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'Women's Point of View' Considered at Saudi Embassy

By Austin Mistretta 

The mood was upbeat at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia, where diplomats, U.S. government officials, and other Washingtonians gathered to celebrate the opening of a new art exhibition. The showcase, dubbed “Women’s Point of View,” debuted on Jan. 22 and highlighted the work of a talented, all-female ensemble of 11 Saudi artists. 

The artists are visual communication students from Dar Al-Hekma University, a women’s university located in the city of Jeddah. Founded in 1999, Dar Al-Hekma is one of the leading institutions of higher learning for women in Saudi Arabia. 

Their work ranged from photography to video to printed writing, revealing a new side of female creativity in a staunchly Islamic country where women still tend to be hidden from mainstream view.

 

President Barack Obama meets with Presidential Innovation Fellows in the Roosevelt Room

Photographer Sara Alghamdi discusses her work with Haroon Hakimi, head of chancery at the Afghan Embassy. (Photo by Austin Mistretta) 

“It is so good to be here in the golden age of Saudi women, and to appreciate a woman’s point of view,” said Dina Alttamrani, whose photographs of a bride clad in bright red ceremonial garb were on display at the exhibit until it closed on Jan. 26.

“This work is a labor of love from all the women of Saudi Arabia,” said Suhair Al-Qurashi, president of Dar Al-Hekma University, during the keynote remarks. “Today these girls tell you the dreams of Saudi women through art.”

“Everyone is excited, because it is the era of women, and women are working hard to show that they can work in the national arena.”

 

President Barack Obama meets with Presidential Innovation Fellows in the Roosevelt Room

Dina Alttamrani stands in front of her rubicund photography. (Photo by Austin Mistretta) 

The year 2017 was a watershed one for Saudi Arabia, whose up-and-coming successor to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, ushered in a series of reforms to modernize the kingdom. Perhaps the most widely publicized of these was the lifting of restrictions that prevented Saudi women from driving. (As Al-Qurashi put it in her speech: “The issue of driving has been solved.”)

However, critics abroad suggest that such measures only serve to create the appearance of change in an otherwise inert society. In many ways, especially with respect to women, Saudi Arabia remains one of the most traditionalist countries in the developed world. 

For instance, as reported by CNN, Saudi women are still unable to marry, divorce, travel, open a business or apply for a passport without express permission from a male guardian (in some cases, even a son). In the courts, the legal status of a woman is on par with that of a minor. Women cannot mix freely with men or appear in public without a full-length black abaya robe. The way many Westerners see it, giving Saudi women access to drivers’ licenses only remedies one aspect of a much larger systemic problem.

 

President Barack Obama meets with Presidential Innovation Fellows in the Roosevelt Room

A crew from Saudi TV conducts a live report on the event. (Photo by Austin Mistretta) 

Still — in keeping with the theme of the exhibition — proponents of liberal reform in the Sunni Islamic kingdom have good reason to keep up a sanguine view of the future. Crown Prince Salman, successor to the throne, has frequently expressed his desire to liberalize Saudi society and loosen the strict religious laws that bind it. First and foremost, this means more autonomy for women.

“Saudi Arabian artists are portraying a country growing increasingly optimistic,” said one embassy representative, relaying that spirit of hope. “This is the first of what I hope will be many exhibitions.”

 

President Barack Obama meets with Presidential Innovation Fellows in the Roosevelt Room

Suhair Al-Qurashi, president of Dar Al-Hekma University, poses with the artists. (Photo by Austin Mistretta) 

If such is the case, Washington’s art enthusiasts would do well to mark their calendars. The “Women’s Point of View” exhibition was exceptional — it (temporarily) enshrined the work of gifted young Saudi women with unique stories to tell, and who, through their art, are free to relay those stories while occupying a newfound space in their country’s dialogue.

In the words of Al-Qurashi, “This is art from the heart.”


Austin Mistretta is an editorial intern at The Washington Diplomat.

 
 

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