Middle Eastern and North African societies, with their social, economic, and political structures, have shaped and inspired the art of Arab female artists. These artists have affirmed that their place in the world informs their identity and perception of what is happening in their immediate surroundings and in the world, which is why these themes dominate most of their artwork and paintings.

Sada conducted 14 interviews with female artists from eight Arab countries, in which they answered four main questions related to what inspires their artwork, their motivations to express an idea or feeling, the level of freedom they have to express certain topics and events, and the issues that influence their artistic talents.

The questions answered by the artists are:

  • What is the main topic or theme that dominates most of your work? And what do you want to express?
  • What inspires or influences your artwork?
  • Are you able to freely express your ideas and feelings through your work?
  • Do you feel any kind of self-censorship that may prevent you from executing an artistic idea? If the answer is yes, why do you feel this censorship, or what are the reasons for it?

All artists maintained that as women, their identities and the symbols that represent them inspired many of their works. Most of them also mentioned that they felt great freedom when expressing these topics. However, when asked about whether there was censorship of any kind being placed upon them, some said that they do not feel any kind of censorship because the topics they work on are not considered problematic and would not provoke social or political institutions. On the other hand, other artists, however, said that they experience more self-censorship than institutionally-imposed censorship, and avoid topics that may provoke the authorities.

The female artists who participated in answering Sada’s questions are from the following countries: Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, Oman, and Yemen. Their artwork presented in this special article on women and art exhibit a diversity of used materials, modes of expression, and art schools to which they belong. Despite the multiplicity of themes in their artwork, the theme of women and gender remained central.

A call for peace and coexistence

Saba Jallas, Yemen

The main theme in my work is often a call for peace and coexistence as well as a rejection of war and its tragic consequences. I express the well-known problems that afflict society. Usually, I draw freely because I do not touch controversial issues, at least until now. However, when I held my first personal exhibition in Egypt (artistic activities are limited in Yemen), I encountered what I did not expect. Although I exhibited my work in Egypt, critics have accused me of belonging to one side over another in the war in Yemen, even though I only express peace in my works.

Saba Muhammad Jallas is from Sanaa and a graduate of French literature, who worked on drawing as a hobby after the outbreak of war. She started painting in oil colors in 2017 after she was unemployed due to the war.

Artist avoids censorship by using symbols

Aicha Filali, Tunisia

The themes of my artwork revolve around the Tunisian society. Most of the topics that I choose stem from the heart of the Tunisian social issue. I always strive to draw different styles by observing the various customs and traditions in daily life, such as the customs in celebrating marriage.

I also use underwear as a theme because it varies from person to person, from one gender to another, and from one age group to another. While I chose to express the issue of marriage using soft materials such as cloth, drawing, and embroidery, for the subject of underwear I chose painted pottery.

I also held an entire exhibition centered on religious TV channels when they spread widely in the Arab world via satellite channels. I painted pictures of preachers giving sermons for long hours without moving.

The change that took place in Tunisia under the Arab Spring influenced me to draw miniatures that mix the past and the present within the same picture, which would confuse the audience because they no longer realize the exact period depicted.

I can express my ideas freely without any censorship, whether it is internal or external. It is possible that freedom of expression can be established in our region someday. I want to point out that artistic expression, social or political, is rarely displayed with direct speech. An artist uses symbols and suggestions that avoid most forms of censorship.

Aicha Filali is an artist from Tunisia, who attended the Tunisian University where she now teaches fine arts. She is the director of the Art center in Rads and exhibits her works in Tunisia and internationally.

I express the daily suffering of mothers and people

Claudine Kamar, Lebanon

Most of the topics that I focus on relate to the daily suffering experienced by the Lebanese citizen, but I present them in a comical, non-vulgar way, so that people do not feel that I am making fun of them. In my drawings, I want to express the daily problems that are truly difficult, but in a way that is funny and full of optimism. Being a mother of three means I face the problems every mother goes through, but the problems inspire some artistic ideas. The political and social problems that my country is going through are also a source of inspiration for funny and sad ideas.

There is no complete freedom. I feel free in some of my artwork, but in terms of politics, I prefer ambiguity and leave the audience to interpret the art it in their own way. I don't like to offend anyone because of their affiliations or beliefs and I do not like to impose my opinion. I definitely feel censored. I do not like vulgarity and prefer to maintain positive traditions and beliefs, and those I reject are presented in a comical way.

Claudine Kamar is a Lebanese artist from Achrafieh, Beirut. After a childhood encompassing challenges and exhilarating experiences, Kamar studied at Ecole de la Charité. Seeing the world in terms of colors and pictures, she grew up with a passion for cartoon drawings and creative arts leading her to major in Graphic Design. At a young age, she ventured into the magical world of the advertising and design industry and currently has over 18 years of experience in advertising, visual communication, and design that speak of her performance and creativity.

Identity and originality symbols influence my artistic uniqueness

Fakhriya Al-Yahyai, Oman

The topics I like to express most are the issues of Arab and Omani identity. Because the practice of art provides exclusivity in self-expression, I have always looked for exclusivity when offering and presenting art that represents me as an Arab and Omani woman. In the richness of colors and the various motifs that characterize the Omani women’s dress, I found a real opportunity to be unique, especially in light of the intertwining of cultures. I found that the Omani woman’s vocabulary is one of the most important symbols that supports my idea of exclusivity on the issue of the Omani identity, and that it can serve as a substitute for any other vocabulary.

Therefore, I find myself always authentically expressing my Omani identity. I love researching cultures and traditions because our individual heritages are what distinguishes us from each other. The topic of heritages also helps achieve uniqueness and originality, which is an important issue in the world of art.

The colors, decorations, and inscriptions that are available in the world around us and the idea of heritage inspire me greatly. The colors and decorative miniatures attract me most and make me feel the prestige, strength, and uniqueness of the Omani women’s dress compared to other women in the Arab Gulf region. So, I trained my eyes to first search for small details before the big ones. I find myself always searching for uniqueness, and I find myself practicing the art process in daily activities like choosing my clothes. This process leaves me in a state of permanent celebration of the world of colors, light, and all the symbols of energy and vitality.

Yes, I have complete freedom to express my thoughts and feelings in the ways that I find appropriate for myself and for the success of my artistic idea. I have never felt that my artistic ideas were imprisoned or restricted by anyone.

Self-censorship is very important to us as artists in the Arab world. Some contemporary artistic trends and methods are inappropriate in our societies, such as performing arts and body arts (such as the naked body, or body torture). In terms of display methods, the disconnect is very natural because we have many societal traditions and values that are incompatible with those artistic practices.

Fakhriya Al-Yahyai is a professor of drawing and painting, and she served as Head of the Art Education Department at Sultan Qaboos University in the Sultanate of Oman from 2013-2019. She is a member of several local and international professional associations concerned with arts and culture. She has held solo and group exhibitions at the global and local levels. Al- Yahyai played a role in documenting and recording arts, culture, and heritage in Oman through several research papers, books and chapters, and various critical writings. She won several artistic and academic awards, including the 2013 National Museum of Women's competition in San Francisco for the exhibition of the Muslim Women's Art and their Voice.

Women and girls are my inspiration

Farida Aouf, Egypt

The main theme that I focus on in my work is the mystery of the human psyche with its deep and complex structures. I want to express where feelings are, how they dominate, and to what extent they psychologically dominate the decision of a person’s life or death. I like to express feelings of betrayal and love, loss of safety, freedom, internal prison in our bodies, strength, weakness, sadness, and joy. I love expressing all these feelings because of the internal contradictions and struggles.

What inspires me are women and girls. I express myself completely and freely when I work on my art. I do not feel self-censored when expressing my creativity in a painting. I decided to use my art to express my feelings, experiences, and events that I share with other women and other people in the form of art, using colors and paintings. I express myself through art because art can deliver messages that transcends languages, cultures, and even time.

Farida Abu Aouf is an Egyptian artist and a feminist and queer activist, who is interested in defending LGBT rights in the Middle East, especially Egypt. Because of her beliefs, she was forced to immigrate to Canada. Farida has participated in 12 art exhibitions in Egyptian culture palaces, the Egyptian opera, and some international exhibitions. She is currently preparing artwork to participate with other female artists to display at the Museum of the Ontario Art Gallery in an initiative to support women's art and highlight the marginalization and exclusion of women throughout history.

Women’s concern and love for beauty

Amira Ashknani, Kuwait

The main topic that dominates my work is the issue of women, their concerns, and their love for beauty. Women appear clearly in my work in the Gulf dress and sometimes dominate my symbolic artwork. I like to use to use decorations and color to symbolize the Gulf dress or interests of women. It is known that women love decoration and flowers, and I am keen on highlighting this in my artwork.

The artist is influenced by all of the issues around them and expresses these issues through artwork hoping to send a message to society in an aesthetic way. Fine art is a visual culture. I have expressed many issues such as the issue of the martyr and honoring one’s parents, but the woman remains my inspiration and my main cause. I want to show society the needs and interests of women, including her love for care, attention, and beauty.

There are no restrictions for creativity, and boldness is the basis of art. As an artist, I am free to express what I want, and I find pleasure in that. Painting expresses my thoughts, visions, and feelings, but within the limits of our culture and customs because freedom in our societies is restricted. In our society, art must be in the limits of what is considered reasonable and acceptable to society. In my works, I express our society, our Arab reality, and its view of women. The restrictions and control imposed on women become like a wall that harasses women and limits their creativity.

Yes, there is self-censorship. It is a natural phenomenon for any sane person. The creative field makes an artist want to express all the issues that affect them, but they are limited by the rules that are set by the society to which they belong. I seek to convey messages to my society through the culture of beauty without departing from my culture.

Amira Ashknani is an art education director and a member of the Board of Directors for the Kuwaiti Society for Fine Arts. She has won many awards at the Kuwait Festival for Fine Creativity, including the Amir of the Country Award, Sheikha Fattouh Al-Salman Award, and Sheikha Salwa Al-Sabah Award. She held three personal exhibitions in 2009, 2011, and 2019. She participated in many exhibitions outside Kuwait, such as in London, Rome, Madrid, South Africa, Russia, and Moldova.

Women issues inspire me always

Gina-Nahle Bauer, Lebanon

As an artist the theme of women was, and is, fascinating to me because I understand women in all aspect of their life, especially in our Middle Eastern countries, where women are fighting for their rights. In my work, I liberate women and make them free, so that their beauty comes out naturally. People always ask me, especially in our society, why I focus on women and my answer to that is because we women understand each other better. So for me, I try to bring women back where they belong in the world.

This group of women is an invitation to you to discover women – women of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. They are inspiring, exciting, and full of love and life. Each of them has a name and a character that says to you: I am here.

Gina is a German-Lebanese artist and she studied art at Beirut University. Her work is all about women. She created art objects with different materials such as Murano glass, silver, wood, and chocolate. She exhibited her artwork in Lebanon, Qatar, UAE, France, Germany, Switzerland, and France.

I draw women throughout history to the future

Hafsa Al-Tamimi, Oman

TThe main theme that dominates most of my work is women. I often paint faces in an abstract, symbolic, and expressive manner. In the features of each face, I use colors and symbols to draw the feelings and stories of their owners.

What inspires me and influences my work are the stories of different women. They are my inspiration. I paint women of different genders, colors, beliefs, and experiences. I paint them throughout history, in their present, and in their future. To me, women are the same all over the world.

I am free to express my feelings and thoughts, especially because most of my work has a sensual side that I can paint symbolically and dreamily. So, I am free to put forward that idea. Because the painting is my responsibility and everything in it reflects my identity, thoughts, and feelings, I have both the freedom and responsibility to produce my artwork without falsifying the originality of my thoughts and without infringing on the feelings of others.

Hafsa Al-Tamimi is a member of the Omani Society for Fine Arts, and she participated in all youth exhibitions and annual exhibitions from 2000 to 2016 in Oman. She also participated in joint exhibitions between Omani, Swedish, and Sudanese artists, as well as between Omani and Saudi artists. She has held several personal exhibitions in Jordan, Egypt, and Greece. She has also won local, Gulf, and regional awards.

I want people to have a personal experience

Malak Al-Abbar, Libya

Visually, I notice that African culture influences my work greatly. The influence can be seen in the colors, lines, loud shapes, and abstract faces that encourage the recipient of the work to imagine new forms, which allows people to relate to my art and have a personal experience with it. I use my art as a means of coping with the world around me, and to know myself more.

I can express freely to a large extent. I am aware of the limitations and reservations artists face when implementing an idea that may not be accepted by society. However, I have not personally encountered any such problem because my work is either predominantly abstract or a visual depiction of basic human feelings without the aspects that are usually controversial.

Malak Al-Abbar is a Libyan artist, born in Benghazi in 1993. She is a self-taught artist. She learned the basics of art and participated in several group exhibitions. She is also a graphic designer and has six years of experience in this field.

A world devoid of humanity

Malaz Hamsho, Syria

The subject and theme that dominates my work is simple realism. I rarely use abstraction or expressionism in my work. Most of the topics concern the distressed and repressed Arab woman in her home and country.

I want to express my feelings as a human being: I belong to a society that is almost devoid of humanity. I can only use my brush to impose that feeling on my painting and draw a certain moving picture. Realistic and romantic situations as well as things stuck in my memory since my childhood inspire my work. I also love drawing old neighborhoods because of their sincere inspiration.

I express my feelings and thoughts freely. I am not restricted. I am free to present my thoughts and feelings as long as they do not conflict with our customs and traditions and show the aesthetics of my taste in them.

There is self-censorship that prevents me from luring an idea into my art. The reason for this censorship, although expression is permissible for the artist, is my social and religious affiliation. As an artist, I do not like to exaggerate expression in an inappropriate way. There is a sublime message that the artist conveys to the viewer. We have to duplicate our feelings in a polite manner in our work.

Malaz Hamsho studied at the Institute of Arts in Idlib, Syria and she participated in a number of art exhibitions in Turkey, such as the first international exhibition entitled Art unites peoples, and participated in another international exhibition under the theme of Art in the time of the epidemic. Malaz painted 11 murals with other artists in Gaziantep. She taught drawing to children in orphan associations.

Transforming old papers into Art and preserving the environment

Maram Bahaa, Egypt

As I specialize in collage art, the beginning of every artwork is always related to finding available material from magazines, newspapers, and other advertising publications. Before all of this, I see a certain photo or image that gives me the signal to start on a piece. Then, I start to look through magazines and newspapers that I have gathered over time (because I consider them to be tools and valuable treasures) so that I can make a comprehensive work of art.

Therefore, every artwork differs in its subject, but I tend to lean strongly towards creating a completely new meaning – one that is opposite to the original image. I do so by reconstructing the images that I have collected so that it is difficult for the viewer to link the artwork to the original image. I want the viewer to dive deep into the artwork to extract its meaning, according to his or her own visions or opinions.

All of my artwork is made from pre-existing pictures and clippings, but I use my God-given imagination to recycle old things and use them to create a beautiful art piece. Through my work, I hope to send a message to the world that it is possible to “create new meanings from anything old or discarded,” and to not participate in the destruction of the environment by accumulating harmful waste, but rather, to rework the old and turn it into something valuable.

I think I derive influence from everything around me because the universe and all that it contains is a source of creativity for any artist that looks to the things around them with childlike wonder. For example, I could see a group of friends gathered at the dinner table, and formulate this scene into a piece of art by searching for different magazines and publications until I find the proper pieces, and then putting them into a surrealist (unrealistic) template.

Publications of all kinds are among the main sources that help me transform an idea or inspiration into an art piece with various colors, characters, and emotions. For example, I could see a picture of a cat that stirs inspiration inside me to put it in a different frame and turn it into a rebellious woman. I could see an advertisement for a water faucet and imagine it as a waterfall gushing from a river. I can take a simple the idea and transform it into a unique work of art.

I ponder the things around me with a passion and eagerness that allows me to always see potential components of an art piece and an avenue to turn an imaginary meaning into reality. I am always in a state of contemplation, as contemplating things arouses our passions to configure different works.

I have contradictory thoughts and feelings. Sometimes I find it difficult to convey the message that I want to express. For this reason, I’m always looking for the appropriate sources that make it easy for me to embody a creative state through which I can start a new journey – one that inspires me to produce a distinct image that evokes different meanings for the viewer and invites the viewer to search for the meaning behind every art piece.

I don’t think what interests me or pushes me to execute my artwork necessarily contradicts my ideas and what I believe in. So, what I present in terms of artwork is consistent with my view of the world around me.

Maram Bahaa, is an Egyptian collage and acrylic artist. She has a master’s degree in marketing and communications from Sorbonne University, Abu Dhabi. Her journey started with this sentence: “We regret to inform you.” With no background in art and after saying goodbye to her corporate job of 13 years, she started to cut out pictures from an old magazine, and that was the start of her passion. She collects all types of magazines, newspapers, flyers, and anything else that resonates with her and her state of mind. The surrealism art movement had a profound impact on her collage style. This can be seen in some of her work, particularly the pieces that try to draw a link between distant realities. You can find her work on Instagram at @collartbymaram.

Expressing the environment and identity in a special way

Naela Al-Ma'mari, Oman

There is no specific theme that dominates my work, but I approach and express the themes that I paint with the technique and style of the abstract school. It is natural and common knowledge that every artist expresses their environment and identity in their own way. From this point of view, as an Omani artist, I find myself expressing my visual and perceptual skills in my paintings, regardless of the artistic school that I adopt to produce the artwork.

Identity, from my point of view, represents the main motivation for an artist. An artist cannot produce a work without being rooted in their own identity, that has been polished through daily observations and coexistence with all of the world’s elements, whether material or moral.

The main inspiration that influences the subjects of my paintings is the creatures of God: from living creatures and landscapes to inanimate creatures. My contemplation of a piece’s shapes and colors affect my view and perception of it, which motivates me to delve into it more and feel more connected with it and makes me thirsty to express it and present it as an artistic idea.

In my opinion, a capable artist should not be confined to a certain idea or style, but rather, should be a researcher and develop their artistic capabilities and skills. It is natural for us to be influenced by what is around us and express it in our own way with our own identity.

I freely express my surroundings and unleash my imagination, shaped by my identity. The real artist is the researcher, who is always thirsty for an experience and does not stop at a particular style, material, or technique. I certainly have self-censorship in expressing my themes in my works and paintings because my works are the product of my cognitive processes that express my thoughts, interests, and morals.

Naela Al-Ma’amari holds a master’s degree in international contemporary art and design practice from Lemkokwing University of Creative Technology in Malaysia. She is the owner of the Omani Plastic Arts website (Moasasat), which was established in 2014 and she founded the Naela Center for Fine Arts in 2021.

Rejecting violence against women

Atared Al-Thaqeb, Kuwait

Most of my works are of Kuwaiti heritage. I use the abstract method, but some of my works are cubist. My message in art is to reject the practices of violence against women because women are an essential element in life and they make up half of society. Therefore, in my works, the presence of women is clear, and it confirms their role in building and progressing the society to which they belong.

What inspires and dominates my artworks is the old Kuwaiti life and customs because it sheds light on women, as they excel in various fields. There is no doubt that, in our heritage, there are many crafts in which women had a role in emphasizing the beauty in it, such as the Sadu industry. Craftsmanship is part of daily life and stresses the importance of the irreplaceable role that women play.

There must be a space for freedom of expression for the artist, as it is the basis of creativity. Sometimes, but not always, I express my thoughts with absolute freedom, but my feelings must be present in all the paintings, as the artist’s feelings are reflected in the artwork. The artist creates and shows the spirit of this feeling to everyone who views these works.

Indeed, I have self-censorship. In my opinion, any Muslim artist must not go beyond their religious boundaries in terms of things like nudity, any thought against our Islamic law, or the like. It is important for the artist to express the issues of women, the family, and the society in which they live, as they influence and are affected by it. Since women are part of this society, people must trust our ability to express ideas and concerns in an aesthetic way, which is what I am keen to confirm.

Atared Al-Thaqeb is an interior design artist. She studied interior design and supports art education, computer drawing, digital drawing, and graphics. She held a personal exhibition for her graphics in 2012 and another at the Kuwaiti Fine Arts Society (2019). Atared has participated in exhibitions outside and inside Kuwait, and participated in art workshops in Japan, Spain, and Jordan. She has won several awards, including the first prize in France (Chole) for graphics.

Building a world like ours but perfect

Safa Attyaoui, Tunisia

For me, the white paper is sometimes a space to express sensitive topics that affect me personally. Other times, it is a renewed opportunity to build a world similar to ours but more perfect. I see that my artwork resembles daily life in all its simplicity and at the same time reduces its complexities. The artist in me is always that innocent child, who discovers the world in which they live and tries to decipher it day after day in order to express dissatisfaction with it. However, I also want to express the beauty of the life, while destroying ideas and create new ones. The artist recomposes the world every chance they get. Every issue that touches me as a human being, as a woman, and as a child is an issue that touches me as an artist.

The body is a way for us to live and communicate. It is not only an object that deals with all of life’s tasks, but it is also a very effective force in the ocean. My work is dominated by the question of the representation of the body: immobile or mobile. The body is an essential part of space. In terms of context, decor, and environment, my work can be thought of in relation to other bodies, objects, and landscapes.

The body that I draw is a renewed body, without limits, that can fuse in the ocean and unite with other things and bodies. This raises the question of scale but also tells us about the relationship between man and the universe. Among the issues that affect my work are those infinite relationships, visible and intangible, that affect the body, and through which the body, in turn, can influence its surroundings.

In my childhood my drawings expressed my feelings and thoughts very much like a personal diary. When you have a personal diary, you express yourself freely because it is from you to you. It is not directed at someone else who can judge you. But when you unleash your thoughts and feelings to share with the world, you learn that the world is still a place of conflict about freedoms; a place in which you will most likely take risks and be criticized fiercely for expressing a personal position or an artistic idea; a place where the individual is punished for their silence. Watching the actions of most tyrants, makes you exercise self-censorship over your thoughts, even involuntarily.

Censorship is due to many reasons that are rooted within us and which, I think, are due to the role of the education system. Many feelings of fear, frustration, and lack of confidence go back to the initial building of the personality in childhood when existential life questions are often confronted with strange reactions such as intimidation.

I also realized that a woman's voice, despite all her daring and all her achievements, does not remain a whisper with regard to complete freedom of expression in a society that supossedly defends her freedom. If a woman needs protection, this means that she is still a victim. Therefore, it is necessary for me, as an artist and a woman, to be aware of every self-censorship that I exercise over myself, voluntarily or involuntarily, and to be aware of its causes. I work hard to overcome it by producing artwork aimed at upgrading the feelings of shackled fear to more original principles and bolder feelings.

Safa Attaoui is a Tunisian artist, born in 1990. Her work has been shown in several group exhibitions in Tunisia and abroad. In 2020, her first solo exhibition, “Unveiling the Lines,” was held at the Basilica of Saint Monique in Carthage. In the same year, she directed her first animated short film, “Usures,” which was selected in the Gabes Cinema Art Festival program and the Create to Connect art competition.

Rafiah Al Talei is the editor-in-chief for Sada in Carnegie’s Middle East Program.