab world was limited to Western art, the whole question of identity came to the fore.
Mostly what I like to do now are installations. I take rolls of paper or rolls of fabric and hang them on a skeleton. I build those spaces, borrowing the shapes of tents and mosques. My latest is called the “Pink House of God.” It’s about a Saudi woman who lives in Minnesota and includes a design made by Bedouin women. This design is intermingled with Tinkerbell. Tinkerbell was important to the woman I interviewed, because Tinkerbell is independent and could manage things.
There is a prayer rug on the floor. I want to show we can identify with Arab women. I put women into these shrines. This is more of a message to the Arab or Islamic audience.


Saudi Justice Ministry’s e-services speed up powers of attorney

The ministry also announced a new digital mechanism for updating title deeds and obtaining a duplicate title deed, saving 90 percent of the clients’ time. (SPA)
Updated 26 min 37 sec ago
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Saudi Justice Ministry’s e-services speed up powers of attorney

  • “E-notarization will save about 8 million sheets of paper annually, making notarization greener and more cost-effective,” the ministry pointed out

JEDDAH: The Saudi Justice Ministry on Tuesday announced that it has issued more than 163,000 low-risk powers of attorney (PoAs) through its online portal “Najiz” in one month since the launch of its e-services.
The e-notarization system was launched on Nov. 18 to provide several services that dispense with paperwork and spare clients the need to visit notarial offices for low-risk PoAs.
The ministry also conducted 193,229 verification operations through its various electronic channels.
Prior to the launch of the e-notarization service, Justice Minister Waleed Al-Samaani said: “The Saudi Ministry of Justice is continuing its efforts to achieve the objectives of the National Transformation Program 2020 and Vision 2030, which focus on enhancing the user-friendliness and cost-effectiveness of government services.”
“The ministry is keen to overhaul and digitize procedures in the legal, enforcement and notarization sectors, a strategic objective that the ministry has given utmost importance,” he added.
The ministry revealed eight new e-services in the notarization sector, including digital PoAs, which put an end to paperwork and most of the clients’ visits to notarial offices. Digital PoAs are sent to the clients’ Absher-registered mobile numbers.
“E-notarization will save about 8 million sheets of paper annually, making notarization greener and more cost-effective,” the ministry pointed out.
One of the new e-services enables clients to inquire about their PoAs and their validity, terminate unwanted ones, and find out about the agencies that have checked the validity of any of their PoAs.
Another e-service enables government agencies to verify PoAs online through the “Yesser” program, the universal access number 920025888, the ministry’s portal (www.moj.gov.sa), and its official app.
The new system abridges about 70 percent of procedures and directs clients straight to the assigned notary’s office without having to go through the data entry hall.
The ministry also announced a new digital mechanism for updating title deeds and obtaining a duplicate title deed, saving 90 percent of the clients’ time. Under the new procedure, clients need only to visit the notarial office once the updated or duplicate title deed is ready.
Recently, the ministry also set a time limit of 21 days on the acceptance of rights claims made under domestic labor laws.
The time limit relates to labor or domestic labor disputes that are subject to periods of friendly settlement before reaching judicial proceedings.
A 21-day time limit was also set for complaints against the General Organization for Social Insurance regarding membership, registration and compensation issues. If a settlement is not reached in that period, the dispute is brought electronically to the labor courts through the Ministry of Labor and Social Development.
A five-day reconciliation period applies in cases of domestic workers after a dispute is settled. If there is no reconciliation during that time, the committee has 10 extra days to issue its decision and submit it electronically to the labor court.
The ministry recently opened seven labor courts in Riyadh, Makkah, Jeddah, Abha, Dammam, Buraidah and Madinah.