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Don't pigeonhole us, say Saudi women artists

From Rima Maktabi, CNN
October 8, 2011 -- Updated 1049 GMT (1849 HKT)
Reem Al Faisal's photography focuses on people and landscapes Reem Al Faisal's photography focuses on people and landscapes
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Critics expect our work to address women's rights, says Reem Al Faisal
  • Having women judges is more important than driving, she adds
  • People stereotype us as Saudi women, says artist Lulwah Al-Homoud

Beirut, Lebanon (CNN) -- As Saudi women artists, Reem Al Faisal and Lulwah Al Homoud, feel they are fighting against multiple stereotypes.

They are caught between conservative attitudes at home and western critics who expect them to address women's rights in their work.

"They want you to talk about very limited things like sexual oppression, search for identity and if you don't fit these criteria you're excluded and you are not considered a good artist," said Al Faisal.

Al Faisal, a photographer, has another reason for being wary of people's expectations: She is a princess, a granddaughter of the first king of Saudi Arabia. She avoids being photographed or showing her face in interviews to allow her to travel the world anonymously without bodyguards.

They want you to talk about very limited things like sexual oppression
Reem Al Faisal

Her work has taken her to China, Japan, India, Europe, America and all around the Middle East, capturing striking black-and-white photographs of people and landscapes.

Al Homoud, a single mother who brought up her two sons in London, creates abstract art, often geometric black-and-white drawings.

She said: "People kind of concentrate on you and give you more attention because you have female Saudi artists, but it's kind of upsetting because it's related to stereotype, and I think what we are doing is changing this stereotype."

Her work includes "infinite square," in which she uses the word Allah -- the Arabic word for God -- to create geometric shapes and lines connecting the artist to a timeless world unlimited by borders.

Al Homoud said: "I am trying to say that I am not a prisoner of a moment or a place. My work is -- I would say -- eternal. It's not restricted to an event or an experience or anything. It's spiritual, it's higher than senses."

A Reem Al Faisal shot of people using umbrellas to protect them from the sun
A Reem Al Faisal shot of people using umbrellas to protect them from the sun

Al Faisal and Al Homoud, along with other Saudi artists, displayed their work at the Nabatt exhibition of modern Saudi artists in Shanghai last year and more recently in Beirut.

The position of Saudi women has gained attention worldwide after King Abdullah announced in September that women will in future be allowed to serve as members of the Shura Council, the appointed consultative council that advises the king.

He also said women will be allowed to run as candidates and nominate candidates in the next set of municipal elections.

They could not participate in municipal elections that were held last month for only the second time in the kingdom's history.

Women are also subject to male guardianship laws, in which they have to seek permission from their husband, father or even son to work, travel, study and many other activities.

Saudi women have been campaigning for the right to drive. Last month King Abdullah revoked a flogging sentence of 10 lashes for a woman allegedly arrested for driving a car.

Nuha Al Sulaiman, who founded the Saudi Women Revolution earlier this year to campaign for greater rights, welcomed King Abdullah's announcements but said they did not go far enough.

It's kind of upsetting because it's related to stereotype
Lulwah Al-Homoud

"We are afraid that it's not going to happen the way we want it to," she said. "Also we think that this decision is good but it's not enough."

Al Sulaiman said she still wanted to see the end of male guardianship, the introduction of laws to protect women from violence and discrimination, and driving licenses for women.

She said: "We suffer every day. The improvement process is so slow we wish the next step won't delay more.

"The king mentioned very impressive and effective words in his speech towards women's dignity and rights, we hope it's an obligation to give Saudi women back their dignity step by step."

Al Faisal, too, wants to see an improvement in women's rights, but believes sometimes the issue of driving has distracted from more important issues.

"I would like to see women in the judiciary system as far more important for me. A car will come naturally if she is a supreme court judge or traveling without a permission."

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