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

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.


Tolerance key to promoting inclusive society: EU envoy

Updated 17 October 2019

Tolerance key to promoting inclusive society: EU envoy

  • Intellectuals, diplomats discuss challenge of blending cultures, faiths and values

RIYADH/JEDDAH: The European envoy to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday called for more tolerance and respect to help bring diverse societies closer together.

Ambassador Michele Cervone d’Urso, head of the EU delegation to the Kingdom, made his appeal as he welcomed attendees to a high-profile lecture to discuss Saudi and European perspectives on religious tolerance and diversity.

Organized by the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRIS), the event gathered together top intellectuals, diplomats and scholars to debate the issues of tolerance, forgiveness and acceptance of others.

Opening the lecture at the King Faisal Foundation building in Riyadh, d’Urso spoke about tolerance and how it was core to the transformation of societies, especially in Europe which had become more diverse.

“Today’s European society is a mixture of cultures, faiths, values, ideas, and habits. The challenge is to make sure our society is more inclusive, enhance mutual understanding and promote tolerance and respect,” the envoy said.

He pointed to the UN’s blossoming partnership with the KFCRIS and the importance of the lecture as key building blocks in the process of bridging cultural and religious gaps between societies.

“I think there are few more teams that are exchanging on the Saudi and European perspectives of religious tolerance and diversity. All of us know that the KFCRIS builds from the legacy of the late King Faisal and has been a pillar in promoting Islam,” d’Urso added.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Ambassador Michele Cervone d’Urso, head of the EU delegation to the Kingdom, made his appeal as he welcomed attendees to a high-profile lecture to discuss Saudi and European perspectives on religious tolerance and diversity.
  • Dr. Mohammed bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, secretary-general of the Muslim World League (MWL), told delegates that when he talked about tolerance in Islam, he also meant tolerance in Saudi Arabia as a state that applied and was governed by Shariah law.
  • The director of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), Dr. Michael Privot, who converted to Islam 26 years ago, spoke about how the EU was characterized by increasing diversity, including religious and philosophical beliefs, even from the Muslim perspective.

He noted that in Europe there were many people of faith that had respect for coexistence. 

Dr. Mohammed bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, secretary-general of the Muslim World League (MWL), told delegates that when he talked about tolerance in Islam, he also meant tolerance in Saudi Arabia as a state that applied and was governed by Shariah law.

He said a state that respected others, human existence and brotherhood could not exist “unless there is respect for diversity and differences as a universal norm that no one can collide.”

According to Al-Issa, the Charter of Madinah (regarded as the first Islamic state constitution) was considered one of the best achievements of civil legislation in human history. “This document was held by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, with the Jews and represented binding legislation for Muslims toward religious minorities.”

The MWL chief noted that the document included the protection of civil and religious rights. “The document cannot be absorbed by extremism, it is clear. These rights and freedoms have been preserved by this legislation. And the Prophet Muhammad coexisted with everyone and understood these differences and diversity.”

In his speech, Al-Issa explained how the Qur’an gave Jews and Christians a special name to celebrate their religious origins where they were called “people of the book,” in reference to the Torah and the Gospel. The history of Christians and Jews was also never omitted.

Addressing the event, director of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), Dr. Michael Privot, who converted to Islam 26 years ago, spoke about how the EU was characterized by increasing diversity, including religious and philosophical beliefs, even from the Muslim perspective.

“We encounter such a diversity of ways of being Muslim from a theoretical, cultural, philosophical, ideological point of view. Any single Muslim group or community is represented somewhere in Europe and this situation puts European Muslims in a very unique environment which is different from any other Islamic majority society in the world,” said Privot.

He pointed out that for the first time in history Muslim groups from Uzbekistan and Senegal were living together and trying to become a community in European societies.

“Societies, which have completely liberalized the market of religions, believe all faiths are accepted,” he added.

Earlier on Monday, an MWL forum in Makkah recommended that Islamic discourse should adhere to the principles of the Qur’an and Sunnah, the Muslims’ uppermost legislative sources, which are also known as the Two Divine Revelations.

The forum, titled “The Service of the Two Revelations,” called upon concerned authorities in the Muslim world to regulate Islamic fatwas in a way that prevented extremism and stopped producing any misguided explanations of the divinely revealed texts.

The participants also encouraged the use of modern technology, especially social media, to better serve the Qur’an and Sunnah to help link Muslim youths with the two revelations.

In addition, the gathering proposed establishing platforms for producing software and smart apps related to the Qur’an and Sunnah and the launch of an international service award under the umbrella of the MWL.

Al-Issa added that the MWL had staged a number of Qur’an memorization programs in 78 countries and said there were now 68 colleges and institutes where 7,500 students were studying the Qur’an.

“Some 61,275 Qur’an readers have graduated from these institutes, with 5,055 reciters having obtained authentic reading certificates. The IOQAS (International Organization of Qitab and Sunnah) has also carried out 193 training courses and provided nearly 3,000 scholarships,” he said.