one photo one story


My ex-boyfriend was convinced that women have certain obligations when it comes to raising children. Even though he variously called himself a communist, a socialist and a liberal, his argument was: “This is how God made women”. When challenged as to what the woman’s duties might include, he answered: “Changing a baby’s diaper.” His expected reply didn’t surprise me, as my upbringing was similar to his. Yet, I’d say that the years had taught me that these responsibilities he was referring to are duties thrust upon women by tradition and not by nature. The fact that I was born a woman doesn’t make me biologically more tolerant to the smell of poop than a man.

The French author Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” De Beauvoir’s philosophy is already evident in my young daughter. When she was around two years old, I was often told that she played like a boy. Now at four, she pretends to be a princess most of the time, and her favorite color is, of course, pink. Every time I buy her birthday gifts for her friends, I am constantly reminded of the imposed gender roles. The boy’s section is filled with cars, airplanes, scary fighting characters, while the all pink section is all about kitchen utensils, cleaning appliances, and, of course, Barbie and her consumerist friends.

I continue to observe how we are all conditioned into believing that each has to carry out certain duties based on gender. These ideas start first at home, then are emphasized at school, and of course bombarded upon us by popular TV programs. In one of the text books I came across, an exercise in the social skills book for elementary level described the fathers’ jobs as pilots, doctors and engineers, while the mothers’ occupations were limited to that of nurses, secretaries and teachers. Now If we look at the bright side of that question, the textbooks must be given credit for at least showing that women are actually working rather than just staying home washing the dishes or bringing up the kids – as seen in some of other textbooks in the region.

A similar phenomenon was seen in the entertainment TV show “Arab Idol” last year. It’s a program where contestants from across the Arab world compete for the prize of best singer of the year. During the first stages of competition the participants were divided into two separate groups of men and women to play various characters. The men showed up dressed as pilots to perform their song, and, predictably, the women’s group that followed dressed as air hostesses.

What upset me even more is when I hear gender-based comments coming from women. A prime example was one of the jury members of “Arab idol”, the Emirati singer Ahlam, who takes pride in how she defied her parents’ opposition to her becoming a singer. Last year she lashed out at a female contestant when the later danced while performing a song. Ahlam advised her not to sing like a man.

Such famous singers and popular programs like “Arab Idol” are followed and watched by millions of people, many of whom are quite young. One hopes – perhaps in vain – that such influential platforms might be used to raise awareness and promote progressive ideas regarding women’s rights, rather than insisting on portraying women’s roles in a distorted way. Perhaps a change in the mindset!

Miss Do You Have Face?


A Jordanian student thought I was taking her picture and said jokingly “ I swear if you take my photo, I’ll have my seven brothers go after you!” That was at an NGO in the suburbs of Amman, which provides a two-year program for students who had dropped out from their schools. Keeping in mind how conservative the parents were, I agreed with the deputy director of the center to get a signed form of authorization from the parents of the students to be able to publish their images, even though a lot of them were over 18 years old. It took a while before I got any response. In the end only six out of 120 students brought the form back, including two sisters, and one who forged the signature of her father!

I spent around four weeks at the NGO and I had to use a variety of techniques to avoid showing the girls’ faces. This was particularly frustrating, because most of the girls would frequently jump into the frame and pose in a sexy way, imitating Lebanese pop stars.

These girls are under a lot pressure to behave in a certain way to protect their reputation, and it all has to do with traditions and customs. No wonder the field trips are usually a good time for the girls to feel free and break from the restrictions imposed on them by their parents, brothers, and even school teachers. Many parents will only let their daughters go to the center if a teacher is on board the school bus to supervise the students. I accompanied the girls once during a field trip to an entertainment park. I observed with fascination how some of them would discreetly break the rules. On that day a teacher took her role a tad too seriously by keeping the curtains of the bus closed. When the hot wind blew the curtains open, the teacher then asked the girls to close the windows. Some pretended not to hear her orders. And of course they had to stop singing and dancing at every single traffic light. The second the bus driver would accelerate everybody jumped out of their seats again and continued the cheerful performance. Many brought their mobile phones even though they’re not allowed to do so. But when it comes to mixing with boys, that’s like a red line. A guy desperately kept on hovering around his car and playing loud music to attract the attention of the girls, but it was too obvious for any of them to go and talk to him in front of everybody. However, an attractive girl was the gossip of the day when she enjoyed several free horse rides from the young gentleman manning the horse, who obviously liked her

The families of the students keep a watchful eye over the behavior of their daughters, therefore having a Facebook account is often not allowed. Towards the last days of my shoot, a young student asked with a cheerful voice, with her hand on her waist and leaning in towards me, “ Miss do you have Face?” That’s when I found out that some of the students have Facebook accounts where they publish their images. Some used a flower image as their profile picture to conceal their identities, but others simply used their faces. And it suddenly made sense to me that, despite their parents banning them from having their pictures published, most of them would ask me: “Miss, please take my photo!”. So Facebook has an easy ride, while I had to stick to the rules.

The obvious conclusion I drew was that no matter how strict the rules are, teenage girls, driven by their curiosity, will always find their way around them.




While I was in Amman patiently waiting for the education ministry’s approval to start taking photos at schools, I came across a unique project called the ”Bayer Tent.”

Without any hesitation I proposed the idea to my journalist friend Suha Maayeh, who enthusiastically agreed to work on the story. We hired a driver and set up a date to start the desert journey.

Because of the nomadic life style of the Bedouins, children have no access to primary education. This is why, Affash Amamreh, a Bedouin from Jordan, started the “Bayer Tent” project, a mobile tent where children in the desert learn how to read and write.

Over 2,000 Bedouins benefited from the teaching in the tent, which has moved with families wherever they have gone in the desert since 1996. And just A few years ago, Affash managed to convince many reluctant families to allow their daughters to join his project. Once the students get older, the boys go to the village or town to continue their education, where they stay with relatives or pitch a tent next to them. The girls stay behind with their families in the desert.

After talking to some of the women inside their tents they told us that the reason why they want their kids to receive education is because they’re hoping to move to the town and leave the harsh living conditions behind!


Heaven or Peter Pan


I walked out of school that day confused about a piece of advice given by my religion teacher. She had decided to come up with her own fatwa, or religious edict, and informed the whole class that a Muslim should not shake the hands with a Christian. I was just nine years old and her recommendation troubled me greatly, as it made me think of my mother’s beautiful German friend, Tante Mimi. The advice was forcing me to choose between heaven and Peter Pan. You see, Tante Mimi worked at a local movie store in Kuwait, where I was living, and used to bring me cartoon films every time she visited us. So, if I were to follow my religious teacher’s advice, how should I react next time I saw Tante Mimi with a much-awaited new movie? Perhaps I could tap my hand on my chest twice. I’d seen other women doing this to avoid shaking hands with men. Or maybe I could put a piece of cloth over my hand so there would be no direct skin contact! Luckily I was still young enough to fall under the influence of my parents, who had lots of friends who were Christians. My acceptance of what some tried to describe as “the others” had even grown further more during my years at a school run by Catholic nuns, where I did my studies with many Christian classmates. The only time we had to separate was for the religion lesson – at my school it was compulsory to teach Islam but teaching catechism to Christians was banned. I envied my Christian classmates for the free hour they would get, while I had to listen to yet another lecture that didn’t allow any sort of argument to take place.

My point is that some of my teachers permitted themselves to irresponsibly invent their own Islamic behavioral rules without really thinking of the huge damage they might do to impressionable young students. Such advice given by my teacher many years ago must have left some of the students intolerant towards ”the others”, or the minority groups in the Arab world, who are usually attacked and forced to leave when a conflict arises.




Fatma, 24, gets mocked by some of her fellow university students and gets stared at in the street. But she tries not to let it get her down and gets on with her journalism studies. Fatma suffers from stunted growth. She discovered this when she was in middle school but never got the proper treatment for it. The youngest among four siblings, her parents divorced when she was very young. She ended up being raised by her grandmother, who had to clean houses to pay
for her education. Fatma now lives with a family, who come from her home village, in the Yemeni capital Sanaa. They give her the equivalent of four US dollars a month to cover her transport and other expenses for her journalism studies at the university. If one day she manages to get the right treatment to become taller, which is quite expensive, she would like to work in

فاطمة (24 عاماً) تتعرّض بعض الاحيان لسخرية زملائها الجامعيين ونظرات المارة في الشارع. لكنّها تحاول التعالي على ذلك ومتابعة دراساتها في الصحافة. تعاني فاطمة من خلل في النمو، واكتشفت علتها في أثناء دراستها المتوسطة، لكنها لم تتلقّ علاجاً مناسباً لها. هي الأصغر بين اربعة ابناء لزوجين تطلقا في صغرها. ونشأت فاطمة لدى جدّتها التي عملت في تنظيف المنازل لتسديد نفقات تعليمها. اليوم تقيم فاطمة في صنعاء مع عائلة من مسقط رأسها، توفّر لها ما يوازي 4 دولارات اميركية شهرياً لتغطية نفقات تنقلها وغيرها في إطار دراساتها الصحافية في الجامعة. ويوماً ما، إن تمكنت من تلقي العلاج المناسب لتكسب بعض الطول، وهو علاج باهظ الكلفة، فستسعى إلى العمل في التلفزيون



My father decisively didn’t allow my mother to respond to my desire to sew a dancing costume. He feared that one day I might decide to become a dancer myself. Oriental dance, popularized in the West as “belly dancing”, has little respect in the Arab world, and is often associated with prostitution. I was fond of an Egyptian child actress known as little Fayrouz. I’d tirelessly watch her black and white movies over and over again, in particular a scene where she copies three famous dancers. I naturally wanted to imitate her and asked my mother for the dancing costume.

When I moved to Paris a few years ago, I signed up for one of Tunisian dancer Leila Haddad’s classes. I was captivated by the way Leila would elegantly and gracefully move her body to the sensual music. But above all, I was fascinated and inspired by the fact that Leila had followed her dream and decided to become a dancer. Despite the opposition of her family and family circle she has fully devoted herself to it. First she did it to rebel but later it became a challenge. It was long after she left home, and had earned her Masters’ degrees in both English and Italian literature at the University of Paris (after undergraduate studies at the University of London) that dance became the centre of her life. She refuses to work in clubs or cabarets. Her goal is to raise the profile of the dance and transform it into a sophisticated theatre art. Her work is also a homage to femininity.

During a recent visit to Leila’s country of origin, the wild idea came to me that Oriental dance should be included in school curricula across the Arab world! The thought crossed my mind after meeting a young activist who kept on repeating a saying: “A nation that doesn’t dance, cannot revolt.”


لم يسمح والدي لوالدتي بأيّ شكل أن تلبّي رغبتي في خياطة بدلة رقص. خشي أن أقرّر يوماً ما أن أصبح راقصة. فالرقص الشرقي الذي شاع في الغرب تحت تسمية “رقصة البطن”، لا يحظى باحترام في العالم العربي، وغالباً ما يُربط بالدعارة. كنت مأخوذةً بطفلة ممثّلة مصرية عُرفت باسم فيروز الصغيرة. شاهدتُ أفلامها بالأسود والابيض وأعدتُها بلا كلل، ولا سيما مشهد تقلّد فيه ثلاث راقصات  شهيرات. لذلك أردت أن أكون مثلها وطلبت من والدتي بدلة رقص شرقيّ.

 عندما انتقلت لأقيم في باريس قبل سنوات، تسجّلت في أحد صفوف الراقصة التونسية ليلى حدّاد. سُحِرتُ بأناقة ورشاقة حركات جسم ليلى المتمايل مع الموسيقى. الأهم هو دهشتي وإلهامي الناجمين عن إصرار ليلى على ملاحقة حلمها وامتهان الرقص الشرقيّ. فبالرغم من معارضة عائلتها وأوساطها كرّسَت نفسَها لشغفها. في البدء فعلَت ذلك لتنتفض، لكنها وجدَت في الأمر تحدّياً. بعد فترة طويلة على مغادرة منزل العائلة وحيازة شهادتي ماجستير في الأدب الانكليزي والايطالي في جامعة باريس (بعد دراسات جامعية أولية في جامعة لندن) بات الرقص الشرقي صميمَ حياتها. ترفض ليلى الرقص في نوادٍ ليلية وكباريهات. كلّ ما تريد هو ترقية صورة الرقص وتحويله إلى فن مسرحيّ متطوّر. ارى عملها تكريماً للأنوثة

أجريت مؤخّراً زيارة إلى مسقط رأس ليلى، تونس، أوحت لي بفكرة ضرورة إدراج الرقص الشرقيّ في البرامج المدرسية حول العالم العربي! ووردت هذه الفكرة بعد لقائي ناشط شاب ظلّ يردّد مقولة  “شعبٌ لا يرقص، شعبٌ لا يثور




Fayza, 25, is a university student from Yemen. She was forced to drop out of school when she was made to marry at the age of eight. That marriage ended in divorce a year later. At 14, she became the third wife of a 60-year-old man. After bearing three children, she divorced again at the age of 18. Fayza is now only allowed to see her children every other weekend. Her older sister persuaded her to finish her education, arguing that this would be her only way to improve her life. Despite her poverty, her lowly social status as a divorced woman in an ultra-conservative society, and her parents’ opposition to her plans to go back to school, Fayza is now in her first year of business studies at university (with a help from a grant from an NGO called YERO). For her, education is not the goal, but simply a means to achieve her goals. Her dream is to get a decent job and have the financial stability to give her children a better life.

Mastara Education = Ruler Education

I still remember the look of disgust on my physical education
teacher’s face at elementary school when she informed the whole class
that we smelled of “pee”, like sheep.

Attitudes like that, combined with a rigid emphasis on rote learning and
a near total lack of encouragement of critical thought or creativity,
left me with less than pleasant memories of my school days.

You don’t need to be an expert to see that the Arab world needs urgent
reform of its public educational system. I first went to school 30 years ago
but it seems that practically little has changed. Today when I walk
into a classroom in any Arab country, it feels quite the same as when I
was a pupil.

But what disturbs me the most is the verbal, and in many cases, the
physical abuse that students have to endure.

Here are a few examples that I witnessed of teaching methods that
clearly will not guarantee the best future generation in this region.

–  A 24-year-old teacher, chatting with a colleague, referred to
one of her pupils as “beheem”, or animal. The pupil in question, a boy
with thick glasses, overheard the remark and hung his head in shame. The
two teachers were trying to send a few students home as their school was
expecting a visit by an official from the Ministry of Education. They
wanted to keep what they described as their best students to present to
the official. In the end, the official did not turn up that day.

– In a lesson about what pupils – who all came from underprivileged
families – would like to be when they grow up, one bright boy piped up:
“I want to become a doctor.” To which the teacher promptly replied:
“Don’t have dreams that are beyond your reach”.

– With a wooden stick, the teacher hit female pupils on their hands
after they were unable to recite a verse from the Koran. To hide their
embarrassment from their classmates, some of the girls smiled at the

– Beating boys is another story. I walked out of a girls’ classroom and
heard the sound of a large wooden stick falling on the hands, backs and
legs of the male pupils across the courtyard. Usually when school staff
know they have a visitor, they try to be on their best behavior. In this
case they seemed to regard the beatings as a perfectly acceptable part
of daily life at the school. When I complained to the principal, he
replied: “This is the only way that works with them.”

Umm el-Saad (mother of happiness)


Umm el-Saad’s husband told her he was going to stop her attending the classes where she was finally learning to read and write. That’s what she answered, with a big smile on her face, when I asked how she was getting on in the literacy programme.

When I first met Umm el-Saad, who guessed her age to be 23 or 24, she was seven months pregnant with her fourth child. The only thing she was able to write was her name. She was taking part in a nine-month literacy programme organised by an NGO in the suburbs of Cairo. Five months later I visited her class for a second time. There she was, still smiling, and now holding her two-month-old baby girl. She and her classmates giggled when I asked her how her studies were going.

She said her husband wasn’t happy with her newly acquired skill. She continued laughing and shyly covering her mouth. “He threatened to keep me home if I don’t stop.”

I thought this must be an example of what the NGO director had told me about. They’d had a few incidents were women were forced to quit the programme after they had picked up the basics of reading and writing, as their husbands were starting to feel threatened by their spouses’ new ability.

It turned out that this was not the case for Umm el-Saad. Her husband was simply upset because she was now going through his mobile phone text messages.

My Teacher My Hairdresser


While going through my friends’ Facebook posts, I came across a story about a fully veiled Egyptian teacher who decided to cut the hair of two of her elementary students, simply because they were not wearing the hijab (head scarf) like the rest of their classmates. According to the article, she punished the two girls in front of the whole class and made them stand facing the wall with their hands raised in the air, before she applied her beliefs on them.

The post made me furious. Firstly, because the only action I could take right at that moment was to abstain from clicking the “like” button, and add a few words expressing my sympathy for the girls. Secondly, because it reminded me of the outdated teaching methods still being used by schools across the Arab world, where I myself had to experience some of those humiliating moments 20 years ago.

The article also reminded me of a photo I took two years ago at a school in the suburbs of Cairo. More specifically, it reminded me of a girl in the background of the picture. I snapped the subjects of the picture, Asil and Abir, as they read their books, and I saw the girl in my viewfinder. She was clearly being punished. She was being made to face the wall with her hands raised in the air. I decided not to say anything to the teacher but I should have. I might not have changed anything but at least I could say that I let my thoughts out.

I’m documenting Arab women and literacy across the Arab world and this is not the first time I see something I can’t stand.

Many educational barriers stand in the face of girls and women across the region. But as long as there are no serious educational reforms of what both girls and boys are being taught and, above all, how they are being taught, we will still be stuck in the same place for many years to come.