As I always plan in doing a series of portraits, I question what I do not understand and try to learn in a compassionate way about the project to honor the individual I paint. Since 9/11 our society was minimally aware of the Muslim community and now it is foremost in our minds and with great fear because there are assumptions that are made from the media which undermine the society of Islam. I believe our knowledge of Muslim women is “behind a veil”.
Being a woman and being the subject in my own society of male chauvinism as I developed my career as a physician in a male dominant profession in its day, I wished to understand what the female of the Middle Eastern Society understands. Is male chauvinism the reason we feel that women are subjugated in their society or is there another viewpoint. What better source than to go to the individual that I am not so familiar. Let them tell me what their truth is. I therefore have reached out to women who are Muslim. It is for the audience to decide.
Hijab is a veil that covers the head and chest worn by Muslim women after puberty in the presence of adult males outside the immediate family. I have noted in my travels that the Hijab has been much more apparent in our western world.
According to Wikipedia, during my lifetime Hijab has had a revival . Interestingly in my search I learned that the scarf was not worn in Iran in 1936 when Reza Shah’s regime because it was incompatible for his modernizing ambitions and the Hijab was banned until 1979 when it became compulsory as part of the dictates of The Iranian Revolution under the religious leader, Ruhollah Khomeini. All of this is in my lifetime. “Most often it is worn by Muslim women as a symbol of modesty, privacy, and morality.” The Quran instructs both Muslim men and women to dress in a modest way. Hijab in Arabic literally means “a screen or curtain” and the Quran tells the male believers to talk to the wives of the Prophet Muhammad behind a curtain and the curtain is the responsibility of the men and not the wives of Prophet Muhammad. Thus leads to some to claim the mandate of the Quran to wear Hijab applies to the wives of the Prophet, not women in general. The western world sees the practice as a tool utilized by men to control and silence women but the practice has a different context.
Prior to Muhammad there were other societies that wore the veil but Muslim did not . Muhammad taught in the mosque and kept his wives ”veiled” from the crowd. The wives became the “Mothers of Believers” in Islam. There was no veiling tradition before 627C.E. Tradition came about because women wished to be like the wives of Muhammad. Veiling has gone in and out of style through the ages. Recently as in my lifetime in Iran when I was born women did not veil but with rise of Islam it has returned and is demanded. In Egypt in mid 20th century it returned as a symbol for Islamic woman with a cause for justice. So too both men and women began a movement meant to reunite and rededicate themselves to the Islam faith and then became widespread not just among the youth. Hijab has different meanings. One of which is liberating allowing them to maintain their modesty morals and freedom of choice avoiding harassment. On the other hand there are many against the Hijab because it engenders issues with gender relations works to silence and repress women both physically and metaphorically. Certainly since 9/11 there is more and more discussion. These subjects that I have chosen are proud of their world of Islam and feel they are no different than you or me and wish to be accepted for themselves. I honor their stories to be proud of their beliefs.
HULYA GUNDUZ EKEN Hulya was born in Diyarbakir, Turkey where she lived until she was 11. Her family moved to Istanbul, were she continued her education and stated working in the famous Haute Couture Designer center were she became a premiere tailor. Later she and her sister moved to the US where she worked at Lillie Rubin , Lord &Taylor and Saks gown company for six years. She is a Muslim woman who believes Islam is a peaceful religion. She doesn’t wear the scarf but her sister does. She believes in tolerance between the religions and loves everyone. She owned Moda Tailor Designer Company for 17 years which is located in Broward. She is married and has two daughters.
SYEDA AND NOORA Syeda came with her 18 month old daughter. She is a mother of four children. She was born in the United States, but her family is originally from India. She was a grant writer for the Coral Springs Museum of Art (CSMART). Currently, Syeda is a full-time stay-at-home mother, but continues to write grants for non-profit organizations and schools. Her studies in college were statistics and mathematics. She spent 8 years as a data analyst for the Federal Government and corporations before crossing over to the non-profit sector. Syeda started to wear the hijab at 15 years of age. She was inspired by her elder sister’s decision to cover and her family religious upbringing. She states, like most ethnic/religious communities, members of her community tend to socialize within its faith. She found working with CSMART refreshing and a great mechanism to connect with the community through the positive medium of art. She facilitated CSMART teaching art classes at her children’s Islamic school for three years.
SAMAH I met Samah in her carpet store which is the business she and her husband own. She came to the studio with her husband Hassan who did all the talking when I asked questions and Samah said she always defers to him since he speaks so well and she cannot express her as well as him. They are both Palestinian. She grew up in Kuwait but attended a party given by her cousin and his mother for women to define the wife for Hassan’s brother. She unveiled taking her headscarf off and the family approved of her signing an agreement but it turned out that she became Hassan’s bride. He states that he was unaware of the fact that he was to be the groom and she unveiled in front of him but he did not look since he thought it was to be his brother’s wife. Hassan returned to the United States in 1993 and she came then and they were married. She knew nothing at age 18 about the country. She had dreamt about being a mathematician. Hassan had come to the United States for schooling. The carpet business was not something he knew in Kuwait but he worked in Buffalo, N.Y. and learned the business. They had three children and she became a very important part of the PTA for her children. In fact in 2001 with 9/11 everyone was sympathetic towards them because of her contacts outside the Muslim world and she was very trusted. She honors her religion and wears the scarf proudly. Hassan states he does not demand she wear it at home but she wears it all the time. She feels at times that Hassan does not understand her which brings her to tears but she is devoted to him and their children. Family is the most important part of her life.
MALIKA Malika is an assistant for the private gallery of a close friend. She also carries a real estate license in the state of Florida. She was born in Uzbekistan which borders Afghanistan in Central Asia and was a part of the USSR. At the fall of communism it became independent from Russia and in the transition there was a marked revival of the spiritual heritage of Islam. The fundamentalism of Islam became apparent and some women chose to wear scarves but as time went on the government did not want Islam extremism and the wearing of scarves was denied by the law. Even though Malika was raised by a traditional Uzbek family, she was never forced to follow all the rules of Islam. She doses turn to praying at times when she feels she needs spiritual support. When she graduated with honors from college there were two official languages in the country, Uzbek and Russian, so she was educated in Russian. A lot of her current friends in this country speak Russian and English, and thus many of her friends are Orthodox Christians. The official language in Uzbekistan is Uzbek since the country proclaimed its independent and most population in the country is Muslim. Malika came to the US in order to start a new life and wanted her children to have a brighter future in this country, and in 9 years the boys reunited with her. It was not an easy path, but she is proud she chose that path. She is an US citizen since 2011. She is happy to be in this country and she enjoys her life next to her children. Her sons are proud of their mother, as they realize how much sacrifice she made for them.
Safaa Safaa was born and raised in Casablanca, Morocco in a liberal family. Her father was in the clothing business and traveled frequently. She was raised Muslim in a spiritual way with poetic insight into the Koran. She elected to move to Florida when she was 17 to have more opportunities in her future. She met her husband who came from a Jewish background, married him and had two children together. She returned to Morocco to be with her mother in her last weeks of life as she was crossing over to the other side. That period brought deeper levels of understanding and more spiritual growth to their relationship. Safaa sent me a painting which I am including in the portrait since this is an important loving tribute. Her maternal grandfather followed a Sufi order which she states is a mystical teaching from the heart. He passed this teaching down to the family. Safaa went to the Art Institute to learn photography and worked under a famous photographer who reviewed her graduation portfolio. She later opened her photographer business and enjoys her work tremendously. She is very much in love with her husband and is devoted to raising a family who honors love, union and peace among all religions.
RORI Rori’s family came to Florida from Cuba during the communist revolution. Her father was a general under Batista and had to sell cars here in the US once in exile. She was raised Catholic but decided to turn to the Koran and convert to Islam during her college years. She is employed in an aerospace business and wears the scarf. She sought many jobs during her life that would not employ her because she wore the scarf. One time she took it off and felt so bad she was willing to quit if not allowed to be covered. When she became indispensable she demanded wearing the scarf and they gave into her request. Eventually she was laid off. Her most recent employer has no issues with the head scarf and she is very happy working in this corporation. In her early thirties she met her Turkish husband who is 6 years her junior. His business is in Istanbul and she travels with him frequently since they have a home there. Although head covers were not liked there, the scarf is now popular in that country. They have 3 children. Their son, Ozdemir, who is a resident doctor in Jacksonville, Florida and 2 daughters, Yasemin, with a BS in Biology, and Aysun with a Bachelors In International Business. Both girls wear the head scarf and are very proud to do so. She feels that women who expose their bodies and hair to men are more oppressed than those who choose not to. We are more true to ourselves because we are respected for who we are not what we look like, and are not chained to men’s desires.
AYSUN Aysun is Rori’s oldest daughter. She attended FIU and found an internship in the company her mother worked for and has worked there ever since. She works for Lufthansa in maintenance and repairs. She wears the scarf at work and interacts with her coworkers. They are very protective of her in the social scene and she states that many of her Muslim friends take off the scarf in the Miami area. In Orlando, FL and Charlotte, NC the scarf is worn as a proud emblem
Nadeea: She is a young lawyer in a prominent law firm in New York City and a friend of my granddaughter. Her parents were born in Bangladesh. Her mother and father were married in an arranged marriage and her mother was very young at 17. Her mother’s family was as she states of a higher pedigree since mother’s grandfather was a mayor of his town. However they were secular in their beliefs. Her mother is religious and does not wear the scarf and prays 5 x per day as well as Nadeea, too, is so moved since this was Ramadan when we met and she did not eat or drink all day. Her father came to this country at 17 and rose in the ranks of his company (a Stock Market Clearing house)working in the mail-room to now after 35 years in the higher ranks of management. He was not college educated but is self-taught and very intellectual. She has one younger sister who is an electrical engineer whose partner in living is non Muslim. When Nadeea’s father began to make a larger living they moved from Queens to Long Island where she realized she was so different and the others set her apart. She was shy but made herself more outgoing thinking this being different was an advantage and she became well liked. This attitude has helped her get far in her career. She has bonded with various colleagues through her love of sports particularly her love for the Yankees. Previously she had been an accountant and decided that she would not go far in her career so she attended Georgetown University law school and now is accomplishing happily as a lawyer.
NOHA ELNEMROSY AND SEDRA Noha Elnemrosy and her four month old daughter Sedra came with Elisabet Cairo. She was a dentist with a Masters degree in Egypt and came here with her physician husband who is doing research in cancer on a fellowship at Cornell Medical School. They and their son were doing well with a good home and work in Cairo until the uprising in Egypt and changes in the politics over past two years ago. Her husband worked for the National Institute of Health in Egypt there and she was an accomplished dentist. Her mother and father were professionals and well established. Her mother was a lawyer. Noha’s husband sought a fellowship here in US and their life was disrupted moving here. Adjustment has been difficult . She feels isolated and cannot practice dentistry without restarting her education. Sedra was born four months ago and she spends her time taking care of her children. Elisabet teaches her five year old son who is very smart. Noha feels isolated and not part of this country. She was told that life here would be easy but she finds she is isolated and feels more isolated because of her religious choice. To her the scarf is a symbol of her religion which she respects and she is proud of her heritage. I painted her and her daughter together.
Elisabet Cairo: is a novelist and journalist. Her mother is a Sikh from India and her father a Catholic from Italy. She worshiped both denominations as a child. Her mother had been married before so she has half-brothers and sisters. She started reading and writing at an early age and thus went on to become a journalist. She married an atheist, but divorced him soon after her son was born and became a counselor to women. She traveled the world and visited many countries, which led her to investigate religion and the plight of women in all cultures. Reading the Koran she found peace and chose to become a Muslim wearing the scarf. She started an academic school within the mosques to help young children assimilate into the American school system. She wears the scarf because it symbolizes modesty.
NATASHA (Left) Natasha is the twin sister of Saamia. They are fraternal twins and now live together. Natasha has her law degree from NYUniversity and has passed the Bar in NY and Florida. She is now back in Florida. Her work in NY was in tax law but she wishes to do Civil Rights. Their father stated that if they have a specialty and expertise it will be easier to succeed. Going into law was triggered by a film she saw of a Muslim man who was racially profiled and she felt that law was a way to change those dynamics. Their father said one does not need a masters in human rights but tax law you can make a living salary wise so that is why she chose tax law. Their father was a criminal defense attorney in Pakistan. Natasha is engaged to a Muslim man. She met him and fell in love and they will be married this summer. SAAMIA (right) Saamia is a student at NOVA Southeastern University studying DO/JD (program (School of Osteopathic Medicine and Law School dual degree), a six year program. She has passed the boards in medicine and goes onward to law for 2 years then does her final clinical years in the fifth and sixth year. She has a fraternal twin sister who has graduated law school and worked in NYC last year but is now looking for a job here in Florida. They live together and neither wear the scarf. Her older sister is a lawyer. Her mother and younger sister wears the scarf Her grandparents are physicians. Her grandfather was connected to Pakistani politics and knew Benazir Bhutto so when she visited Orlando Saamia met her personally and she was so impressed that she held her as a model for the future. Thus Saamia wishes to go into politics in the future. She states “ I consider education the means to do away with fear.”” I want to make a difference- to make a change and to do good through compassion”.
Nur Jahan: She was expecting her 4th child when she was 40. After one day of labor at home, she was feeling a lot of pain that was not common with her other children. After 24 hours passed with no change her sister suggested Nur should go to the hospital. Nur’s husband took her to the hospital but it was too late her baby had died. At the hospital they removed the baby. She said the leaking began very soon after her hospital visitand has been relentless ever since. Her friends and family left her and her husband since has passed away. She came unaccompanied to HOPE Hospital and said she is always alone. She underwent her first Fistula surgery with success.. She reports that she is very grateful to HOPE for providing her with the surgery that gave her dignity again. I interview her on Skype from Bangladesh and she smiled at the end and said that she was praying for me. What is Obstetric Fistula? Obstetric fistula is a childbirth injury resulting from obstructed labor as a result of no access to emergency obstetric care. During the obstruction the mother develops a hole in her genitalia which in turn causes her to leak feces, urine or both if it goes untreated. Her baby often dies in the womb as she is giving birth at home for days on end. Many times the husband leaves her due to the foul smell and her community ostracizes her.
Senowara Begun: She was just 13 when she was married to a man 15 years older than her. Senowara’s family was poor and they paid her husband to marry her, believeing she would be better taken care of. She did not receive any antenatal care and was in labor at home by herself with no help. She felt that the baby was not able to come out and a day after her husband took her to the hospital where they discovered the baby had died. She said the urinary incontinence soon followed and her husband could not stand the smell of her so he divorced her. Prior to surgery she lived with her mother who was the only person around her. Her family, friends and neighbors would not come near her. After the surgery she said “I’m very happy because my problem was solved when I came to the HOPE Hospital” and it was. Senowara can now live a happy life. What is Obstetric Fistula? Obstetric fistula is a childbirth injury resulting from obstructed labor as a result of no access to emergency obstetric care. During the obstruction the mother develops a hole in her genitalia which in turn causes her to leak feces, urine or both if it goes untreated. Her baby often dies in the womb as she is giving birth at home for days on end. Many times the husband leaves her due to the foul smell and her community ostracizes her.
Dr Iftkher Mahmood, MD Founder at Hope Foundation For Women and Children of Bangladesh