How Arabic & Muslim Women Are Celebrating Love, Lust & Sexuality Through Art & Poetry

Artwork by Ilona Szalay
When we in the West see news stories involving Arabic or Muslim women, chances are it’s because white male politicians are picking over their bodies, telling them what they can and can't wear over their heads, and policing their swimwear choices. We see right-wing commentators spewing faux-concern about their rights. Dehumanising, cruel, racist, anti-equality, anti-feminist. They are spoken over and silenced. When we allow any group of women to be treated like this, we allow all women to be treated like this.

Looking through poetry archives, you quickly see it wasn’t always this way. Look at I'timad Arrumaikiyya, who wrote to her husband in the 11th century: "I urge you to come faster than the wind, to mount my breast and firmly dig and plough my body, and don't let go until you've flushed me thrice."

Or what Wallada bint al-Mustakfi wrote in the 11th century:

"I am made for higher goals and by Allah
I am going my way with pride.
I allow my lover to touch my cheek
And bestow my kiss to him who craves it".

Frustrated by the burial of female voices across history and inspired by the depth of lust and emotion of Arab women in these classical poems, Róisín O’Loughlin decided to create something beautiful. She commissioned 46 female artists across the world, half of them Muslim or Arabic, to produce art in response to a selection of these poems and has organised an exhibition, Radical Love: Female Lust that started, appropriately, on Valentine’s Day.

“We found inspiration in these poems that rang out loud and proud across the Arab world over 1,000 years ago,” Róisín says. “By looking back and away we could illuminate something of who we are, and what unifies us as women. Radical Love: Female Lust came about as a response to the ever-raging criticism of female behaviour and use of stereotypes to divide and deny shared experience and humanity.”

Ilona Szalay is a London-based painter who has exhibited all over the world. She was assigned the pre-Islamic poem 'All Lovers' by Ishraqa Al-Muharibiyya and used it to examine the commodification of female desire.

"All lovers wear my castoff clothes and jewels
And gulp down my overspilt drink.
I have raced with lovers at love's racetrack
And beaten them all at my own pace".

“It’s simple and minimal language – universal but passionate,” Ilona says. “Female sexuality in general is seen as something very passive, something to be taken. In heterosexual relationships it’s believed that things are done to you by the male, so the idea is the female sexual human can be more active, can participate, rather than be seen as something to be consumed.”

Ilona believes the typical media representation of the Arab and Muslim woman is a more amplified version of this. “There is this sense that Arab women have no sexual appetite – that they’re shut down and seen as ‘mysterious’ rather than hunting their own prey.”

Photographer Hana Gamal also explores this misconception. Hana, who lives in Cairo, based her submission on Umm Khalid al-Numayriyya’s poem about the death of her son.
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Photography by Hana Gamal
"The morning south wind blew from my son's land
His musk, ambergris and lavender-scented presence
I miss him and the thought of him tears my eyes
Like a prisoner recalling home under the shackles' painful grip,
Or the cries of a soul away from its love".

With the violence following the Arab Spring and political tensions in Egypt and across the Middle East, Hana could relate. The resilience of Egyptian women in difficult circumstances is something she sees every day. “They inspire me in so many ways. Their beauty, their strength, their vulnerability... For instance, when I go to the local market I see women holding her kids with one hand and holding the grocery bags with the other hand while carrying a pile of bread on her head. This for me is the definition of strength, love, and vulnerability all together. However, they are often neglected in the society or misportrayed as weak and in need of protection.”

Yara Said, a Syrian artist who fled for the Netherlands, is featured in the exhibition. She designed the flag for the refugee team in the Olympic Games, and brings her experience to the show. “We crossed a sea, nine countries and a massive amount of inhumanity offered by the border police, to come to the EU, the land of justice but still something feels extremely wrong,” she says.
Artwork by Yara Said
“I can simply say that a war is like a messy divorce, you get your heart broken and your family becomes scattered and everything you know and you're used to disappears. Still even when you're away, each time you look at your memories your heart aches.

“Today and every day I feel honoured to be a refugee. To be a woman. To be an artist.”
Radical Love: Female Lust runs until 6th March at the Crypt Gallery, London. Profits go to The Global Fund for Women Refugees in Lebanon.
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